Our Fourth Featured Libation of the World comes from beautiful Iceland
To think about Iceland, you will naturally think of its dramatic scenery. It is awe-inspiring, untouched, pristine, and unique. At every turn, you meet raw beauty that few other places can rival.
On the other side is the ruggedness, the harshness of extreme cold, and vast stretches of barren lands. Those lands are full of powerful natural elements from howling winds, rushing rivers, and violent volcanos. And yet, the Icelandic people produce wonderful things out of all that.
Brennivín, just like Iceland, is unique. The people of Iceland craft this spirit by combining pure, natural water and distilling it with other elements to create a crisp and somewhat harsh liquor. It is as if they bottled Iceland itself, which is why it is our choice for the January libation of the month.
What is this Icelandic beverage?
Brennivín is considered a type of aquavit (a distilled liquor principally produced in Scandinavian nations) that is distinctively Icelandic. Many think it to be Iceland’s signature distilled beverage. Brennivín is a clear distilled herbal spirit that people often describe as having fresh rye bread notes. It has a subtle sweetness that is blended with Icelandic water. It is bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) and is not a drink for those faint of heart.
There is more to this drink than many would think. The word “brennivín” means “burning wine,” rightfully named. It comes from the same root as brandy, namely brandewijn, whose roots are from the Dutch language.
A variation of the same word is used in other North Germanic languages. In Swedish, the liquor is referred to as “brännvin,” in Danish as “brændevin,” in Norwegian as “brennevin,” and in Faroese as “brennivín.”
Brennivín was first introduced in 1935 when prohibition in Iceland was partially lifted. They chose the product’s classic white and black label to make it look unappealing and ultimately limit demand. The label had the opposite effect, as Brennivín quickly became a popular drink. Today, the Brennivín label is a well-known symbol for Iceland’s signature drink and of Iceland itself.
Some Brennivín history
In 1262, Icelanders became subjects of the King of Norway. In 1397, the Kalmar Union between the Nordic countries put Iceland, Norway, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands under the Danish crown. Beer could not easily survive the long ocean journey, but malt and honey were still freely traded between Scandinavia and Iceland. Icelanders could make mead and beer, but in 1602, the Danish King instituted a trade monopoly, the “Einokunarverslun,” in Iceland.
As a result, only special Danish merchants could trade with Iceland. The Icelandic people could not deal with anyone else. Spirits did not occupy much of the valuable space on ships like mead, beer, honey, and malt. It also doesn’t spoil and could sell for a much higher price.
Improving the flavor
The distillation techniques of the time (known as “burning”) meant that the resulting spirits (known as “burnt wine” or “brann-vin”) were often not palatable. To improve the taste, people would infuse the spirits with herbs. Caraway was available even in Iceland’s harsh climate and used to flavor the shipments of spirits from Denmark. This is how Brennivin aquavit was born.
The trade monopoly ended in 1786. Thirty years later, modern distillation techniques made their way to Scandinavia. By then, the taste for various aquavits was well set in Nordic countries. Most preferred them flavored with herbs over cleaner available spirits. Although the trade monopoly ended, the Danish Distilling Company maintained a monopoly on distillation in Denmark and its territories, including Iceland.
Prohibition Comes to Iceland
Distilling their own spirits was not allowed for Icelanders. In 1908, a prohibition referendum was passed in Iceland. Starting in 1912, all alcohol imports would stop, and there would be no more beer, wine, or distilled spirits. All remaining alcoholic beverages had to be consumed or destroyed by 1915.
In 1918 Iceland regained its independence from Denmark. Without prohibition, the Danish monopoly on distillation would no longer apply. Prohibition was partially repealed in 1935. The newly independent government would control the production, distribution, and sale. Beer would remain illegal until March 1, 1989.
Since the Danish Distilling Company no longer chained the Icelanders, they could make whatever they desired. The Icelandic government set up the State Alcohol Company of Iceland, known as the “AVR,” which still exists today as the “ATVR.” One of the few spirits the AVR decided to produce was caraway-flavored Brennivín.
The Herbs and the Process
Brennivín is distilled from fermented grain mash. It combines with Iceland’s pure, delicate water, which has a high PH level (8.4), and is then flavored only with caraway. Steeping herbs in alcohol to create schnapps is a folk tradition in Nordic countries that has been long-held. Brennivín is still the traditional drink for the mid-winter feast of Þorrablót.
In great contrast to the colorful labels of French and Italian spirits of the time, the government of Iceland demanded a stark black and white label for the newly legal spirit. The green bottle initially displayed a white skull on the black label to warn against consumption which was later replaced by a map of Iceland and a clear bottle. This is why it was sometimes called “svarti dauði” (black death). The hope was to make the product visually unappealing and limit demand, but they failed. Brennivín became the drink of choice for Icelanders for decades and became a treasure brought home by travelers. In 2014, it finally became legal to import to America. The herbal spirit known as Brennivín had almost become a symbol of Iceland itself by then.
Other versions are made with rye or aging in different barrels, like sherry casks. However, the original seems always to be the favorite. Sometimes there is no need to mess with a classic. Various other Icelandic distilleries produce different brands of brennivín, all with distinctive characteristics.
What is the caraway herb?
Caraway seeds, also known as Persian cumin, are highly aromatic and have a distinctive mild anise flavor that adds a welcome and subtle licorice hint to many dishes. People describe the taste often as earthy, with a touch of citrus and pepper. Caraway’s distinctive licorice-like flavor is due to anethole, which you will find in black licorice. They are high in antioxidants and often aid in digestive health.
The wildflower caraway grows well in Iceland and is treasured for its tasty seeds. The Caraway Seeds is grown on Viðey Island, a small island not far from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. They are sweeter and have a more distinctive taste than the caraway seeds people usually buy. This makes them especially good for baking and putting in hot beverages such as coffee or a cup of hot cacao. The Caraway seeds used for 64° Brennivín mostly come from Viðey; they also add angelica seeds in this version. Wormwood is also used on some versions of Brennivin.
The fact that the favored alcohol drink of Iceland is Brennivin would not surprise many who have visited. You will soon discover a pattern from the airport duty-free to every shop that sells candy. Much of their candy has some form of licorice. Chocolate-covered licorice, sugar-coated licorice, licorice pellets, soft licorice, toffee licorice, and hard candy flavored licorice are only a few options. The question lies did the love of licorice candy come before or after the licorice-flavored spirit?
How best to experience Brennivín
Today, Icelanders typically drink Brennivín chilled, often right out of a freezer. Many also enjoy it as a shot, with a beer, or as a cocktail base. It usually takes the place of gin in classic cocktails or lighter rum in tropical drinks.
Joelle’s first introduction to Brennivin was during a meal at the Apothecary Restaurant in Reykjavik. She chose a multi-course Icelandic-themed menu that commenced with a shot of Brennivin. Not the usual introduction, but when in Iceland…..
It is also the traditional accompaniment to the uniquely Icelandic hákarl, fermented shark meat.
We want to try a mixed drink with Brennivin to see if it helps spice up a classic recipe. We may skip the shark, but then again, you know how we travel.
Taking Brennivín home
Brennivín is for sale in various sizes, and the cost is a little higher than you expect, as it is in Iceland, after all. You will find Brennivín often during your travels around Iceland and in the Duty-free store at the airport. There are other Brennivín versions, but it seems they are not nearly as popular as the classic black and white label version of Brennivín.
The best price anywhere in Iceland for Brennivin is at the airport duty-free. A tip a pilot gave a family member was to buy alcohol before leaving the airport, as the prices in the liquor stores are much higher. He said that is what they do when they come home. Interestingly Brennivin is less expensive than most six-packs of beer in Iceland. Brennivin has the lowest cost of all spirits in Iceland, which may also be a reason for its popularity.
We bring several bottles home each trip as many friends, and family members have grown to like its unique taste. It is a must-have from Iceland, and you must save room in your luggage for some.
Planning a trip to Iceland? Check out our Iceland Travel Guide here.
Purchasing Brennivín in the United States
The export of Brennivín from Iceland to the United States began in early 2014. Export to Germany and Canada followed. Sales to Denmark and Sweden came later.
Once home, it is easy to find Brennivin in our local liquor/wine stores. Depending on the location, large-scale stores like Total Wine will often have it in stock. If you don’t see it in the store, check what they have online; you may be able to special order it.
Drizly.com is an online company that delivers to your door and best serves those living in bigger cities. This is a new site, and it has a pretty impressive inventory. We found a site called Wine-Searcher.com which will search online sources worldwide for any wine, beer, and spirits. They have Brennivin available. They will ship to your home if your state allows it.
It is also worth contacting your local specialty liquor store to see what they can order for you.
If you found a great source, we would love to hear about it. Contact us by clicking here or leaving a comment at the bottom of the page.
May we suggest a few recipes for cocktails?
Check out our Iceland: Summer and Winter Comparative Photo Gallery here.
Iceland/Brennivin Photo Gallery
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To learn more about Iceland, Check out Iceland’s Official Tourism Site
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