With some of the cleanest water in the world, it’s no surprise that Iceland has a signature spirit. Brennivín is a type of aquavit that came into the world in 1935. When prohibition in Iceland was partially lifted, it allowed for hard liquor, but not beer, to be consumed. Beer above 2.25% ABV wasn’t allowed again until 1985. Prior to that time, pubs would add spirits to weak beer to increase the alcohol content. It is for this reason that people still add brennivín to beer or drink it alongside a beer. As I explored the cocktail scene in Iceland, I learned more about their signature spirit. Here’s what I learned!
What is brennivín?
Brennivín is a distilled schnapps made from fermented potatoes and grain and is flavored with caraway seeds. Caraway is one of the few spices that is able to grow wild in Iceland’s harsh climate. The spirit is clear and produced by Icelandic distilleries. Fun fact, the original label was purposely made to look unappealing in order to limit demand. Brennivín is referred to as “Black Death” in part because of the label used by the original state-owned monopoly. Death refers to passing out from consuming too much. The name translates into English as “burned wine” or “burning wine.” This is because it is produced in stills over an open flame.
The product was created to compliment Icelandic cuisine, particularly pickled herring or fermented shark meat known as hákarl. People enjoy brennivín chilled as a shot, alongside a beer, or as a base for cocktails. There was a time when you would find it served with Coke, but that’s no longer the case. It became popular originally because it was cheap and boasts an ABV around 40%. Today, you’ll find it served in bars across Iceland and exported to a handful of countries including the United States, Germany, Canada, Denmark, and Sweden.
Using brennivín in cocktails
Due to the herbal flavor of the spirit, it is often used in place of gin or light rum in cocktails. Therefore, you can use some simple tricks to incorporate brennivin into your drinks. Try these:
- Use it in place of gin for a brennivin and tonic. I like a 2oz spirit to 6oz tonic ratio.
- Try it in place of another herbal liqueur, like chartreuse, in a recipe like a Dutch Word.
- Make your favorite rum cocktail with a split of 50/50 unaged rum and brennivin.
- Serve a shot of brennivín next to a margarita. Encourage people to add a little and see how the flavor of the drink changes as a result.
Looking to learn more about other rare spirits? Check out these posts about sloe gin, Zirbenz, and Ancho Reyes.