With its frosty temperatures and dark winter months, Iceland seems as good a place as any to pour yourself a warming dram of whisky. And while you’re at it, why not opt for a locally distilled whisky, as the perfect companion for exploring Iceland’s stunning natural beauty. Until recently this would not have been possible, but fortunately Eimverk distillery has since entered the scene.
Apparently in Icelandic, there is no word for ‘distillery’, so a bit of linguistic creativity was required. Eim is short for distilling in Icelandic, while verk means ‘a job being done’, and this is exactly what this small distillery has enthusiastically kept busy with since 2009. The result is not only the Flóki whisky range, but also a selection of award winning gins and the traditional Icelandic spirit called Brennivín.
Based in the outskirts of Reykjavik on an industrial estate, the distillery is not exactly located in a very picturesque location. But although unassuming from the outside, on the inside the distillery is bustling with activity and brimming with enthusiasm. Eimverk was started by three brothers, initially operating out of their garage. The first few years were spent experimenting with a home-made still. Many tries and 165 different recipes later, the first Flóki-to-be was left in casks to mature.
To create Flóki, Eimverk uses organically grown Icelandic barley. As you can imagine, Iceland’s sub-arctic climate and short growing season do not provide ideal conditions for crops to flourish. As such, Icelandic barley is not very rich in sugars, meaning that Eimverk uses up to 50% more barley per batch than distilleries in other countries. Although uneconomical, this does have a positive effect on the flavour of the whisky and helps to create Flóki’s distinctive spicy, oily character. For producing the wash, Eimverk has found a convenient water source: tap water! Having been naturally filtered over layers of volcanic rock, Iceland’s tap water is of exceptional quality, something which was confirmed by a Scottish expert, who declared it perfect for making whisky. The water is heated using geothermal energy, making Eimverk a lot more environmentally friendly than most other distilleries. Plastic fermentation tanks are used instead of the traditional oak or stainless steel washbacks, after which the entire contents are transferred to the wash still, itself a repurposed milk tank. This includes even the dregs at the bottom the tank (husks, grist, etc.), which supposedly contributes to Flóki’s smoothness. The final distillation takes place in a still called Elizabeth, named after the great grandmother of the distiller – a tradition among whisky makers. Everything is rather makeshift, but this is what makes this distillery so fascinating, like a masterclass in start-up whisky entrepreneurship. In many ways, Eimverk distillery seems more like a hobby gotten out of hand, and I do believe this passion translates into the quality of the whisky.
To create the Flóki Young Malt, the spirit is placed in North American virgin oak barrels. Since the wood has never been used before, it has tonnes of flavour to add to the spirit, meaning that the maturation happens rather quickly. Once the Young Malt is bottled, the casks are then re-used as refill barrels to create the 3 year old Flóki Single Malt, which will be released in November 2017.
The result is a drink that is astoundingly smooth and flavourful for a spirit so young. I won’t spend too much time describing the whisky in this post, as you can read a full review here. Suffice it to say that all the signs indicate that Flóki whisky has a bright future ahead of it!
The Flóki range also consists of the Sheep Dung Smoked Reserve, Eimverk’s answer to smoky whiskies. Since Iceland does not have any peat bogs to speak of, the barley for this whisky has been smoked over a fire fuelled by sheep shit. While this may sound a bit unappetising at first, it is actually a common way of curing food in Iceland. All over the island, you will find salmon or ham that’s been smoked this way, and although pungent, it doesn’t taste the least bit shitty. The Sheep Dung whisky is bottled at only 10 months, but the smoke masks some of the impurities. This spirit is sweeter and a bit lighter than the Young Malt, like a boisterous younger brother. Although the Sheep Dung Reserve does display a definite degree of smokiness, it’s completely different to the peated whiskies you’ll find in Scotland, and particularly unlike the medicinal type produced on Islay. While I love these peaty whiskies, it’s very refreshing to see smoky whisky done differently.
Although the whiskies were the main draw for me, the Vor gin selection is definitely worth a try. Made using largely the same process, but with a third distillation, during which botanicals are added to the gin to provide extra flavour. Although it comes with challenges, only herbs and plants that naturally grow in Iceland are used, meaning that Vor really is a reflection of the Icelandic climate. In addition to the standard expression that received double gold at the World Spirits Competition, there is also a bottling at higher strength, as well as a version that’s received a short maturation in oak casks. All of these make a delightful gin and tonic, but if you add splash of Vor Blueberry sloe gin it becomes an absolute treat.
With these products being sold in the duty free store at Keflavik airport, at bars all over Iceland and even in web shops abroad, Eimverk is certainly off to a good start. The main question now is not one of quality but of quantity: how is poor old Elizabeth going to handle the immense popularity of Vor and Flóki? With an annual production of just 300.000 litres (whisky, gin and Brennivín combined), it seems clear that extra stills may need to be installed to really be able to present Icelandic distilling to a global audience. Whether this might make the distillery lose some of its current charm is another matter. For now, if you are visiting Reykjavik, be sure to drop by Eimverk distillery for a tour and a tasting, it’s absolutely worth the effort! Even if you have nowhere near as much passion for distilled spirits as the folks at Eimverk, their enthusiasm and the sheer quality of their drinks is sure to put a smile on your face.