Brennivin – The Black Death of Iceland

What is Brennivin – The Black Death?

Brennivin, better known as “Black Death”, is the Icelandic’s distinctive spirit. It was created from the “aquavits” introduced by Danish merchants in Iceland in the 17th Century.

The exact translation for Brennivin is “Burnt Wine”. This refers to how the “aquavit” is produced: distilled over an opened flame. Completely different from the production of wine and beer through fermentation and without applying heat.

And voila! Mixing the “aquavits” with some specific herbs and distilling the “aquavit” in a particular way is how Brennivin was born. The original Icelandic Schnapps.

There are two reasons why Brennivin is well known as the “Black Death”.

First of all, because of its peculiar black label. It was designed to make the drink unappealing so people would not drink too much of it (good luck with that), and then the original label distinction was a skull.

Secondly, we know Brennivin as the “Black Death” because its consumption has caused many “deaths” or people passing out by drinking too much.

Brennivin “aquavit” has an alcohol percentage of 37.5%; therefore, the consumption should be moderate, especially if you do shots.

What is an Aquavit?

These “aquavits” are stilled spirits. They are very distinctive because of their flavored herbs.

The word “aquavits” is derived from the Latin “aqua vitae”, which means “water of life”. It was called that because people thought that they were healing spirits.

As a matter of fact, “aquavits” were used as medicine during the Black Death period. In the Middle Ages, there were stories about dead people coming back to life after a glass of Aquavit was poured down their throat and it’s not uncommon for Danish doctors to prescribe aquavit as medicine in Denmark! And it’s not uncommon for people to drink it after a rich meal to help with digestion.

Brennivin – History in Iceland

Before the 1600s, Icelanders probably brewed their own beer and mead as malt and honey was freely traded between Scandinavia and Iceland. However, in 1602, the Danish king established a trade monopoly, meaning that Icelanders could only trade with a few Danish merchants. Honey and malt took up valuable space on the shipping vessels, but spirits took up less space.

So, Brennivin or “burnt wine” was transported to Iceland. When the monopoly ended in the late 18th century, Denmark kept a distillation monopoly, however, and in 1908 a prohibition referendum was passed which meant that Icelanders weren’t even allowed to drink imported spirits or beer.

Icelanders got sovereignty in 1918 which meant that the Danish distillation law no longer applied but there was still prohibition. It wasn’t until 1935 that it was partially lifted. The government, however, could only produce, distribute, and sell alcohol. The prohibition wasn’t fully lifted until 1 March 1989 when Iceland finally allowed beer.

Brennivin – The “Black Death” Taste

The main Icelandic “aquavit” is fermented mash potatoes flavored with caraway seeds. Those flavors make Brennivin stand out from Vodka and Gin beverages and make this “aquavit” taste sweeter than the others.

The “aquavit” can be distilled and blended with other ingredients. This blending has been oral lore in all Scandinavian countries. The flavors will vary depending on the local taste preference. In Sweden and Denmark, the “aquavit” is distilled from grain. Danish “aquavit” has a heavier taste in dill, coriander, and caraway seeds. Swedish “aquavits” are strong in anise and fennel flavors.

Brennivin: When do you drink the “Black Death”?

Brennivin could be considered like a special-occasion shot. We can say that it is the traditional drink for Þorrablót festivity. But who needs a special occasion to enjoy a good Brennivin shot?

You can also discover Brennivin by joining our Reykjavik Beer & Booze Tour. Where you will discover the fun history of alcohol and beer in Iceland.

Brennivin: How do you drink the “Black Death”?

From 1915 to 1989, beer was prohibited in Iceland. But when there is a will, there is a way, and Icelandic people were smart enough to find ways to still enjoy a “similar” drink. They simply poured a shot of Brennivin liquor into alcohol-free beers to cheer up the cold days. This was called Bjórlíki or Beer Placebo.

Nowadays, the perfect way to drink it is with a frozen shot glass, and if you wish, it’s preceded by a gulp of beer.

The temperature of the Brennivín changes the taste completely. Hardened fishermen would order a “Brennivín í kók”, i.e. at room temperature in Coca Cola – which tastes rather foul! – but likely cost less than gin or vodka back in the days.

Another way is to chill the Brennivín as much as possible by putting the bottle in a cylindrical form, for example, a large plastic water bottle with the top cut off, filling the water bottle with water and leaving it in the freezer until the water surrounding the bottle of Brennivín is frozen. That gives you a thicker Brennivín with an exquisite taste – Skál!

Brennivin Cocktails

The new trend is to make Brennivin cocktails. Bartenders are using their creativity to produce amazing combinations of flavors.

If you are a bit adventurous and a cocktail fan, check this Brennivin cocktail recipe to cheer up your parties with something completely unusual.

Brennivin – What do I eat with the “Black Death”?

You will not find this explosion of flavors just trying Brennivin’s cocktail. For a complete experience of this “aquavit”, you may want to try it with some traditional Icelandic food.

We recommend a nibble of fermented shark, herring, a lamb dish, or a simple charcuterie platter with some crackers. Delicious!

Don’t forget to toast like a Viking! Lift your glass, give a skál (cheers), and enjoy the flavors.

Brennivin – The Black Death 2.0

As everything evolves, Brennivin ‘aquavit’ does too. During the last couple of years, the Icelandic artisanal distilleries have produced refined versions of the Brennivin’s spirit.

For example, we can mention (and absolutely recommend) Þúfa artisanal liquor. It has an incredibly soft texture because of the manufacturing process. Þúfa is slowly distilled with a customized distillation kettle using the heat of the hot water. Cumin, yarrow, and reed grass are the herbs you will find in the Þúfa Brennivin flavors. Its softened texture is because these herbs are all picked carefully by hand.

Brennivin – Where to buy the “Black Death.”

In Iceland, you will find Brennivin in any wine and liquor store. But Brennivin is also gaining popularity around the world.

In the U.S., you will find Brennivin very easily, thanks to Joe Spiegel, founder of Brennivin America. He completely fell in love with this liquor during his trip to Iceland and realized that it was a market for North America’s spirit. He succeeded Brennivin’s importation in 2014.

Don’t worry if you are not based in the U.S.; you can still try Brennivin. There are some wine and liquor stores around Europe where you can find it. If the search becomes difficult, head to the Internet. You will find some online shops that will ship Brennivin straight to your home!

Brennivin – the “Black Death” Reviews

Have I not convinced you to try this “aquavit”?

Have a look at what Kara Newman, Spirit Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, says about Brennivin spirit:

“Nuanced and palate-cleansing, look for a mild, savoury scent and bracing notes of dill, fennel seed, and pine, plus a brisk, zingy finish that suggests caraway-seeded rye bread. Pair this refreshing sip with herring or other savoury bites.”

Slash, the famous Guns and Roses guitarist, loves his Black Death too.

When you say Skál or Cheers

And when you say “Skál”, make sure to do like the Vikings and look each other in the eye as a sign of trust and friendship (at least you were not killing each other at the same time). Some also say that you need to make sure that the Brennivín spills from your glass to the one you are saying Skál with, then if they drink it, you can be sure it’s not poisoned. Trustworthy fellows, those Vikings.

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