The slow story of Iceland’s first single malt whisky and award-winning gin
The first thing I notice as I slip through the warehouse’s unmarked door is the smell: somewhere between the sweetness of freshly-baked bread and the earthiness of a turf fire. The space is given over to several large tanks, all of which are adorned with a confusion of pipes, gauges and valves. Against the back wall, barrels and bottles of Flóki Whisky and Vor Gin await distribution.
I have come to meet the brothers Þorkelsson who, along with three other family members, run Eimverk Distillery–producers of Iceland’s first-ever single-malt. Having read that they only had the idea to make whisky five years ago, I was eager to hear how they’d arrived at this point. Rather than starting in 2009, however, Haraldur–elder brother and head of the company–takes me back over 1,000 years to the settlement of Iceland and the importance of barley to Iceland’s early inhabitants. I am immediately struck by his desire to root the story of Eimverk in the history and landscape of Iceland.
Sagas And Soil
We congregate around a large barrel upon which rests a smaller 4.5 litre cask of Flóki, their signature single-malt. The limited run of 100 casks has all but sold out, and the release of the bottled first-impression–scheduled for September–has generated a lot of interest. Haraldur’s mind, however, is still back in the Viking Era. He tells me that Flóki is named in honour of Hrafna-Flóki, the first Norseman to intentionally sail to Iceland. Although he and his followers grew barley, they used it to make ale rather than whisky. Nonetheless, the spirit of the early Sagas is one with which the Eimverk family all identify: a story of stepping out, of doing something that hasn’t been done before.
In true pioneering spirit, the brothers don’t focus on the challenges they have faced but rather on the opportunities that the harsh Icelandic climate has afforded them. They explain that the crops grown in this part of the world are lower in sugar than those grown in warmer climes. This means that Eimverk need to use up to 50% more grain in their whisky than if they were using imported grains. Egill, the master-distiller, goes on to explain that the whisky is so sensitive to climate that it will take on the characteristics of the particular summer in which its barley was grown.
Not only does the weather imbue the whisky with a unique palette, but it also elevates its ecological credentials. Since the temperature in Iceland prohibits the proliferation of pests, pesticides are not necessary. Furthermore, the earth very kindly supplies them with the geothermal energy required to power the stills. “Accidentally we made the first green whisky,” Haraldur says with a smile.
Green To Gold
They did not set out to make green whisky, but to make a world class whisky in Iceland, the brothers tell me. And if their gin is anything to go by, then they’re on the right track. At the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition (the most respected spirits competition in the world, in case you didn’t know) Vor Gin picked up a Double Gold Award–which makes it one of the best gins on the planet. Not too bad at all, considering that they only began working on it in the autumn of 2013.
Having already arrived at a good base from which to work, they found themselves free to experiment with a variety of botanicals. Rather than just reaching for whatever exotic spices were available, they decided to make things a little more difficult. They restricted themselves to fruits and herbs available in Iceland 100 years ago with a view to creating a distinctly Icelandic gin.
The list of ingredients sound like a farmers market enthusiast’s wet dream. Amongst them: kale, rhubarb and sweet kelp. Iceland moss is in there too to give it a hint of bitterness. Not too much, however, as overdoing it would make the gin undrinkable.
Fortunately, the gin is drinkable. Very drinkable. I have been drinking gin for ten years (continually rather than continuously, I might add) and Vor is one of the best I have ever tasted, and knowing where everything comes from only enhances the experience. “We like knowing the farmer and where our barley comes from,” Haraldur says of their ingredients, which are all sourced from small owner-operated farms. “It is a part of our own story and is a story we want to tell.”
It is a story that is only just beginning to unfold. After five years of hard work, only now are they at the point of beginning to sell. Haraldur is the first to recognise that profit, however, is not the sole objective. “If we’re passionate about something,” he says, “we create value: whether in dollars or cents or a life well spent.”