Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Black Death

Sometimes it seems like half of what I write about in this blog is food and booze. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that. I wouldn't have traveled to Kentucky this past fall if it weren't for bourbon and I wouldn't have had the same memories of Bavaria if I hadn't eaten so many sausages and drank so much beer. And so I think it's appropriate that my recent trip to Iceland gave me a great story involving both food and booze. This post deals with the booze part of that couple; a post covering the food will follow very soon.

Different parts of our globe are often identified with the distilled spirits they produce. At least for me they are; I just can't separate the booze from the geography I guess. When I think Russia, I think vodka. Scotland has Scotch, Kentucky has bourbon, the Caribbean has rum, Mexico has tequila and mezcal and on and on and on. Six months ago, I never would have identified Iceland with a distilled spirit. After having spent about a half a week on that volcanic rock in the Atlantic, now I do. Now when I think Iceland, I think brennivin.

Two shots and a water, as recommended.
Iceland, like a number of other countries, has had an interesting history of temperance and alcohol bans over its history. Just like in the United States, the country experienced a period of prohibition beginning in the early 20th Century. The initial period of prohibition lasted from 1915, when all alcohol was banned (booooooooo!), until 1921, when Spanish refusal to purchase Icelandic fish unless Iceland imported Spanish wines forced the reinstatement of wine as a legal beverage. Way to go, Spain! Woo hoo!

The re-introduction of sprits to Icelandic society was next. A national referendum on prohibition in 1935 allowed the legal sale of distilled beverages in the country for the first time in 20 years and at that point, most of what the temperance movement in Iceland had sought to ban was now legal. This is where brennivin takes off, but I'll come back to that in a paragraph or so.

I guess once wine and spirits were legalized, both the drinkers and the non-drinkers quit arguing for a while, preferring the status quo to continued struggle, because the sale of beer remained banned until 1989. No, that's not a typo. Icelanders lived without legal beer, that most wonderful of all drinks, for an astounding 74 years and two months until March 1, 1989 (now known as Beer Day). Ironically, the straw that broke the camel's back there was the Minister of Justice's 1985 ruling that bars could not add liquor to legal non-alcoholic beer to simulate real beer. I guess the silliness of the whole endeavor was sort of obvious after that.

Here goes nothing. Skal!
Once the ban on spirits was lifted in Iceland, it was time for brennivin to step forward as Iceland's national drink. Brennivin is technically a schnapps, which is a fermented beverage where the base of the alcohol (in this case potatoes) is fermented with the liquor's flavoring as part of the fermentation process, as opposed to being added later. The primary flavor in brennivin is caraway seeds, although there are other herbs and spices in there, most notably cumin and angelica. Sounds yummy, right? 

Folks in Iceland started distilling brennivin as soon as the government of Iceland told them that they could but the packaging was a little bit different than it is today. The current packaging features a mouthwash-green bottle (brennivin itself is clear) with a black label featuring the silhouette of Iceland on it; the original bottle label was also black but it prominently displayed a skull and crossbones label. Both the black color and the ominous label were designed to discourage people from drinking it (clearly not the American version of capitalism). The label had the exact opposite effect to what was intended. Brennivin sold well and it ended up with the nickname "black death" which has stuck to this day. 

After learning about black death, I knew I couldn't leave Iceland without a taste, so on our first night in country, exhausted after an overnight flight which featured about five hours of uneasy sitting up sleeping, I walked into a bar on Laugavegur (Reykjavik's main shopping drag) for a shot (or two). My choice of establishments was Lebowski Bar, which as the name suggests, is dedicated to all-things-dude inspired by the Jeff Bridges movie The Big Lebowski. While I understand there are many folks out there who love this movie, I'm not a Big Lebowski guy so to me it was a bowling themed bar, complete with moving neon bowling balls and pins on the outside and Brunswick plastic laminate bar tops. I got it. But I was there for the brennivin, not the decor.    

Brennivin is kept chilled so it was not visible walking into the bar but I knew they would have it. My request for two shots of brennivin was granted, with a question from the bartender: did I want a glass of water with my brennivin? After asking if I needed one, and being assured by the bartender that he always keeps a glass of water handy when drinking brennivin, I agreed to two shots and a water chaser. Time to taste.

I have to say my expectations were pretty darned low here and they were exceeded mightily. I expected any liquor with a nickname like black death to be awful but I was pleasantly surprised. If I can paint any sort of picture as to the flavor, I'd say it was pretty much like drinking rye bread, a result more of the caraway than anything else; the cumin and other flavorings did not make themselves evident to my weak taste buds. While rye bread flavored alcohol might not sound that thrilling, I was really OK with it. I can think of way worse things to drink. And brennivin is 75 proof so its relatively low alcohol content makes it really drinkable with no burn going down the throat. I'm sure I could down a lot of this in a night in Reykjavik if I needed to prove my worth to Icelanders. And I did not need the chaser. After my two shots were down, I left the water as poured on the bar and walked back into the dark and cold, ready to return to my hotel confident I'd crossed one of the essential experiences off my Iceland list.

Oh, and they sell this stuff really cheap at the airport. I have a half liter chilling in my fridge as I write this. Come over and taste it with me if you are ever close by. Skal!

I like to stop at the duty free shop. At least I do in Iceland when there's brennivin to bring back!

No comments:

Post a Comment