"During summer when it's 24 hours of daylight, we drink to celebrate that. When it's winter and only a few hours of daylight, we drink just to get through it." Welcome to Iceland, a country with a complex and interesting relationship love of alcohol -- including several unique types of alcohol that are available nowhere else in the world. As such, no trip to Iceland is complete without visiting a few cities and regions that are famous for their local brews.

  Much like the United States, Iceland has a complex past with prohibition -- one that started earlier and lasted many, many decades longer. Enacted in 1915, the ban on alcohol was eventually loosened over the years on certain spirits, but unfortunately beer over 2.25% remained illegal until March 1st, 1989.

In order to have the most authentic Icelandic experience available, be sure to make a few new local friends over the following drinks:

Brennivín

Brennivín is unquestionably the national drink of Iceland. It is a purely Icelandic creation using potato mash and herbs native to this Nordic island nation to create an unsweetened schnapps. Sometimes called "Black Death" in reference to the original bottles, which featured a white skull on a black label, Brennivín is primarily served chilled in shot form. It is often accompanied with Icelandic hákarl (fermented shark), the national dish of Iceland. Although I am an adventurous eater, I much prefer my Brennivín sans-shark. Why? Well, as Anthony Bourdain so eloquently said, Hákarl is "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" that he has ever eaten anywhere in the world.

Would you like a little Hákarl with your Brennivín? Yes please!
Would you like a little Hákarl with your Brennivín?

Because Brennivín is unsweetened, outside of Iceland it is sometimes referred to as an "akvavit" instead of a schnapps. Regardless, it is surprisingly smooth, hits hard, and has no shortage of foreign fans despite the fact that Brennivín has never been exported internationally. At least not until 2014 when Egill Skallagrímsson, the countriest premiere Brennivín brand and also an award-winning beer brewery, began exporting Brennivín to the United States -- but no where else. Yet.

  While Brennivín can be found throughout the country, never is it in more abundance than during Þorrablót, the Icelandic mid-winter festival every January.

Fjallagrasa Moss Schnapps

There is an old saying that the worse something tastes, the better it is for you. That would appear to be a big selling point behind Fjallagrasa Moss Schnapps, which yes, is made with real Icelandic moss. There is even a tuft of the famous lichen lovingly included in each bottle produced. Icelandic moss is so important that it is protected by law and has been used medicinally for centuries to treat things such as cough, sore throat and upset stomach. (Of course if you drink too much Fjallagrasa, you are liable to end up with one of these afflictions, rather than curing it.)

Fjallagrasa Moss Schnapps, one of the unique types of alcohol only found in Iceland

The moss is hand-picked in the mountains of Iceland, ground up and mixed with a "specially prepared alcohol blend" which remains a trade secret of IceHerbs, the company that produces Fjallagrasa. It is then soaked for an extended period of time, allowing all of the biologically active components of the moss to dissolve. No other artificial colors or flavors are added.

Just like with Brennivín, as there is no sugar in Fjallagrasa Moss Schnapps, it is technically not a schnapps by international definition. Regardless, it is still consumed around the country for both healthly and recreational purposes.

Iceland has many unique types of alcohol not found anywhere else in the world

Reyka Vodka

Vodka may not be an Nordic creation (we owe Poland for that one) however Icelanders may have perfected it. Reyka Vodka is often referred to as the best vodka in the world by vodka connesiours. Using pure arctic water naturally filtered through a 4,000 year old lava field and then distilled in a top-of-the-line Carter-Head still -- one of only six that exist in the entire world, and the only one that is being used for vodka -- the result is so pure and delicious it goes down like water.

Reyka Vodka, arguably the best vodka in the world

With only one still Reyka is brewed in small batches of only 1,700 litres each, ensuring optimal quality every time. As an added bonus, the entire Reyka distillery is powered by volcanic geo-thermal energy, meaning that the world's best vodka is also the greenest. Everyone wins.

  Although this is Iceland's first distillery, public tours are unfortunately not available. But you can take a digital tour to see exclusive photos and learn more about the process that makes Reyka vodka so special here.

Opal

Opal is a popular licorice candy in Iceland and also the name of an equally popular vodka that also tastes like licorice. As my local buddy put it, "Once you outgrow the candy you switch to the drink." At 27% ABV Opal is not the strongest, but if you are a fan of Jägermeister straight then you will probably enjoy an Opal shot or three.

Opal is a unique type of vodka only found in Iceland

Bjórlíki

Up until 1989, the only type of beer that was legal in Iceland was the weak "near-beer" consisting of only 1-2% alcohol content. However because 40% ABV spirits such as Brennivin and vodka were legal, people would add them to their beer. Known as Bjórlíki, you will never find this for sale in any store or bar. However if you venture off the beaten path and explore the Icelandic countryside, you can taste this beauty for yourself.

Bjorliki, a weak Pilsner spiked with vodka, is a unique type of alcohol only found in Iceland

Björk & Birkir

Made from the sap of birch trees, Björk and Birkir are two relatively new Icelandic creations. Sure they might not have the history or significance of other drinks such as Brennivín and Bjórlíki, but c'mon now where else in the world can find liquor made from birch trees? Yeah, that's what I thought.

As the story goes, the two brothers behind Foss distillery traveled around Iceland sampling all the native flora until they decided that birch was the most delicious. So they planted what will one day become a sustainable birch forest and now gently "borrow" a little sap from the growing trees to make their spirits. Oh and in case you were wondering, the 27.5% ABV Björk is not named after the singer but rather the Icelandic word for "birch". It has an earthy, woody taste with a slightly sweeter finish than the 36% ABV Birkir, but both are intriguing. Either one would make a unique souvenir to take home the next time you travel Iceland.

  BONUS

Celebrate Bjórdagur, Iceland's "Beer Day"

  After nearly 75 years of prohibition, it's time to celebrate. Every March 1st is Iceland's "Beer Day" and it is best celebrated in the capital city of Reykjavik by doing a Rúntur -- the Icelandic word for "pub crawl".

During this time of year the sunset is after midnight and sunrise just before 3am, but because of the lingering glow that exists even after sunset, it never truly gets dark. As such, the "night" is perfect for bar-hopping and celebrating the holiday with some new Icelandic friends. Did I meantion that bars are open until 4am?

Want more unique things to do in Iceland?

The ultimate Iceland off the beaten path travel guide

  flickr // chrisgold considerable_vomit mmepassepartout borkazoid vannortwick

Published in Iceland

In 2007, Congress declared September to be America’s National Bourbon Heritage Month—so it’s time to get sipping.

The most popular type of whiskey in the U.S., bourbon is made from a grain mixture (aka “mash”) that’s at least 51 percent corn. Federal law also mandates that bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels and bottled at 80 proof or stronger, and nothing other than distilled water can be added to the bottles.

There’s no better place to celebrate this American spirit than in its birthplace: Kentucky’s Bourbon Country. Fly into Lexington and prepare to drink up on this multi-day tour.

Bourbon barrels aging in the warehouse

Day 1: Buffalo Trace Distillery – Frankfort, Kentucky

Where else to start exploring the history of bourbon than at America’s oldest continuously operating distillery? For over 200 years, Buffalo Trace has been distilling bourbons—the distillery even remained open during Prohibition in order to make bourbon for “medicinal purposes.” In the past decade alone, the family-owned bourbon producer has earned more awards than any other distillery in the world.

Take part in Buffalo Trace’s award-winning history by embarking on the Trace Tour, a free, hour-long tour that walks visitors through every stage of the bourbon-making process, from aging barrels to packaging (and, of course, tasting the finished product). You’ll also be able to taste the exclusive Pappy Van Winkle or George T. Stagg (both are bottled at Buffalo Trace)—but for a price.

Where to Stay   Nearby Lexington is the state’s second-largest city and is considered the Horse Capital of the World. The city is also home to a wide range of budget-friendly hotels; check out the Hyatt Place Lexington for easy access to restaurants and downtown attractions, or the University Inn Hotel, which offers quiet lodgings and a continental breakfast.

Day 2: Woodford Reserve to Wild Turkey

After waking up in Lexington, prepare to visit two distilleries over the course of the day (don’t worry; they’re not far from each other).

Woodford Reserve Distillery – Versailles, Kentucky

Start off at one of the country’s smallest and oldest distilleries. To this day, Woodford Reserve is crafted in small batches in order to enhance the flavor of each of the bourbon’s ingredients and developmental stages—grains, water, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. The distillery builds and chars its own barrels and boasts one of the longest fermentation processes in the country, all of which contributes to the bourbon’s complex flavor profile.

The daily tour ($10 per person) at Woodford Reserve explores the history of bourbon and details the distillery’s unique approach to the bourbon-making process. Or take an even more in-depth approach on the Cork to Corn Tour ($30 per person), a two-hour session that covers the mechanical, chemical, and technical processes that contribute to making great bourbon.

Wild Turkey – Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Located just 16 miles down the road from Woodford Reserve is the distillery for Wild Turkey, one of the country’s most popular bourbons. The original distillery was founded in 1869 and then modernized in 1933 once Prohibition had ended. It sits atop a limestone shelf on the Kentucky River, which provides water for the distillery. In order to keep up with high demand, in 2010 the brand created a new, larger distillery nearby. Just how big is demand? The new warehouse can hold 20,000 barrels.

The free tour allows visitors to watch mash being made, peruse the original fermentation room, and witness the bourbon-making process from filling the barrels to bottling the aged bourbon.

Where to Stay   Head back to the hotel in Lexington for the evening and rest up—you’ll be traveling partway across the state the next day.

Day 3: Jim Beam to Bulleit

Wake up for the approximately 1.5-hour drive from Lexington to Clermont—perhaps better known as the home of Jim Beam. You’ll be visiting two distilleries again today, so be sure to pace yourself. On the way to Clermont, stop for lunch in Bardstown, the official Bourbon Capital of the World. Shop for souvenirs (and, of course, bourbon) at the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace before driving on to Jim Beam.

Jim Beam bourbon whiskey from Kentucky

Jim Beam – Clermont, Kentucky

Another of America’s most popular bourbons, Jim Beam was founded in 1795 and has been family owned and operated for seven generations. The distillery is known for aging its bourbon twice as long as the standard aging process and has used the same strain of yeast for more than 75 years.

The Jim Beam American Stillhouse tour ($10 for adults 21 and over, free for anyone under 21) allows visitors to actively participate in the bourbon production process, from mixing grains to bottling your very own product from Jim Beam.

Bulleit bourbon whiskey from Kentucky

Bulleit – Louisville, KY

Twenty-nine miles away from Jim Beam sits the Bulleit Distilling Company. Despite being the baby of the bunch (the distillery was founded in 1987), Bulleit Bourbon has already made quite a name for itself. The company’s founder, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., quit his job as a successful lawyer and pursued his lifelong dream of reviving his great-great-grandfather’s bourbon recipe, which was produced between 1830 and 1860. The distillery maintains the family tradition by creating a spicy-yet-smooth flavor that’s earned accolades across the country.

The Stitzel-Weller Distillery tour ($10 for adults 21 and over, free for anyone under 21) takes place in a beautiful old building that first opened on Derby Day in 1935 and was reopened to the public in 2014. Learn about Bulleit’s distinctive family recipe while strolling through the distillery, then finish things off with (you guessed it) a tasting.

Where to Stay   Head to Louisville, which is just a few miles away from Bulleit’s distillery. The city is packed with fun things to do; not least among those activities is the Urban Bourbon Trail, a bar-hopping adventure among the self-dubbed “world’s best bourbon bars,” each of which serves at least 50 different bourbon varieties.

Turn in for the night at the luxurious and stylish 21c Museum Hotel, which also includes an on-site modern art museum. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option after sipping on bourbon all evening, check out the Econo Lodge Downtown.

Three days, five distilleries, and a whole lotta bourbon—after touring some of America’s best bourbon distilleries, you may just want to go ahead and declare October (and November, and December…) your own personal bourbon appreciation month.

  This article was posted on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Hipmunk on September 18th.

Published in United States

Tokyo Clubs Far Surpass All Forms Of American Nightlife

Wow. That's all I can say. You cannot even begin to imagine what the clubs are like in Tokyo. They are absolutely incredible, like nothing we have over here in the west! It figures that as much as the residents of Tokyo love to drink, they should have some damn cool places to do it.

Clubbing in Tokyo, Japan

For starters, the biggest difference is the sheer size of the clubs there. Every single one is designed to span several floors, usually with different themes and different styles of music for each. Rather than have one DJ per floor there were usually multiple, sometimes as many as six or seven DJs will constantly rotate out while all sorts of lasers flare and animation is projected onto the walls, plenty of fog machines working at full blast, countless girls dancing up on various stages...but that really does not even begin to describe the scene or do it the least bit of justice.

Let's do this instead: Picture the best rave you have ever been to here in the States or even in Europe, you know back years ago when they were GOOD. Next take everything from it, the lights, sound, fog, lasers, music, the essence, every single last thing except for the plethora of designer drugs. Now drop that mass of madness into the middle of a skyscraper in the heart of Shibuya, let's say spanning across the third thru sixth floors, and well then my friend you have yourself a bonafide Tokyo club.

Most of these clubs are located either a couple floors below-ground or a couple floors above-ground, occupying a few of the lower-level floors of a commercial high-rise. All the floors will be linked by a bank of elevators but also a set or two of stairs. There is just so much going on and because often each floor is distinctly different in both decoration and music, the best way to experience it all is to keep moving around and mingle your way through one floor before heading on to the next. And repeat.

Clubbing in Tokyo, Japan

These amazing clubs do come with a price, however. The minimum cover charge you'll ever see is ¥2000 (roughly $25 USD; i.e. crappy show) and although most are between ¥3000-4000 ($35-48 USD), I did occasionally see some shows advertised with covers of ¥4500-5000 ($55-60 USD). Its not all bad though. Most of these clubs hand you a token after paying your cover, which you can then redeem at the bar for one free drink. That way you won't feel so bad about just spending $90 to get you and your girlfriend in LOL. ;)

The tokens themselves are fairly simple, usually nothing more than pieces of plastic or coins with the club name or logo on it. I brought back several of these with me actually...now if I could figure out what I did with them...

  One important tip though, at least for all you alcoholics: Through "painstaking" personal research I found out that if you display your free drink token up front, often the bartender will pour you a weaker drink, whereas not revealing it until your drink is fully mixed ensures a perfect pour. You're welcome!

Here is a handy feature and something which I am shocked is not more common elsewhere around the world, especially in regions with temperatures that vary significantly throughout the year. Every decent club in Tokyo that I explored is equipped with an enormous bank of small rental lockers immediately past the security checkpoint. Simple and traditional gym lockers, they are only big enough for a purse, a jacket or two, and maybe a set of shoes -- perfect for when the missus wants to wait till the last minute to slap on her heels or ditch them before the long drunken walk home. The cost is only ¥100 but offers a full refund if you make it back out in less than three hours. (Plus since you left early and didn't close down the club that night, you've saved even more LOL)

Not only does that make things more convenient in the winter by not having crowds in think bulky jackets trying to squeeze into an elevator pass through a thick crowd on the dance floor, but it also will help prevent anything from being stolen, misplaced, or even drunkenly left behind -- something that we have all been guilty of at one point or another. The solution is cheap, effective, helpful in multiple ways, and given how easy it is to install and implement, I am surprised that more places do not have a similar system in place.

The Sheer Level Of Service Provided At Some Of These Clubs Was Impressive!

Clubbing in Tokyo, Japan

They actually have numerous staff members who walk around occasionally looking for those super drunk girls, who are passing out while leaning against the walls or trying to lay down on the floor. The employees proceed to take them all out to the front entrance, where the entry staff is located. Out there is one guy whose sole duty is to take care of and watch out for the ladies that have had too much to drink and are completely FUBAR. He is proudly armed with roll of small black plastic bags, package of paper towels, even rubber bands to tie their hair up for them if they should happen to start heaving.

Can you ever imagine that back in the States?!? You would never see anything close to it! No one, regardless of their salary, would want to be the "throw-up guy" stuck taking care of the sick chicks all night, every night. It would just never happen. I believe that most Americans are too grossed out to help a stranger throw up in a small black plastic bag, let alone tie a knot in it for them and then toss it into the nearby throw-up can. Yes, that's right, there is a trash can for throw-up only.

But those guys at the clubs in Tokyo are all over it and I'll be damned if they don't always do it with a smile! Even if the boyfriend showed up to check on his lady, like I did one night when I noticed Mayu had been gone for too long, that proud little throw-up man would not let me help, insisting he had everything under control and to 'go back to the dance floor until I was ready to claim Mayu and leave.' It was fantastic! I pondered it for all of about half a second before saying thanks and making my way back past the lockers and towards the elevators. After all, might as well let Mayu rest and get through the worst of it downstairs while I reclaimed the buzz that I'd lost a few minutes before while hunting for her.

Now is that amazing or what? Have you ever seen or heard of service like that before? Where I come from, and everywhere I have been, its just unheard of to be that nice to strangers. But that is just one of the hundred reasons that Japan is my favorite country!

  Would you accept a job as the throw-up man? Share your thoughts below!

As I mentioned before the clubs don't open until 11pm or midnight so most do not start to get fully packed until 2am or 3am. But that last start frequently keeps the clubs open until 6 or 7am. As long as it is profitable, they won't close until the party is over. You can literally dance, drink, and party until the sun comes up. How fantastic! I would advise everyone who enjoys an active nightlife to check out the party scene in Tokyo for a week or a weekend -- but do it while still young so that you can actually hang!

Places To Visit In And Around Shibuya

The Clubs In Tokyo Will Make Your Jaw Drop

While exploring Shibuya I managed to find dozens of phenomenal clubs, cool little bars, amazing restaurants, and excellent places to shop. By day I got in my shopping and saw the cultural sights, but come nightfall I entered drinking mode. Every night I would hunt for a new club or bar to test it. I was not always successful, sometimes I would be lured in by previous haunts, but either way I got a lot of drinking done! A multitude of those venues are on the map below, for anyone who might be visiting Ebisu/Shibuya in the future.

While experiencing the nightlife of Tokyo be sure to also visit some of the big clubs in Shibuya, which are utterly amazing and very much worth investigating, despite their high cost. Club Atom is one of the clubs that I definitely recommend. We went there almost every weekend while Jared was in town visiting. It is located six stories up in this skyscraper, covers three independently-themed floors each with multiple bars, and is always packed full of cute local women! Club Harlem right next door is nice as well, but harder to get into on the weekends. The list goes on and on...

Nonbei Yokocho (Alley of the Drunkards)

And of course you cannot forget my favorite area Nonbei Yokocho, which translates as "Drunkard's Alley" or "Alley Of The Drunkards." I stumbled upon this place online and had to check it out for myself. Turns out that Nonbeiyokocho is just a few feet north of Shibuya Station. It is comprised of two parallel alleys that are home to around 50 miniature bars, usually only about 8 or 10 feet square with nothing more than four or five bar stools and a single bartender inside. Check out my photos from Non to get a better idea of just how small these bars really are.

There are a couple that are unfriendly to gaijin (durogatory term for a foreigner), but you will know those instantly as they will either not even serve you or hand you one beer but say that is all because "they are closing" or some similar excuse. If that should happen to you, no worries, just walk down to the next one and try again.

Nonbei Yokocho became like a second home to me while I was there. If I ever had a night where I was not sure what to do, I would start it at Non and before you know it the night would manifest itself. All of the best friends I made and best times I had originated from Nonbei Yokocho.

  For even more clubs check out the map below. Also marked cpl good restaurants and a universal ATM.


View Useful Places Around Shibuya in a larger map

Yep, the clubs over there are something else. Check out my article on the different locations around Tokyo for a better idea of just how much Tokyo varies from district to district. Below is a snippet from my old drunken ramblings on the original Shibuya Daze blog, provided for your amusement or, more likely, complete lack thereof:

...for any of y'all that have ever been to a rave, that is probably the closest thing I can compare it to -- but even that does not do justice to these kick-ass clubs. Let's try something: Imagine a rave, complete with a DJ, light-show, and fog machine, but now up the number of DJs to half-dozen and through in more lights and more fog machines. Take away all the people doing drugs and replace it with people getting drunk; Not too drunk though, most people here know when to stop. Now, still imagining, forget all the drama and arguments / fights that come up at raves and replace those with people all smiling, laughing, and telling stories. Now, still imagining, throw in a few huge bars offering great drinks at great prices, staffed with cute Asian ladies that refuse to take tips, and don't forget to add a couple more cute Asian women dancing up on the bar or stage. Then take this image that you have in your head, and put it on steroids, to really knock it up another few notches. That, my friends, is what all the clubs over here are like. It is unbelievable to say the least.

And, you know, while I was writing that I realized something else: in all the bars and clubs that Mayu and I have been to, we have not seen so much as one dispute or argument between people, not the slightest thing, whether it be between couples or just friends. Does not happen here. There is no drama whatsoever. Its the exact opposite of clubs back home, where there is always some drama or a fight about to break out, usually due to some drunken idiot. I am still amazed that with a city this size, and with that many people partying, that nothing happens. At least on the surface.

  Have you partied in Japan? Still thinking about a job as the throw-up guy? Apply below!

Published in Japan

This "Cool" Bar Puts A Shiver Of Satisfaction In Your Spine

Have you heard of the Ice Hotel in Sweden, or any of the subsequent ones that have opened in nearly two dozen other countries?

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Well this is the same idea, only located in Roppongi, the infamous tourist district in the Minato ward of Tokyo. It is a warehouse kept at -5° C because the entire interior is made of ice sculptures.

The bar, the chairs and tables, the artwork, even the cups, all of which are handcarved and actually imported from the Ice Hotel in Sweden. You are even bundled up in an authentic Ice Hotel jacket; upon paying your cover charge the staff graciously helps you suit-up. From there you proceed through a intermediary room — kind of like when entering a shooting range — kept at or below 10° C.

Ice Bar Tokyo

This was definitely a cool ass place, no pun intended. The drinks were small and a little expensive though, but obviously you are paying for the scenery. It was ¥3500 cover just to get in (roughly $45 USD, but that is a normal Tokyo cover charge), and drinks were ¥1200 each ($15 USD). And yes, they were ridiculously small! Even though the ice cups are physically big chunks of ice, there is only a narrow hole drilled at the top of it, about an inch in diameter and maybe four inches down — basically nothing more than a Texas-sized shot. And you are forced to re-use your cups, as they are all imported from Sweden at great cost. The first one comes free with the first drink but after that, if you need a new glass due to melting or breakage you are charged ¥800 for the glass plus ¥1200 cost of the drink. If you keep your gloves on, you should be able to get about a half dozen drinks out of your ice cup before heat from your lips have melted it to the point of needing a new glass.

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the Ice Bar Tokyo is owned by Absolut Vodka and as such you only have a choice between about a dozen-and-a-half to two dozen varying drinks, all containing a multitude of flavored Absolut vodkas mixed with assorted juices. Regardless of the fact I hate vodka now (too much of it when I was a younger), it was intriguing enough to spend an hour and a couple hundred dollars there in the freezing temperatures. It was also interesting to see how frequently the bartenders would swap out with the front stay, so that they could warm up briefly.

Derek Freal at the Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Derek Freal at the Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Yes, Tokyo's IceBar is one of those places that you only go for show. Now that I went once, I have no urge to go back. Its going to be exactly the same, the initial thrill is gone now that I have seen it. But it has visitor appeal, you know, its a fantastic place to take someone who is new to the city or never seen anything like that. Just be prepared to shell out a hundred thousand yen at the absolute minimum.

  Have you experienced this ice bar or any of the others? Share your comments below.

Derek Freal at the Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

[ UPDATE ] Regretfully as of September 30th, 2011, IceBar Tokyo has closed their doors as part of the effort to control energy consumption in the wake of the earthquake is eastern Japan. With so many other businesses and families working hard to control their power usage, it is unjustifiable for IBT to waste such vast amounts of energy freezing a warehouse and maintaining such cold temperatures. Please visit the IceBar Tokyo official web site for more information on when they will open their doors again.

  Other notable cities around the world with ice bars: Monterrey, Mexico City, Panama City, Orlando, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Barcelona, Athens, Seoul, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Saint Petersburg, New Delhi, and Dubai.

Published in Japan

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