Ask a Historian: The Origins of Brennivín - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Ask a Historian: The Origins of Brennivín

Ask a Historian: The Origins of Brennivín

Photos by
Ásgeir Ásgeirsson

Where did brennivín come from and how did it become the nation’s drink? In an effort to dispel rumours surrounding brennivín, the drink of Iceland, we asked historian Stefán Pálsson to clarify the origins of this fiery schnapps.

“When the alcohol prohibition started in 1915, a practice known as moonshining (illegal homemade distillation spirits) became widely practiced as a way of combatting the ban on strong liquor. After the ban was lifted and state liquor stores opened in 1975, the government needed to create a drink that could overtake the alcohol market and compete with homemade spirits. The solution was the state-concocted brennivín, or “fire wine,” a cheap spirit flavoured with caraway seeds (cumin) to achieve the liquorice-like taste the drink is famously known for. Manufactured using easily grown herbs, the government worked with cheap materials to create a readily accessible and affordable drink that soon overtook the market.

“With time, brennivín fell out of favour. The cheap economic incentive behind the drink backfired as it started earning a reputation of being the “drunkard’s drink”. In an attempt to regain its share of the market, the team behind brennivín recruited an advertising agency to rebrand their image.

“Though it may not be the drink of choice for Icelanders, brennivín, with its minimalistic design of the well-known green bottle and its black label, has earned a reputation for its appeal to tourists. So the next time you pick up a brochure touting how vikings used to drink brennivín, keep in mind that this newly popular drink was actually invented by a group of bureaucrats trying to break into the recently opened alcohol market following the alcohol prohibition.”

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