Ah, Iceland. That Nordic Eden off the Arctic Ocean has given those to the West so much in recent years with its largesse: evocative music (Björk, Sigur Rós) and film (Jar City, 101 Reykjavík), the awe-inspiring volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a financial crisis so sweeping it made Americans feels less singular in their recession-weary state, etc. But when it comes to Icelandic-U.S. diplomatic relations, 2014 might well be remembered as the nations’ most spirited collaborative year—literally.
As we’ve exhausted our taste for domestic craft beer and liquor and plundered every possible aged Scottish single-malt cask for their faintest peaty resonance, curiosity was bound to buoy elsewhere. And Icelandic brewers and distillers were ready to pounce.
“Beyond music and culture, you already see a number of Icelandic products in U.S. supermarkets like Whole Foods, ranging from Skyr [yogurt] to Icelandic lamb,” says Sigrún Jenný Bardadóttir, COO of Reykjavík-based Eimverk Distillery, which produces Vor Pot Distilled Gin and Flóki Single Malt Whisky and intends for them to see stateside shelf life by the fall. “And yes, we feel it’s logical that Icelandic spirits are next, and just like with Icelandic music and culture we believe that this offers a fresh taste of something new and interesting.”
As one might expect, the majority of Iceland’s alcoholic concoctions focus on the pure allure of their natural resources, such as virtually unpolluted Arctic spring water and an abundance of local fruits and grains. Of course, that same fastidious process can make it cost-prohibitive for some micro-maestros to see their way across the Atlantic.
“We have a saying here in Iceland,” quips Birgir Már Sigurðsson, president and founder of up-and-coming Reykjavík distillery Thoran, who hope that organically cultivated Icelandic barley sets their single-malt whisky apart. “The U.S. market is where Icelandic products go to die. I think you have to be a pretty established company if you wanna try and ride that bull.”
Despite Sigurðsson’s doubts, or perhaps flying in the face of realistic obstacles, several of his nation’s fearless booze purveyors have landed—or intend to arrive imminently—on these shores. And so here is a brief guide to some (among many) of the beer, gin, vodka and even schnapps that have found their way (or are en route) from those remote European plateaus to our awaiting glass.
Einstök Brewery (Location: Akureyri)
In a very short period of time, Einstök has emerged as nearly ubiquitous in grocery aisles across California, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania, particularly if you’re searching for their Toasted Porter or Pale Ale. The burden of rapid expansion is likely eased by a concentration on three year-round varieties (there’s also a White Ale and, currently, a limited-edition wintry Dopplebock and seasonal summer Arctic Berry). GQ lauded the Pale Ale in their 2013 “100 Best Things In The World Right Now” feature, and the Porter is comparable to Smuttynose’s aptly dubbed Robust iteration. Even if Einstök’s offerings aren’t especially exotic or novel, the price ($12.49 per six-pack via bevmo.com) is beatifically right. einstokbeer.com
Ölvisholt Brewery (Location: Selfoss)
Unassumingly situated in the southern Icelandic town of Selfoss, on a plot of land that was for centuries a sheep and dairy farm, resides Ölvisholt. The brewery was, in fact, founded by farmers circa 2007. The packaging and pour of most Ölvisholt creations might recall Czech, Russian or Polish stalwarts that stock market refrigerators. And indeed, its lager and red ale have an undeniable Eastern European-ness, while their wheat flirts with Belgian-esque citrus spice. But the real reason to stalk their stash is the righteous Lava Smoked Imperial Stout, which earns its volcanic label design once those charred-coffee notes exhume from underneath its substantial head (that’s what she said). Fortunately, one needn’t travel to the center of the earth to snag it: Ölvisholt’s line can be had everywhere from Long Island to Montgomery, Alabama. Roll tide, indeed. brugghus.is
Stedji Brewery (Location: Borgarfjörður)
As a relatively new entrant on the Icelandic brewing scene (their first beer, a traditional lager, launched in 2012), Stedji’s doing their best to differentiate. For one, there’s their location on a countryside fjord. Second, they’ve employed a German brewer who’s carried over his country’s reputation for Bavarian maltiness, rauch-style smoke and unfettered filtration (i.e. no added sugars). The results can be mixed (the Reyktur smoked stout stands out), and their aesthetic eschews trendy logos or labeling, but Stedji might be the easy entryway for tentative imbibers typically partial to vintage domestics. stedji.com
Reyka Vodka (Location: Borgarnes)
Far removed from both the bustle of Reykjavík and simpler branding of Stedji is Borgarnes’ super-modern Reyka distillery, which began production nearly a decade ago and has truly refined its process. Vodka’s said journey commences with that precious Arctic water, which is then purportedly naturally filtered over lava rocks on its way down to copper stills powered by geo-thermal energy. None of this would mean anything if the results didn’t pour out of one’s shaker with a perfectly eddying cloud, emanating the faintest odor of grain and finishing on one’s palate with sweetness rather than bottom-shelf sting. And at $25.99 for a 750ml bottle (whose squat, semi-cylindrical bottle and artisanal label visually depicting its distillation does look mighty pretty in lieu of Absolut), it is, as Icelandic experts might say, a “stele.” reyka.com
Eimverk Distillery, makers of Vor Pot Distilled Gin and Floki Single Malt Whisky (Location: Reykjavík)
Be careful as you approach Flóki’s mini-cask whisky, ’cause odors can be deceiving. At first sniff, the still-maturing distillation has a rich, almost blended sweetness. But one sip releases all that huge smoky oakiness dying to say, “What’s up?” to your palate and olfactory glands. The more aged variety is a bit more consistent from nose to finish, and like Vor Gin, pretty damn fine as a summer on-the-rocks refresher. Vor takes advantage of locally plucked juniper berries, which are in full floral aroma soon as you open the bottle. But the ensuing pour is surprisingly sharp, though its sting does slowly soften as your ice cubes knock around that sugar-water like near-translucence. Shaken might be best for the Vor, but all in all, Eimverk has stirred up some worthy spirits for the genteel Viking in all of us. flokiwhisky.is
Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery, distillers of Brennivin (Location: Reykjavík)
This 79-year-old, caraway-flavored aquavit (or schnapps, or liqueur, depending on regional semantics) is an institution in Iceland and across Europe, where it’s also known as Black Death. Its bottle and branding might evoke images of Jägermeister, but Brennivin pours clear and can suffice in a shot glass or with some citrus and liqueur. The big news for those who’ve been scouring for it on their trips overseas is Brennivin America (in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, of all places) was established earlier this year to import and distribute the legendary sauce in these parts (it’s now available in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., Santa Monica, of course Wyoming and, soon, Boston). Only bummer is the classic opaque label had to be streamlined just a bit for U.S. sales so it didn’t as overtly shout out its cavalier reputation. But don’t worry: No one will mistake you for anything but a badass. brennivinamerica.com