For the second and final instalment of our series on Icelandic spirits, we explore the island’s native flavours and traditions, from sheep dung-smoked spirits to fermented shark chasers, reveal the regulatory issues faced by distillers, and glimpse the country’s spirited future…
Around three-quarters of Iceland’s total 39,000 square miles is barren of vegetation due to soil erosion. In fact, in around 7,000 of those square miles it’s severe enough to render the land totally useless. Plant life consists mainly of grassland, which is grazed by cattle and sheep (sheep outnumber humans almost three to one). “Icelanders are incredibly proud of their heritage and the harsh weather conditions that have defined their resourceful people,” says Fabiano Latham, brand ambassador for Reyka Vodka. “It’s all about using what’s available, preservation, and survival. Yes, conditions today are much more manageable, but you still see nods towards their adventurous ancestors in all aspects of cuisine, including alcohol.”
Of the distillers in Iceland who actually make their product locally – more on this later – most utilise the herbs and berries found around the country, such as crowberries, bilberries and moss, explains Birgir Mar Sigurdsson, co-founder of Thoran Distillery. Many of the botanicals grow wild in the highlands, and there’s plenty more to be found in the Icelandic countryside and closer to the coast. “There’s a lot of different seaweed [varieties] that many distillers have been experimenting with, us included,” he says. “We don’t grow any of the classic fruits like oranges, lemons, etc., but there are many greenhouses around the country that do grow things like strawberries and tomatoes.”
The most common native tree is birch, which once covered much of Iceland. It’s a key botanical at Foss Distillery, which makes liqueur, schnapps, bitters, and vodka using the historic species. “Icelandic birch is easily recognisable by its delicate dentate leaves and silver-hued papery bark,” says co-founder Ólafur Örn Ólafsson. “About a third of Iceland is thought to have been covered in birch woods when the first settlers arrived nearly 1,150 years ago, which shows that the tree had fully adapted to the windy and changeable conditions in the country. Our policy is to interfere as little as possible with nature, and so we take the sap from the trees at the best time for the trees, and collect the decorative sprigs when cuttings are made by specialists to thin the woods and facilitate natural growth.”
Of the various berries, herbs and spices that grow wild in Iceland – among them caraway, angelica, rhubarb, juniper – one of the most compelling is arctic thyme. “That is our pièce de résistance,” says Óskar Ericsson, CEO and master distiller at Brunnur Distillery. “That is the most beautiful thing that we have. It’s basically this little purple-pink flower, and when it blooms, it smells like lavender.” Ericsson, an artist by trade, had the idea for Himbrimi Gin back in 2013 on a family fishing trip to the West Fjords, where his father-in-law owns land. “Standing in the river, you’re looking at this clean water,” he says. “There’s juniper nearby, angelica on the other side of the bank, there’s arctic thyme. I decided to mix that and use it.”
What started as a warming tipple for family fishing expeditions has transformed into a bona fide microdistillery that has listings in bars across the world. And yet, to this day Ericsson still hand-picks his botanicals and numbers each bottle by hand. It’s a similar story at 64°Reykjavik Distillery, which uses foraged berries and botanics to make its small-batch liqueurs and spirits. Sustainable foraging is embedded in Iceland’s culture, says founder Snorri Jónsson. “These resources are commercialised on an extremely small scale,” he says. “Only a few thousand bottles are made of each spirit.”
Distilling local flavours has also put modern producers back in touch with Iceland’s national spirit, brennivin, which is traditionally consumed with fermented shark. A handful of Icelandic bottlings – including Foss Distillery’s Helvíti, 64° Reykjavik Distillery’s Brennivín 50, and Brunnur Distillery’s Thúfa – have seen the caraway-heavy spirit reinvented with blueberries, seaweed, sweetgrass, and other botanicals. “Our goal is to reclaim the reputation of Icelandic brennivin and to take it outside of Iceland and introduce it to the world as this delicious spirit, which it is, instead of something that you use to wash your windows or clean your car or something,” says Ericsson.
Botanical infusion isn’t the only way for Icelanders to utilise their natural resources. “In terms of native flavours and traditional techniques, the drying and smoking of meat and fish using birch and sheep dung is something we’ve been doing for centuries,” says Sigurdsson. “This technique lends itself perfectly to the drying of barley used in whisky. So instead of using peat as the Scots do, we’d be using birch and sheep dung.” Iceland currently has little in the way of whisky, but the future is promising. The country’s first (and currently only) single malt, Flóki, was made by Eimverk Distillery, located in the town of Garðabær a few minutes from downtown Reykjavík, and the distillery also produces a ‘young malt’ made with sheep dung-smoked barley.
“When we started the company in 2013, the idea was to make whisky,” says Sigurdsson. “That’s still very much on the table and is still where our passion lies.” The immediate success of Thoran Distillery’s initial release, Marberg London Dry Gin, saw the team “put the whisky on ice, pun intended” to give Marberg a chance to thrive, “but recently we’ve been putting things in motion and can hopefully start whisky production this year,” Sigurdsson says. “We do have a few hundred litres maturing in various casks, but those are for research and development purposes. We did a lot of experiments with various barley strains – both local and imported – developed innovative malting and drying techniques, tried different types of oak to see which would complement our spirit…. The groundwork is there, and we’re ready and excited to take it to the next stage.”
It’s certainly an exciting time for distilling in Iceland, but the industry is not without challenges. One of the struggles brewers and distillers have had to deal with are the regulations regarding the sale of beer and spirits, says Sigurdsson. “Right now, the state has a monopoly on all alcohol sales, which makes it illegal for me to sell a bottle of Marberg to anyone visiting our distillery,” he says. “The fees and taxes added to alcohol are also among the highest in Europe.”
Authenticity issues are another thorn in the side of the country’s distillers. For a long time, most of the ‘Icelandic’ spirits were made abroad, imported to Iceland and mixed with Icelandic water, according to Sigurdsson. “There are a handful of awful producers – here, as well as internationally – bottling bulk spirit as something authentic,” says Jónsson. “They use financial resources to build their image as quality producers, but are merely bottling plants or business makers.” This can be tricky for drinkers to detect, he continues, since it’s applicable to producers both big and small. “The result for us is: hard competition for the attention,” Jónsson continues. “A competition that the small authentic producers will lose, because our interest and resources are in the products, not the marketing.” In response, distillers are in talks about how to best protect the reputation of their spirits. “Right now we are drafting an application which specifies what should be considered an Icelandic spirit,” says Sigurdsson.
Given its subarctic climate, Iceland might not be the first country you associate with distilling, but thanks to its environmentally-conscious inhabitants, the country’s natural resources – the geothermal steam from its volcanoes, the abundance of pure, mineral-free water, the unique botanicals that thrive on the country’s wild terrain – practically lend themselves to spirits-making. “In terms of negatives, there really aren’t a whole lot of challenges that come with distilling in a colder climate,” Sigurdsson says. “Maturation in casks is a bit slower because of the cold, and the Icelandic legal system gives me a headache once in a while. But we roll with it. We knuckle down and do the best we can with what we got. And more often than not, that actually turns into something great.”