To people who haven’t been there, Iceland might seem like a land of mysterious Vikings. What you might not know is that Vikings have a long history of sobriety and those that did drink would often pay ten dollars for a standard lager and possibly more for craft beer. Okay. Those last statements might not be completely accurate, but Iceland does have a complicated history when it comes to alcohol.
Iceland started it’s grand prohibition experiment in 1915, five years before we did in the states, and they held on to it, in one form or another, until 1989. The ban on spirits was lifted well before the ban on beer and you still can’t walk into a grocery store and pick up a normal 6 pack. Instead all full-strength alcohol outside of restaurants and bars must be purchased at a government run liquor shop and over ¼ of all those shops are in Iceland’s largest city Reykjavik. That means these shops aren’t always the most accessible, so if you’re really in a pinch you can buy “near beer” at a convince shop. This watered-down version of beer has less than 3 percent alcohol which makes it similar to some of the low calorie monstrosities we put out here in the states and takes a lot before you feel anything from it. If you’re hoping to have a nightcap at your Airbnb after a long day of traveling your best bet is to buy some Icelandic liquor at the duty-free shop in the airport.
Just because drinks are a little harder to get in Iceland doesn’t mean the people here don’t love drinking, each year they celebrate beer day on March 1st which is the date on which beer prohibition ended. They’re major Brands include Viking, Gull, and Thule, which probably won’t blow your mind as far as flavor goes but it’s hard to resist ordering a beer with Viking in its name. If however, you’re more of a beer snob slash hipster Viking then you best set sail for the Einstök brand. I myself was drawn to their seasonal witbier which utilizes the island’s bilberries but they also make a well liked wheat ale, porter, and pale ale.
The spirits prohibition ended almost 50 years before beer was allowed which might be why Iceland has a few more unique offerings when it comes to distilled beverages. Although my personal experience leads me to believe sorority girls are far more vicious than your typical Viking, both enjoy schnapps. The Viking version is called Birkir and is a Birch Schanpps. Iceland also sports a birch liqueur known as Björk.
However, the most famous Iceland’s spirits is definitely Brennivín. It is also known as Black Death due to the black label on the bottle that was intended to dissuade people from buying it, but unfortunately it just made it look badass. This isn’t an all occasions beverage and you probably won’t find locals swigging from the bottle or anything. It’s got a strong flavor that goes a long way.
If you really want to sample some local spirits, I suggest taking a tour of a local distillery. We visited Eimverk Distillery while we were there, and it was one of the highlights of our trip. Eimverk has the unique claim of making Iceland’s first whiskey. I’m personally a scotch fan so I enjoyed they’re smoked offering, but apparently Iceland doesn’t have a rich natural reserve of peat like Scotland. This meant they had to come up with an alternative and their sheep dung reserve is one of a kind, I shit you not. Distilleries are also able to offering you a decent tasting and with the prices of Iceland’s restaurants and bars you might actually get a better deal by taking the tour. Plus you also get a much more in depth look at Iceland’s drinking history and get to meet other travelers who are happy to toast with you. Skál!