Despite my obsession with all things aquavit, I’d never set foot in any of the Nordic countries until last month when I was invited to Iceland as a media guest for the second annual Reykjavik Bar Summit. The event brings in bars from all over Europe and the United States for two days of friendly cocktail competition and is also a great opportunity to showcase Iceland’s emerging cocktail, beer, and distilling scenes.
I wrote about my favorite spots to drink in Reykjavik for Eater, so head over there for tips if you’re planning a visit. In this post I’ll write about the local distilleries, three of which I got to visit on a tour around the city. I’d arrived fortuitously on the morning of “Beer Day,” the anniversary of the day Iceland finally fully legalized beer on the surprisingly late date of March 1, 1989. We celebrated with cans of Bríó on a northbound bus, learning about the country’s long, strange relationship with the temperance movement along the way.
The most famous Icelandic spirit is Brennivín, an aquavit flavored with caraway, for whom I do a bit of work in the United States. We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the distillery, but the Bar Summit arranged an even better setting for imbibing it: inside the ice cap of Langjökull glacier. Man-made tunnels allow visitors to hike down into the ice, where caves, gathering rooms, and even a small wedding chapel await. No marriages occurred among our group, but we did enjoy a celebratory toast of ice cold Brennivín.
From there we went on to enjoy a few more drinks in hot tubs under a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, followed by a late night cocktail dinner that had us back at the hotel around 4 am. That allowed for just a few hours sleep before the next morning’s tour of three distilleries local to Reykjavik.
I’ll confess that I was still feeling the combined effects of jet lag, aquavit shots, and a post-midnight four-course cocktail dinner when we made the drive over to 64° Reykjavik, so I wasn’t quite as up to enjoying their wares as I would have liked to be. Co-founder Snorri Jonnson had prepared combinations of desserts topped with his fruit-forward liqueurs that looked amazing. Fortunately I was able to take a few of the elegantly designed bottles home to try later.
The liqueurs feature local Icelandic ingredients: blueberry, rhubarb (“rabarbara”), and crowberry. The pale pink rhubarb liqueur is bright and lively; I could see it going great with brut sparkling wine, and it worked well in a tequila cocktail I mixed up at home too. The crowberry liqueur is made from small, black berries that grow all over the country; it’s richly colored, with dark, jammy fruit notes balanced by a touch of tannic bitterness.
The distillery also makes three dry spirits: a vodka, gin, and aquavit. I was most interested in the last of these, of course. Their aquavit is flavored with caraway and angelica seeds. It’s clean and crisp, with assertive caraway flavor that doesn’t excessively dominate the spirit. You could keep it in the freezer, but it’s soft enough to enjoy neat and unchilled.
Our next stop was Eimverk, where a glass of tonic water revived me to life and put me back in the saddle for more spirits tasting. Eimverk is best known for their Flóki malt whiskey made from 100% Icelandic barley. Their lightly aged young malt is currently on the market and their fully aged single malt will be out in limited quantities soon. I also got to sample a batch made from barley smoked and dried over burning sheep dung, the Icelandic equivalent of a peated Scotch. It was deliciously smoky, and I’ll absolutely buy a bottle when it’s released to market if I ever get the opportunity.
Eimverk also makes a gin called Vor and aquavit called Víti. The aquavit is also distilled from malted barley, which comes through on the nose with the familiar graininess of new make whiskey. The brash notes of young malt combined with unusual botanicals — Icelandic moss, kale, meadow sweet, among others — make this one of the most unique and interesting aquavits on the market.
Our final stop was Foss Distillery, where the distillers transform Icelandic birch into enchantingly complex spirits. The mildly astringent, woodsy Birkir snaps is made by infusing birch into neutral spirits lightly sweetened with local birch syrup. The more approachable Björk is more heavily sweetened, though not at all cloying. Both are finished with a small birch twig in every bottle, and both are well worth picking up; I already have plans for Birkir on an upcoming cocktail menu.
Foss also just unveiled two new products, Eimir vodka, which is vacuum-distilled with birch, and Börkur, an intense birch bitter. I enjoyed all of their spirits; with Birkir and Björk both available in the US, I’d recommend picking up Eimir or Börkur if you’re traveling through the country.
A note on buying spirits: The duty free shop at Keflavik airport does a great job featuring Icelandic spirits, and everything mentioned here is or will be on sale there. Given Iceland’s high taxes on alcohol, your best bet for buying these is at the airport on your way home.