December 2017: Brennivin (Icelandic native spirit)

Host: Philip Butler 

Brennivin is the signature distilled spirit of Iceland, made of potato mash. This typically caraway spiced liquor is often referred to as “Black Death.”

Icelandic Brennivin is a type of aquavit, which is a flavored spirit from Scandinavia. Brennivin is only produced in Iceland and is only made by a few distilleries. In Iceland, it is more of a novelty that is not consumed regularly, but rather is the traditional drink of the mid-winter feast and often to chase a mouthful of fermented shark or ram’s testicles.

In 1915, Prohibition went into effect in Iceland, and it wasn’t until March 1, 1989, that Iceland had fully repealed it. The country as a whole has an odd relationship with alcohol. To this day, the only place to buy a bottle of alcohol is the state-run liquor stores that banks almost 80% of the purchase price in profit and taxes.

The word “Brennivin” translates as “burning wine” and owes its lingual roots to brandy in many North Germanic languages. The primary difference between Brennivin and other clear distilled spirits, like Vodka, is that aquavits in general and Brennivin in particular are steeped in herbs to flavor the alcohol. This, of course, makes it more akin to gin.

Cocktails for Brennivin are quite new; typically, Brennivin is drunk neat and usually frozen to moderate the taste.

Cocktail: Arctic Solstice

5 oz Brennivin

5 oz Chambord

1 oz Lime juice

Shake with ice. Strain. Top with water to fill. Garnish with mint sprig and slice of grapefruit.

Bottle 1: Brennivin, The Original

Distillery: Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson

Proof: 75

Price: $36

Purchase Location: Duty Free at Keflavik Airport, Iceland

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Lemon frosting; raw dough; four; light anise; drywall.

Palate: More oily than most vodkas, but still more similar vodka than gin. Raw dough and a bit floral.

Finish: Very little. Some light anise and caraway.

Why this bottle: This is the classic version of Brennivin that is the most common. Reading from the back of the bottle: “Brennivin is uniquely Icelandic. The legal beginnings of this distinctive spirit were in 1935, when prohibition was partially lifted on the island. A black label was chosen to be unappealing and limit demand. However, it had the opposite effect. Today the Brennivin label is a symbol for Iceland’s signature drink – and of Iceland itself.”

Bottle 2: Brennivin, Hvönn, Angelica, Blueberries & Caraway

Distillery: Hálogi Distillery Reykjavik

Proof: 76

Price: $49

Purchase Location: Duty Free at Keflavik Airport, Iceland

Tasting Notes:

Nose: More inviting than the first bottle. Butterscotch, caramel, and floral undertones.

Palate: Vanilla cake frosting; light green oak; creamy mouthfeel.

Finish: There is a finish, but still very short. It is briefly sweet, but then turns bitter.

Why this bottle: The other bottles are aged variations of the classic Brennivin this bottle is a bit different as a different flavor infused version of the classic.

Bottle 3: Brennivin, Anniversary Edition

Distillery: Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson

Proof: 80

Price: $45

Purchase Location: Duty Free at Keflavik Airport, Iceland

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Much more delicate than the second bottle. Baked buttery week old pastry dough; some Speyside Scotch – no Islay influence at all. White raw sugar.

Palate: White rock candy sugar with a touch of red apple. The Scotch notes were not present at all.

Finish: Very short; the flavors from the palate linger for just a moment before drifting away.

Why this bottle: This is the 50th anniversary edition that has been aged for 12 months in three different casks, American White Oak, Islay whisky, and Bourbon.

Bottle 4: Brennivin, Special Cask Selection

Distillery: Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson

Proof: 80

Price: $49

Purchase Location: Manhattan Fine Wine, Manhattan Beach CA

Tasting Notes:

Nose: A fairly pungent mixture of House cleaner/air freshener/chemical scents.

Palate: Pine flavored house cleaner.

Finish: The artificial/chemical flavors linger longer than desired. This is one where we wished the finish was shorter.

Why this bottle: Standard Brennivin aged in former Bourbon and oloroso Sherry casks.

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