Monday, March 31, 2014

Exploring Brennivin - The Icelandic Aquavit

By Catherine L Luke
“Necessity is the mother of invention.” -Plato

The country of Iceland is inhabited by about 325,000 people.  People who have historically known that if they want something done, they’ve got to find a way to do it themselves.  If Icelanders’ necessity were a drink, the invention was Brennivin, a clear aquavit-like spirit flavored with one of the few things that grows on the island, caraway.

Stories of Iceland can be found in a bottle of Brennivin, with its roots in Iceland’s strong Christian presence.  This presence spurred a long and thriving temperance movement, with a period of different levels of alcohol prohibition lasting from 1915 until 1989.  In 1935 the prohibition ban was partially lifted allowing government-controlled production and sale of spirits.  Brennivin was one of the spirits that was made and sold by the government. 

Brennivin’s label was created by Icelandic government.  Its design was simple- green bottle, black label, white font.  The black of the label (or the content of the bottle?) are said to have inspired the spirit’s nickname, “Black Death”.  The intention behind such a stark label was to create an unappealing visual to dissuade Icelanders from consuming alcohol.  It didn’t work.  Brennivin’s label has become as synonymous with Icelandic branding as the country’s sweaters and Opal candy wrappers.

Brennivin’s distillery, named Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrimsson (Egills for short), is located not far from Reykjavik in the town of Bogarnes.  Environmental practices in Iceland are incredibly clean.  Hydropower and geothermal energy are the main sources of energy.  Thanks to this, Iceland’s water comes out of the ground with a naturally high pH level, lending it a deliciously sweet taste and soft finish.  It is naturally beautiful water with little need for filtration.  This extraordinarily pure water is used in Brennivin’s distillation process.

Had you heard of Brennivin before now?  The spirit has experienced a bit of fame in pop culture- the Foo Fighters sing about it in “Skin and Bones”, and Bourdain as well as Kill Bill’s Budd drink it down on screen.  Even so, until very recently, it was not to be found outside of Iceland. 

Lucky for us, Brennivin is, as of very recently, available in the U.S. market.  This is the work of Brennivin America, founded by Joe Spiegel. Spiegel slowly and surely fell in love with Brennivin during layovers in Iceland during business travel.  Spiegel’s layovers grew from hours to days as he fell for Iceland’s schnappy specialty and the place it calls home.  After continually bringing bottles back to the states for friends who were similarly intrigued, he realized that it was time to start importing the Nordic treat.  Spiegel is an inspiring representative of his new import, as he may be just as enchanted with Iceland’s culture of creation as he is with Brennivin itself.

From its home base in Jackson Hole, WY, Brennivin America is working on letting Brennivin create a path
throughout the U.S. market in its own style.  The company is following along with the more holistic Icelandic methods of marketing.  Advertisement of alcohol is banned by Icelandic law.  Though this sort of constraint is something unusual for Americans, Spiegel makes a poignant point about the purity of Icelandic culture being void of energy-draining commercialism and consumption.

Before approval for entry into the U.S. market, Brennivin’s label had to be altered a bit.  The re-design was done by a very talented designer, a U.S.-based Iceland native named Hjalti Karlsson.  Eventually, Brennivin America plans to introduce two slightly more complex styles of Brennivin to the market- Oðalsbrennivin which spends 6 months of aging, and Gamalt Brennivin which undergoes 2 years of aging.  These styles are being made in the hopes of keeping some of the old traditions of Brennivin production alive.

As far as pairing possibilities go, typical Icelandic food such as fermented shark meat marries well with Brennivin.  Salmon and herring are sometimes cured in Brennivin, and Austrian and German fare have been found to be complimented by Brennivin’s caraway flavor. 

Though it is completely delicious on its own (“drink ice cold” is the slogan), Brennivin’s unique taste is pretty fun to experiment with in cocktails.  Though it has not yet landed in his town, Jeff Grdinich of Jackson Hole’s The Rose and the documentary Tales of the Cocktail has had the chance to sip a bit of Brennivin from Spiegel’s stash and says, “It's a fantastic pick-me-up to sip on after some cold runs down the slopes here.  Its flavors and texture make for an intriguing cocktail ingredient.”  The possibilities of this aquavit are only just beginning!

Here, Spiegel shares some playful showcases for the spirit:
Northern Lights:
1 part Brennivin
1/2 part Amaretto
1 part grapefruit juice
splash of soda water
garnish with an orange slice

1 part Brennivin
1/2 part Kahlua or other coffee liquor
squeeze of lemon
soda water

B & T:
Use Brennivin as in a gin & tonic but garnish with lime wedge and dill sprig

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Catherine lives in Brooklyn, and has worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley and NYC. She is certified by the WSET, as well as the school of "wine in real life".  Understanding the patchwork of little-known Italian regional wines, dishes, and customs excites her most of all. She (sometimes) muses on her blog GrapesofCath.

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