Drinking the Black Death in Iceland
Iceland's spirit, Brennivín, aka the "Black Death" is a beverage that has never been exported out of the country. One man, however, has found a way to import it into the US so that Americans can sip on the schnapps that tastes more like licorice than...
Photo by Jason Scragz via Flickr
Iceland at night via.
My friend Einar is a native of Iceland, the place where virtually nothing grows, but the people make do. They bake bread by burying it near the centers of geysers, hunt the Fin whales that migrate to laze along the coast, and roast adorable little puffins. Einar—though he is nearly thirty and possesses a degree from an Ivy League university—believes in elves, or, as they are known in Iceland, "hidden people." At first, I thought it was just Einar's personality, until I realized that Icelanders are not like Americans.
A few years ago, Einar lived in a duplex apartment on a dingy Lower East Side block in NYC with a few of our mutual friends. They threw the occasional party, and I always ventured from my house in Northern Manhattan to attend. One evening, Einar came out from his basement lair, brandishing a sea-glass green bottle with a black label that read "Brennivín."
"Want to drink some Black Death?" he asked.
"What the fuck is that?" one of our friends blurted.
Without waiting for the answer, the four people huddled in the kitchen unanimously agreed that we did. Visions of my Nordic former-roommate staring at his computer screen licking flecks of dried fish flakes off his fingertips flashed before my eyes while he opened the bottle. It seemed unlikely to me that anything out of Einar's homeland would be delicious. I recalled too, the urban legend—I could only assume it amounted to as much—of fermented slabs of shark served for dinner. I don't remember what we drank the Black Death out of—glasses, shots, or swigs from the bottle perhaps—but it tasted like licorice. I later learned that it is known as Brennivín, an unsweetened schnapps made out of potato mash that is flavored with caraway seeds, cumin, angelica, and a slew of other herbs native to Iceland. What I do recall from that evening involved hightailing it out of the party and into a cab back to my house in Northern Manhattan where I, inexplicably invigorated, spent the next two hours trying to master the complicated clapping rhythm that begins around 4:26 of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman." Einar never explained why it's locally referred to as the "Black Death" amongst Icelanders, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the name, Brennivín, translates into "burning wine." The beverage tastes more like mild rye licorice than liquefied bubonic plague.
Above, a bottle of Brennivín. Photo by Bryndis Frid @Fridphoto
I was recently shocked to discover that soon enough, many Americans will be able to spend hours alone in their bedrooms doing jigs with a low-grade hallucinogenic buzz, because the Black Death is coming to American liquor stores. This is all in thanks to an intrepid one-man distribution outfit named Joe Spiegel. I couldn't believe that this (once) illegal import will be entering into our booze market, so I decided to call Spiegel himself to see how he managed to overcome the importation hurdle. Spiegel told me that the idea to import Brennivín came to him during his frequent work trips to Europe when he was a video game consultant and investor.
"All the cheapest flights are through Iceland, and I found myself bringing back more and more Brennivín for friends," he said. Eventually, he decided that there was a market for the liquor, and figured that he might as well import it himself. After three months of negotiating with Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson, the sole beverage producer of the schnapps, Spiegel struck a deal to import the Black Death into the United States. In Iceland, the Black Death is imbibed at the traditional winter festival of Thorrablot, which has its roots in paganism but now—in essence—is an excuse to eat nightmarish feasts of sheep's testicles, headcheese, and liver pudding. Imagining how it will be received and enjoyed in the United States will probably differ from the Thorrablot experience, but only time will tell.
Unlike Americans, Icelanders are not big into marketing. I tried to get a sense of the reason for the cultural gap, but the only three Icelandic culture academicians that don't focus on medieval Nordic civilization neglected to respond to my emails.
The country has a long and uptight temperance tradition that has only recently slackened over the past couple of decades. Wine was outlawed until 1921, and liquor was non-existent until 1935, after which it was produced solely by a government-owned monopoly called ATVR. Beer was illegal until March 1st, 1989—a historical day now referred to as "Beer Day." But even today, you won't find brews sold in Icelandic grocery stores that exceed 3.2 percent alcohol. Advertising liquor is, in particular, still heavily regulated, so the idea of a press packet lauding the glory of Viking liquor is as foreign to Icelanders as halting construction to save the local fairies would be to Americans.
Spiegel's plan for world domination is more faithful to low-key Icelandic style than the capitalist approach to advertising. Rather than creating a 360-degree assault on the American consumer, he is relying on word-of-mouth grassroots efforts to promote his Black Death import. The production is going to be released on a very small scale, with only 6,6000 1-liter sized bottles sold to a select few establishments in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, New York, and San Francisco.
As far as stateside cult status goes, it's more NXIVM than Scientology. The handful of fans include Anthony Bourdain, who chugged it during an episode of No Reservations to wash out the taste of rotten shark, Quentin Tarantino, who made Michael Madsen's character drink it throughout Kill Bill Vol. 2, and Dave Grohl, who shows up everywhere in Brennivín t-shirts and says that it makes you feel "like you've done acid… like you can't feel your feet." Grohl spoke publicly some years back about wanting to bring Brennivín to the United States. He envisioned a marketing campaign that would feature a metal rocker "walking down a city street, picking up a trash can and throwing it through a window."
Joe Spiegel occasionally arranges tastings around the country, and agreed to set one up for me when he passed through New York during a recent visit. I have to admit that it wasn't what I had envisioned months earlier when I recalled my first experience with the beverage. The setting was a spacious rooftop in Brooklyn with a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline, and there were buckets of Pellegrino flanked by plates of artisanal cheeses. Guests sampled original cocktails like "the Katla," made of Brennivín, Kahlua, and lemon seltzer, and "the Northern Lights," a combination of Brennivín, amaretto, seltzer, and grapefruit juice. The cocktails were actually delicious, and the guests were chuckling and conversing coherently. I heard a friend say, "My mom would really like this one," while Spiegel told another guest, "It's the very definition of small batch." I had assumed that after a few shots, at least two attendees would have thrown themselves off the rooftop, while the remaining drinkers would be left babbling schizoaffective nonsense, daring each other to smash bottles over our skulls while listening to the best of the Black Circle on high volume. With any luck, the next morning, we would have been forced to set up a website documenting the various places and states of undress we ended up in later in the evening, a la FourLokoStories.com. But the night ended calmly, with thanks given, hands shaken, and nary a head injury in sight. Nina Simone hand-clapping and visions of fairies were nowhere to be found, so I soberly hailed a cab, and headed home.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2014.