Published December 19, 2014
The small and unassuming Eimverk distillery can be found in an industrial park in Garðabær. Inside, numerous vats, barrels, boxes, filters and pieces of distillery equipment flood the warehouse floor space, and there is a notably sour (but not pungent) smell in the air.
The family-run distillery has already received critical acclaim for their gin, Vor, which got a Double Gold Award at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. That’s impressive, but we’re not here to praise their gin, we’re here to taste their whisky, which is the first of its kind to be made in Iceland.
Water of life
Eimverk CEO Haraldur Þorkelsson, tells us how the Icelandic climate has only twice in recorded history allowed for decent amounts of barley to grow—during settlement times, and now, due to global warming. The early settlers were more interested in making mead and ale, and after barley production died down, schnapps, landi (a kind of moonshine) and potato vodka became the drinks of choice for Icelanders. But now, with barley production growing, the equation has changed.
Eimverk gets their grain straight from the farm, and the only pesticide it is exposed to is Icelandic winter. With its low starch and sugar content, about 50% more of the grain is used to make their product than with traditional whisky.
The second ingredient, water, is a commodity that Iceland has an abundance of, and one that experts say doesn’t need to be treated before being used to distil. And the yeast is easily imported.
Being whisky enthusiasts, Haraldur and his brother Egill wanted to see if they could make their own whisky, just for the fun of it. After they had experimented with more than 160 different recipes, learning the ropes along the way through ardently watching YouTube clips, they found one in 2009 that they thought was worth pursuing. “At no point did we decide we were going to become distillers—everything just happened organically,” Haraldur says.
The Flóki product Eimverk has already released is technically not whisky, but a young malt—it’s only kept in a cask for one year, so it’s rougher around the edges. Despite this, Haraldur says Flóki provides a taste of what’s to come when their single malt is released in 2015.
The whisky’s name is a reference to Hrafna-Flóki, the fabled Norwegian pioneer who made the first documented attempt to settle in Iceland. In the same way, Haraldur and his family are embarking on a deliberate journey into the world of whiskies, hoping to carve a home for themselves there and pioneer the field in Iceland.
A bottle of Flóki in tow, I waited until after the distillery tour to pass judgement on the young malt. Despite being intrigued by the project, my expectations were rather low for the final product. However, I wound I up being pleasantly surprised.
Initially, I could smell sugary vanilla, with hints of salt and anise. The amber-coloured drink was clear, and hazarding a sip, I immediately felt a sharp alcoholic taste—it wasn’t overwhelming, and it was then followed by numerous subtle undertones from the barley-rich drink. There was a clear charred oak taste, and a lingering burning sensation. It puzzlingly reminded me of both Islay whiskies and bourbon at the same time.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare it to other established whiskies, as Flóki just isn’t there yet, but the qualities that limit the spirit’s appeal are the very ones that dissipate once the whisky has been allowed to mature in the cask. Once I added a few drops of water, the drink became much more enjoyable.
An informal tasting panel echoed my findings—some complained about a strong ethanol taste, whereas others found that it to be a pleasant drink on the whole. People were also generally positive to see each bottle had been labelled by hand with its number, cask and year.
I feel confident in recommending Flóki to whisky enthusiasts. It most certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is a bold venture, and one that I celebrate.