Arguably, the most famous alcoholic spirit to come out of Iceland is Brennivin. For this review, we’re taking this iconic liquor and cranking it up a notch, by reviewing the Brennivin Anniversary Edition.
What is Brennivin?
First, let’s start with describing what Brennivin actually is. Brennivin is widely hailed as Iceland’s signature spirit. It’s what is known as an aquavit (from the Latin aqua vitae, translating to “water of life.”) Aquavits are Scandinavian distilled spirits made from grain or potatoes. Aquavits are typically flavoured with herbs and spices, with the most dominant flavour coming from caraway. Caraway is one of the few spices that manages to grow wild in Iceland’s challenging climate and geography.
According to European Union regulations, Aquavit’s most dominant flavour must come from either caraway or dill seed. It must also contain a minimum of 37.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) in order to be labeled and sold as aquavit.
The word Brennivin translates to burning wine, and comes from the same root word as brandy. Brennivin is only flavoured with caraway, and ranges between 37.5 or 40% ABV, making it an aquavit in its purest definition.
History of Brennivin
In order to understand the history of Brennivin, we have to go way back in time in Iceland’s history. Norwegian and Celtic settlers arrived in Iceland in the 9th Century. Malt and honey were freely traded between Scandinavia and Iceland, but beer did not travel well. So the Icelanders made their own mead, and occasionally beer.
In 1397, with the Kalmar Union, Iceland came under the rule of the Danish crown. In 1602, the Danish King implemented a trade monopoly – only certain Danish merchants could trade with Iceland, and Icelanders could not trade with any country other than Denmark. Transporting alcoholic spirits took up less space on the trade ships than mead, honey or malt, and also didn’t spoil. Unfortunately, it didn’t taste the best.
At this time, the method of alcohol distillation (known as burning) gave the alcohol an unpleasant flavour. To combat this, herbs and spices were added. This was the creation of aquavit.
In 1786, the trade monopoly came to an end – but the Danish Distilling Company still had a monopoly on distillation in Denmark and its territories, including Iceland. This meant that Icelanders were forbidden from distilling their own spirits. By this time, the tradition of aquavit was fully ingrained in Scandinavian liquor preferences.
In 1908, a prohibition referendum was passed in Iceland. All imports of alcohol came to a halt in 1912, and all remaining stock of alcoholic beverages had to be consumed or destroyed by 1915.
Iceland regained its independence from Denmark in 1918, also putting an end to Denmark’s monopoly on distillation. Prohibition was partially repealed in 1935, but alcoholic products were heavily controlled by the government. The Icelandic government set up the State Alcohol Company of Iceland, and Brennivin was one of the first spirits produced. However, in order to curtail interest in the alcoholic spirit, the plain black and white label was created, which originally included a white skull to discourage consumption. The drink was sometimes referred to as “svarti dauði” (black death), but despite the labeling, the drink became popular amongst Icelanders.
What is the Brennivin Anniversary Edition?
The Brennivin Anniversary Edition was created to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the reintroduction of spirits to Iceland. It was aged for one full year – 4 months in American white oak barrels, 4 months in Islay whisky barrels, and 4 months in bourbon whisky barrels.
As you can see, the barrel aging imparted a slight tan colour to the Brennivin, which is usually crystal clear. The high alcohol content burns your nostrils a bit on the scent, but it also smells clean, sweet, and almost fruity. Which is interesting, since they don’t add any sweetener to the spirit.
As for tasting notes, the alcoholic heat hits first, but it’s much smoother than you would expect. There are definite hints of woody, fruity vanilla, no doubt imparted from the barrel aging process. The caraway is definitely the star of the show, but if you didn’t know what it was, the flavour could easily pass for a collection of flavours, namely anise and a hint of sweet mint. The flavour is clean, for lack of a better descriptor, but also more complex than one would expect from a clear spirit.
The chance of getting your hands on the Brennivin Anniversary Edition is pretty unlikely though – they only produced 5000 bottles in 2015. (Note the little “Iceland” tag on the neck of the bottle. We finally took the time to label all our souvenir liquor bottles.)
How to Drink Brennivin
Brennivin is a very versatile spirit. It’s often served chilled as a shot, with a beer, or even as a cocktail base. Depending on your flavour choices, it can be used as a substitute for gin, rum or vodka. It’s also the standard drink to be paired with hákarl, a type of fermented shark meat, or pickled herring.
Where to Find Brennivin
You may not be able to get your hands on the Brennivin Anniversary Edition, but standard Brennivin is easy to find in Icelandic liquor stores and some restaurants. In 2014 Brennivin started being exported to the United States. Canada and Germany soon followed, and can also be found in Denmark and Sweden.