We’re in the beginnings of an American aquavit golden age right now, with three strong domestic regional brands poised for greater distribution: Krogstad in Seattle (now available in NYC); North Shore in Chicago (now selling in California and as far east as Pennsylvania); and Gamle Ode in Minneapolis (in the Midwest and Oregon). With these alone, American-made aquavits were outnumbering their Scandinavian counterparts in this market — and then Denmark’s Aalborg stopped shipping to the U.S. That left just one Scandinavian aquavit available — Norway’s Linie — in a time when aquavit interest in America has never been stronger.
Enter Brennivin. It’s an Icelandic aquavit flavored only with caraway and it’s had a long cult following among travelers who pass through Iceland on the way to and from Europe.
Part of Brennivin’s appeal for tourists had been its iconic label with the outline of Iceland. This wonderful piece of graphic design was originally created, the story goes, to look generic. Brennivin was distilled by the Icelandic government starting in 1935 after the country’s prohibition was relaxed to allow some alcohol (but notably not beer until 1989).
Brennivin is now available in Wyoming and online via DrinkUp New York, which ships to most U.S. states. It comes in a liter bottle for $32.99.
Compared to Aalborg Taffel aquavit, which has dill as well as caraway notes, Brennivin is sweeter and less dry. It has a viscous mouthfeel, even at room temperature. It’s deliciously complex despite there being only one botanical–caraway–flavoring it. “People are always floored that there is only caraway in the bottle, but it is true,” says importer Joe Spiegel. “And the Icelandic water has a very high pH which adds to the softness of the finish. I do not think it is possible to recreate Brennivin without that water. The interplay of mineral content and pH is the secret, in my opinion.”
Spiegel, an entrepreneur based in the mountain resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, started bringing Brennivin to America early this year. Originally from the East Coast, Spiegel moved to the mountains “for the snowboarding, the crisp air, and the clean water.” On running his business in Wyoming, he told me, “Jackson is a very special place, quite like Iceland in many ways, and Wyoming is amazingly business friendly. Being in a control state has a lot of advantages for a small importer or small producer.”
Spiegel’s spreading the Brennivin all over the bar scene in Jackson Hole and some bartenders are starting to get pretty creative with it. I asked him some questions about the spirit and his plans for it via e-mail, and later met him in person at New York’s only Icelandic restaurant, Skál. We drank Brennivin straight, with Lillet Rose, and with rye in an Old Bay Ridge cocktail.
How did you get into importing Icelandic spirits?
I discovered Brennivin while traveling back and forth to Europe via Iceland for a previous job in the video game industry. On one trip I decided to take Icelandair up on their offer of a stopover and went to Reykjavik. From there each trip to (or through) Iceland became longer and longer, I really fell in love with the place and with Brennivin.
Many of my friends liked the Brennivin I had brought back, and I thought “Oh, maybe I should look into importing it.” It wasn’t until a few years later that I had an opportunity to meet Andri Thor Gudmundsson the head of the producer, Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson, that it really all came together. We just really hit it off, and after our first meeting had a deal to finally bring Brennivin to the USA.
Brennivin is available in Wyoming and online at DrinkUpNY so far — anywhere else? With limited production in Iceland, how widely will you be able to distribute in the U.S.?
Limited production is absolutely right. Iceland is a country of only 320,000 people. It is simply not possible to support the entire U.S. market. At the same time, given its cult following, Brennivin fans live in all 50 states. That’s why retailers like DrinkUpNY are so important — they can satisfy a lot of far-flung demand.
Of course, we do want Brennivin to be locally available outside of Jackson Hole as well. That’s why Jason Moore, who is heading up West Coast sales just set up our warehouse space in California, and is working to sign up retailers as well as bars and restaurants in San Francisco and L.A.
If I had to guess, after that we’ll start to pop up in more locations in NYC, and our next markets would be Seattle and Boston. There’s a good chance that if Icelandair is serving the city, Brennivin America wants to be there too.
How are people in Jackson Hole drinking it so far?
Jackson attracts a very international, and very adventurous crowd. Much like Iceland actually.
In Jackson Hole, most people have never tried Brennivin before, and it is a taste that can be unfamiliar. At The Rose it is being used in several cocktails: Black Rose, Iced Coffee and Death Star.
The guys at The Bird, have come up with some easy to make fun drinks using Brennivin as a base. The “Arctic Monkey” (think a Brass Monkey + Brennivin Car Bomb) is a favorite there.
And at Eleanor’s, which is the famous bar inside a liquor store in Jackson, it is ice cold shots all the way.
It should always be kept in the freezer before serving. It is perfectly chilled when it has a slightly thicker than water consistency.
I’ve been recommending the “Northern Lights” as a nice introduction to Brennivin for folks. It pairs Brennivin with amaretto, along with grapefruit juice and a splash of soda water. The caraway and almond flavors complement each other very well, and the acidic citrus helps cut the amaretto sweetness.
For those experimenting I’d recommend playing around with grapefruit bitters, and with coffee/espresso flavors. We’ve also had some fun making Tridents with Brennivin.
I read that Brennivin was made from potatoes and flavored with caraway, angelica, cumin and other herbs — is that accurate?
Don’t believe everything on Wikipedia. The Brennivin that we know and love has since 1935 been made only with caraway seeds, which are “cumin” in Icelandic.
A friend of mine, Hordur Sveinsson, has been granted access to the Icelandic government archives and has been researching Brennivin’s history. In the past there have been several other versions of Brennivin made and sold in Iceland.
In the 1950s one was made with the addition of angelica root, Hvannarota Brennivin.
Another, first seen in 1961, Bitter Brennivin, was made with the addition of wormwood. It would be the Icelandic version of a Swedish besk, or a caraway-tinged Malort, only higher proof and without the sugar. Wow!
Last seen in the early 1990s were the two barrel aged Brennivins: Gamalt Brennivin and Odalsbrennivin.
And every year there is a special Christmas Brennivin. This year’s Christmas Brennivin was just placed into sherry casks last Friday (May 2nd). This will be a very limited release. Just 1,000 bottles world-wide.
Hordur believes he has tracked down the last two people who worked at the distillery when the last batches of Gamalt and Odals- were made. The goal is to preserve their knowledge and restart production of these special aged spirits.
And although we do not have anyone with experience making the Bitter and Angelica Brennivins, we do have the recipes. If Brennivin is successful in the U.S., we’ll be able to start re-creating those heritage spirits as well.
What is Brennivin’s history in Iceland? Is it true the label was designed by the government not to stand out to consumers?
The history of Brennivin started when prohibition was partially repealed on the island in 1935 (Full repeal was not until 1989, and even today the government controls all retail sales, and the advertising and promotion of drinking is forbidden). The government had a monopoly on all alcohol production, distribution and sales.
The label was designed to be stark and unappealing, to limit demand, in keeping up with the temperance movement of the times. Obviously, they succeeded in stark, but failed on unappealing and unpopular! Instead, the label ended up becoming one of three great examples of Icelandic design. The Brennivin label is certainly the most internationally recognized symbol of Iceland.
Because of its strength and the stark black label, Brennivin became known colloquially as “svarti dauði” which means “black death.”
Due to U.S. legal requirements the label had to be tweaked a bit for export. The new, updated 2014 label was redesigned by Hjalti Karlsson, an Icelandic designer living in NYC.
He really maintained the spirit of the old label, in many ways making it more like the original, while making it a bit bolder. He also, in a nod to the home market, added the Westman Islands, which had been missing from the previous map used on the bottle.
Is this the first time it’s ever been imported for retail in the U.S.?
Yes it is, although Hordur has uncovered an attempt in the 1980s to make an 83 proof bottling for the U.S. market. It appears these bottles were never sent to the U.S. directly, but were sold at the cold war-era Air Force base in Keflavik.
I’ve read that Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters is a big fan of Brennivin. Have you been in contact with him? Was he importing his own secret stash from Iceland before?
The amazing thing about Dave is that he really truly loves Brennivin, the same with Katie Couric when she brought a bottle of Brennivin to Late Night. Brennivin’s place in pop culture is anchored by its authenticity. These are not paid endorsements, these are real fans of Brennivin.
That being said, we are in touch with Dave Grohl’s PR people, and we did get him a t-shirt with the new, 2014 logo. The rumor is that he was getting his stash through diplomatic channels, but now he can buy it legally.