"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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
Iceland has been on my top 10 list of places to see since I was a teenager. Why? I’m not quite sure. I recall looking at a globe, fascinated with the wonders of the world. Somehow, our planet is home to over 7 billion people, spread out over nearly 200 countries.
Iceland, other than Antarctica, seemed to epitomize images of extreme cold – a place where nobody could possibly live, right? Of course, I was probably about 16 years old, never having traveled outside of Ontario, Canada, so what did I know? But at that time, Iceland seemed like a galaxy away. It was not on any top 10 places to visit list. It was never written about in any travel sections of the newspaper. It was never featured on any travel show on television. It seemed like a lost world, a place that needed to be explored.
At the time, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. A dear friend of mine was jetting off to Europe and I thought, “Hey, I wonder if there are any cheap flights to Iceland?” This was, of course, the year that Eyjafjallajökull erupted -- much to the chagrin of news anchors around the world whom had to stumble over the pronounciation of Eyjafjallajökull -- and caused major travel headaches all across Europe. This, coupled with Iceland’s economy, likely had something to do with the ultra cheap flight -- less than $500 direct and roundtrip! I was able to snap up at the time). I had asked a few friends if they were interested in going, but as expected, there were not many takers! After weeks of hounding, my dear friend finally said yes, she will meet in Iceland, and so, she purchased a ticket from London to Reykjavik.
Upon arrival in Reykjavik, it was obvious that an amazing journey was about to happen. Note: I am an extremely organized traveler. Most of our excursions or tours were booked weeks in advance.
We partook in snorkeling (in November, mind you), horseback riding in Þingvellir, bus tours to see the geysers, a day trip to the Blue Lagoon (for the most memorable birthday ever!), and we did rent a car to drive around Iceland and stumbled across breathtaking scenery - beautiful mountains, black sand beaches, the infamous volcanoes, frozen waterfalls, empty roads, icebergs, and towns that seemed almost abandoned. Although Iceland is the 18th largest island in the world, its total population is just over 300,000, with most of those living in the Greater Reykjavik Area, so as we drove further away from Reykjavik, it got more isolated. Our primary goal with this car rental was to find a place desolate enough to experience the Northern Lights. Alas, luck was not on our side and we never did catch this phenomenon (*insert super sad/disappointed/heartbroken face here*).
Of course, all this traveling makes a person hungry! We were both really intrigued with what constitutes Icelandic cuisine. I did do some research beforehand, and one of Iceland’s delicacies is hákarl, or cured and fermented shark that has been hung to dry for a few months (it’s often called rotten shark). Well, by this point we had already tried whale and puffin sashimi, so I do not think our stomachs could have handled eating rotten shark :) Afterall, Anthony Bourdain did declare that fermented shark was one of the worst things he has ever eaten. Another popular item on menus seemed to be horse, and since we had already gone horseback riding and fell in love with our horses, that was also out of the question :). So, did our palettes enjoy anything? Yes! Iceland’s proximity to the North Atlantic Ocean meant that we expected some delicious fish, and delicious fish we had!
Overall, Iceland was everything that I had hoped and dreamed of. Although we weren’t adventurous enough to try some of the Icelandic dishes, we thoroughly enjoyed each and every minute in this beautiful country with its friendly people and diverse culture. I can only hope to someday return and see more of what this country has to offer.