Brennivín - Gastro Obscura



Anyone for a shot of “Black Death”?

In 1915, Iceland banned alcohol. After the government partially repealed prohibition (wine and hard liquor were back by the 1930s), brennevín became the drink of choice on the island. This colorless, caraway-flavored aquavit (a potent grain spirit) remains a beloved booze. Its name means “burning wine,” and at 37.5 percent alcohol by volume, that should come as no surprise. Bartenders often serve shots of the slightly sweet, slightly savory stuff straight from the freezer, giving it a viscous, ultra-refreshing quality.

Locals know brennevín colloquially as “Black Death” (no relation to the bubonic plague). The nickname likely stuck as a result of the government’s attempt to discourage consumption. Fans, however, were undeterred by the legally-mandated, matte-black label featuring a skull warning (the skull has since been replaced by a map of Iceland). One lingering limitation of semi-prohibition was that full-strength beer stayed illegal until 1989. As a quick fix, drinkers just dropped a shot of brennevín into nonalcoholic beer.

Even critics of the local hooch admit that it’s more palatable than certain other Icelandic specialties. Traditionally, celebrants at the midwinter festival of Thorrablot take shots of brennivín to wash down the taste of the ammonia-scented fermented shark known as hákarl.

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