Iceland’s booze scene is experiencing a renaissance right now, from the recently-sparked ubiquity of craft beers to locally-distilled whiskeys. Ragnheiður Axel Eyjólfsdóttir—nicknamed Raxel—is the manager of the organic foods company Íslensk Hollusta, which has taken things to a whole new level. Her concept is simple: use local, wild-grown ingredients to craft high quality alcoholic beverages, from wine to gin.
Purple fountains provide important clues
One of Og Natura’s newest products is their crowberry wine. Crowberries are a small, dark, bitter berry that grows plentifully around Iceland. They’re used in plenty of local recipes, but this is the first we’d heard about anyone making booze from them.
As it turns out, the idea is actually pretty old. “I’ve been brewing for some time, and became interested in fermentation,” says Raxel. “I was just experimenting. As I started to think about it more, I arrived at crowberry wine—because that is the only wine tradition that we have in Iceland.”
The tradition of making crowberry wine may date as far back as 40 to 60 years, Raxel explains. “Some of my friends’ grandparents have made crowberry wine. People used to make it in their basement or in their garage. I went on a search for old stories for old recipes, and a lot of families had their own recipes.”
It’s the intrinsic qualities of crowberries that make them ideal for brewing. “Because the crowberry has a thick skin, with a lot of oils and tannins, it preserves really well,” says Raxel. “So the crowberry doesn’t oxidise as much as blueberries, for example. The ageing process is then closer to that of grapes than other berries or other things that grow in Iceland.”
Part of the experimentation process involved learning from the mistakes of others; in particular, trials wherein someone didn’t engage the fermentation quite right, resulting in exploding barrels of juice. “I went on a search for all the stories,” says Raxel, “especially stories about ‘purple fountains.’ People would have their containers explode all the time from fermenting too much.”
Ragnheiður isn’t doing just wine, either; she’s also launched a bold take on an old favourite with what she calls “Slow Gin,” using blackcurrants that are slightly fermented with sugar before being added to the gin. Her recipe uses hard-to-find Icelandic juniper berries, Arctic thyme, angelica root and “a little bit of rhubarb.”
“All of these ingredients are wild—none of it is cultivated. It’s all handpicked,” she says, adding that even her parents take part in foraging the ingredients.
One of Og Natura’s stand-out stars is a liqueur made from stone brambles. They’re foraged in the north—but good luck trying to find them yourself. “Stone brambles are like a hidden berry,” says Raxel. “A lot of people don’t know them. The pickers have their own secret locations. They’re like gold. They’re really expensive and it’s difficult to pick them.”
All of these beverages and more can be found at the state-run ÁTVR alcohol stores. Given the nature of the ingredients, their availability may depend on the time of year, but Ragnheiður sees the bright side to seasonality. “I want to be able to provide these products all year round, but we’re dealing with limited resources,” she says. “But then it’s also nice to have to wait for the next harvest. It’s a luxury problem.”
Buy Og Natura’s products at Vinbuðin. Find out more at ognatura.com
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