Brennivín, Iceland’s signature drink, was never intended as a slow-sipping tipple. The caraway-spiced aquavit’s name translates literally as “burning wine”, and the colourless 37.5% ABV spirit looks more like vodka than a mellow aperitif. Traditionally, brennivín was shot quickly at the pagan midwinter festival Þorrablót, for the purpose of washing down hákarl – a rotting shark speciality that American Anthony Bourdain once said was the worst thing he’d ever put in his mouth.
The brand of brennivín most often seen in bars, Egill Skallagrímsson, was introduced in 1935, after Iceland ended 20 years of prohibition. To discourage consumption, the bottle featured a government-mandated matt-black label and a skull warning, earning it the nickname “black death”. That label essentially survives (though a map of Iceland has replaced the skull) and bottles are now popping up in bars outside Iceland.
Brennivín arrived in the UK and US in 2015 and bartenders have begun experimenting with its notes of rye bread, searing moonshine pungency, velvety texture, aromas of liquorice and pumpernickel, and a kick that will warm you during sunless winters. In Reykjavik, the B5 nightclub mixes it with Chambord (raspberry liqueur) and lime; at bar-restaurant Slippbarinn it is mixed with local crowberries, or rhubarb bitters and egg white. The signature cocktail at Scandinavian bar Aska in Brooklyn mixes brennivín with gin, vermouth, baltic amber syrup and sea salt.
Egill Skallagrímsson has begun releasing limited sherry- and bourbon-barrel-aged editions and even Iceland’s premier whisky distillers are making their own version now.