From the Land of Fire and IceMay 6th, 2014
What about Icelandic whisky? Well, if you’re Egill and Hali Thorkelsson, two brothers from Iceland, you have to make it up. Being the first producer of whisky in Iceland gives them the crare opportunity to define a whole new category of national whisky. Founded in 2009, the Eimverk Distillery has set out to do just that.
Being first offers many advantages, but it also brings with it some specific challenges. Iceland has no malting facilities, no proven yeast strains, no native mash bills. While understandably tight-lipped about their yeast sourcing, they are eager to talk about their mash bill. One of their main goals was to produce a traditional-ingredient spirit, and they use 100% Icelandic-grown barley. A hardy, dense grain, the cold climate concentrates the nutrients and flavors into a smaller package than warmer climate varieties. Another major challenge is that Iceland is, according to Egill, a vodka and schnapps nation. Reykjavik, Iceland’s largest city and capitol, has just one whisky bar.
A tour of the distillery shows that this is definitely a labor of love. From the repurposed milk chillers to the custom-made still (named Elizabeth, after their grandmother), the whole operation takes place in a space the size of a large garage. They store their barrels off-site in the Icelandic countryside. They currently run at about 30,000 liters per year with the capacity to double that. Every third week the process is shifted to make a batch of gin, again using only locally grown ingredients. When asked how they learned to make whisky, they both laugh, “YouTube!”
They do, however, have years of experience home brewing their own beer, and just as importantly, they have the Icelandic spirit of adventure. It is appropriate that their single malt expression will bear the name of one of the island’s first explorers, Hrafna-Flóki (Floki of the Ravens); Flóki to his friends.
At this point, it might be tempting to wonder about their ability to be a serious entrant into the whisky marketplace. It might be instructive to note that their gin, Vor (Icelandic for spring), recently won “Double Gold” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year. It’s more tempting to think they may be on to something, Iceland being perhaps the best place for such a micro-distillery. “How many micros in the US can have a bottle in every store in the nation?” Egill asks.
Careful not to rely too much on the instructive merits of YouTube, their niece, Eva, is finalizing professional training in Scotland. Formal training can only get you so far, however. The rest comes from a lot of trial and error, or as Egill calls it, “playing.” Experimenting with over 160 recipes, the process was to “taste a lot of whisky, get a lot of opinions, and make a lot of mistakes.”
So sometime in 2017, the first bottle of Icelandic single malt whisky, “Flóki,” will hit the shelves. Their standard expression will be a 3 year old aged in bourbon barrels that is “not complex, with a few key ingredients to make it very drinkable.” It will also be organic and eco-friendly. All their power is geothermal, and the only pesticide used is a little thing they like to call “winter.”
But what about the defining of a unique, Icelandic expression? “I like smoked,” Egill admits, and Iceland has plenty of native peat. He notes that traditional Icelandic methods of smoking usually are, er…dung-related. This might be one area where he’s willing to deviate from traditional practices, but he rules nothing out. The normally straightforward master distiller becomes ambiguous when pressed for more details, but hints that something might be bottled before the single malt is introduced.
For the curious, adventurous, or just plain impatient world traveler, you can try some slighty-aged Flóki (1-12 months in virgin oak, medium plus char) from their pre-release 4.5 liter mini-casks at Dillon Whiskey Bar in Reykjavik.