Spirits & Liqueurs
- Written by Andrew Clarke Andrew Clarke
- Published: 16 February 2017 16 February 2017
We stop outside a non-descript, light industrial building on reclaimed land in the Hafnarfjörður docks, a little outside Reykjavik. Snorri Jónsson invites us in and soon we are sniffing at a massive tea bag of caraway and angelica steeping in alcohol.
He’s a softly spoken, former engineer, whose enthusiasm for what he does shines through. The early years of 64° Reykjavik Distillery were a struggle. Icelandic drinks were a mix of imported spirits, water and sweets, with products like liquorice-flavoured Opal and a defunct drink that gloried in the name of Gulur Boxhanski or Yellow Boxing Glove. The care and attention and foraged ingredients necessarily made the products more expensive. One important purchasing manager pointed out that prices were equivalent to those of French cognac, which SnorriSnorri reckoned was about right.
At the back of the distillery, are several shelves of bottles, jars and flasks. These are the distillery’s experiments; drinks made from thyme, seacoast angelica and reindeer moss, a redcurrant and blueberry brandy, a rhubarb vodka and a new gin with extra Icelandic botanicals for which he has high hopes.
Snorri leads us upstairs to sample his wares. We reach a mezzanine, where the scents of the many botanicals have coalesced into a gorgeous, enveloping fug. He sets out his full range of eight bottles and a box of glasses. We work our way through four spirits and four liqueurs.
First up is Katla Vodka, which is what you expect a good vodka to be. He’s proud of it but a little frustrated that it accounts for half of the company’s turnover. More time and creative effort go into the other drinks but “people know and understand vodka” and when it comes to the important airport market, “people don’t go into duty free to buy liqueurs”.
Einiberja is a juniper schnapps or gin, for simplicity’s sake. It’s flavoured with juniper alone. The pine forest smell is distinct but the overall nose quieter than most gins. It doesn’t demand tonic and a slice of lemon, though it would hold its own well enough.
Next, Snorri pours from two bottles of Brennivin, one of 43% and one of 50%. Brennivin is an Icelandic institution, name-checked in Dr Disco Shrimp’s satirical song Everybody, along with Icelandic horses, beauty queens, the Blue Lagoon and Eurovision parties (sorry about the crappy video). The 43% is the earthier of the two, the 50% softer, gentler on the botanics and with the alcohol hitting late.
“Now for dessert” announces Snorri, pouring measures of rhubarb liqueur. InDulwich has already written about this one. I’ll just add that the maker’s tip for a summer drink is a 50-50 mix with sparkling water.
Another side-by-side tasting is next, this time of Blueberry and Arctic Bilberry. It’s quite hard to tell a wild blueberry from a bilberry and the liqueurs are but subtly different, with the bilberry perhaps a touch more acidic. “2cl on ice” is the tip for this one.
Snorri tells us about the foraging process. From the end of July, he’s in contact with his ‘local agents’ around the country, who range from teams of kids raising money for a school trip to a vigorous eighty something, harvesting eighty something kilos. Iceland’s weather is highly unpredictable and securing the required quantities is not a foregone conclusion.
By now, we have rich and fruity crowberry in front of us. We’ve written about this one too. It’s still my favourite but rivalled by the gin. In a few bars in town, you can ask experienced bar staff for an Icelandic Negroni, made with the rhubarb and crowberry liqueurs, the Einiberja, a slice of orange and perhaps a hint of orange bitters.
We have now supped from all eight bottles. We thank Snorri for his hospitality but instead of ushering us to the door, he reaches for an unlabelled bottle of red liquid. This work in progress is redcurrant liqueur and tastes like it will find a place in the range. Redcurrant bushes grow profusely in Iceland, though in gardens rather than the wild.
We descend the staircase and make for the exit but there is one more surprise in store. We pause by some beautiful oak barrels. Snorri unstoppers one and draws out a measure of whisky that’s been ageing for three years. It’s 70% proof so he dilutes it with a splash of water. I get the welcome whiff of antiseptic. We feel privileged to have been given a foretaste of something en route to becoming another fine drink.