Get into the Icelandic holiday spirit
Anyone who’s spent time in Iceland has likely observed that the locals are not afraid to drink, and with Christmas fast approaching, this bibulous crowd takes their proclivity for alcohol to the next level.
Icelandic cultural customs take many forms, but the holidays are particularly packed with various alcohol-based activities (what with needing something to do in the almost total absence of sunlight). There are no hard-and-fast rules, so following specific traditions and simply imbibing spirits from the land of fire and ice are both appropriate approaches to drinking like an Icelander this winter.
Although Iceland does have breweries, a prohibition on beer that lasted until 1989 shaped the island nation’s drinking culture into a spirituous one. Certain liquors are known for being particularly strong, which is in line with the rich flavors of various Icelandic Christmas recipes.
The holiday season kicks off on December 23rd with Þorláksmessa, which features feasting on the divisive fermented skate fish, or skata. “The pungent, rich smell of ammonia and the strangely gelatinous flesh might make it hard to swallow, but fermented skate is nevertheless considered a great delicacy,” according to Iceland Magazine. How delightful.
Whether Icelanders enjoy the fish or not, it’s common to wash it down with the similarly schismatic but equally beloved Opal, a rich liqueur that has been enjoyed since the 1940s. The base flavor is black licorice, another Icelandic favorite, but the strongest sensation comes from the imbued menthol, perfect for cutting through the flavor of rotten fish.
Ópal in its alcohol and candy forms — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
While a good two-thirds of first-time Opal drinkers may not be immediately sold on it, most come to enjoy it thanks to the long-lasting, refreshing aftertaste.
Skata can also be rounded out with Iceland’s signature spirit, Brennivín, or the “Black Death” (though the name literally translates to burning wine). It’s traditionally taken in shot form during Þorrablót, the mid-winter festival in January that is said to be rooted in the Sagas, but these days serves to give Icelanders something to look forward to after daylight has abandoned them.
Brennivín is consumed year-round (more often in cocktail form) and has been since the 1400s-1500s, so the flavor isn’t as offensive as its nickname would have drinkers believe. Like a lot of other Icelandic cuisine, exaggerated descriptions of it perpetuate the stereotype that Icelandic consumables are terrible, but this caraway-flavored aquavit is beloved, genuinely enjoyed, and essential to getting into the Icelandic holiday spirit.
“Aquavits are very popular and an absolute must with pickled and/or marinated herring,” suggests Alba Hough, Lead Food and Drink Enthusiast of downtown Reykjavik’s Hilton Canopy hotel.
Plus, since 2014, the makers behind Brennivín have been experimenting with barrel-aging, and 2018’s vintage is incredibly delicious. After 12 months soaking up the sweetness of sherry in Spanish barrels, this limited edition Brennivín is worth sampling whether you’re trying to mimic being Icelandic or not.
If medieval schnapps or minty licorice don’t do it for you, there’s a great selection of Icelandic liquors to pick from that may be more familiar to the average American palate. Reyka Vodka is the easiest to acquire of all the Icelandic spirits, and with its lava-distilled, crisp flavor, it can be consumed as a smooth shot or as part of a tasty cocktail.
One option to try out is the Cran-Spiced Martini. It’s just 2 parts Reyka Vodka, 1 part cranberry juice, and three-quarters part vanilla-spiced syrup. Shake it up with ice, strain it into a martini glass and garnish with skewered cranberries.
Cran-Spiced Martini with Reyka Vodka — Photo courtesy of Reyka Vodka
Or if you want to keep things wholly Icelandic, mix your Rekya Vodka in with in the foraged rhubarb, crowberry, or blueberry liqueurs coming out of 64 Reykjavik Distillery, and you’ll be saying “skál” (cheers) until the sun decides to come back.
Perhaps the most well-known Christmas-specific Icelandic drink is Jólaöl, a non-alcoholic mixture of “malt extrakt” and Appelsín, an orange Fanta-like soda. Pro tip: If you’re mixing your own jólaöl, always pour the Appelsín first, or you may end up with foam everywhere. However at this time of year, it can be found pre-mixed in a can.
This concoction is typically consumed on Christmas day, which in Iceland is reserved for lounging about, typically reading books that were received as gifts the day prior.
One half of the Jólaöl concoction — Photo courtesy of Moohaha / flickr
All of these drinks, excluding Jólaöl, can be obtained at various places in the United States (though big cities are your best bet). The best way to ensure getting your mittened hands on these unique spirits is to go to Iceland and pick them up at the duty-free shop on your way back home. Jólaöl can be ordered via nammi.is, which is the best resource for acquiring any consumable Icelandic goody that isn’t sold in stores overseas.
Mulled wine — Photo courtesy of MaxPixel
There’s a good case for heading directly to the source, however. “Mulled wine is a fairly common thing as well [during Christmas]: we call it Jólaglögg,” adds Hough, who makes it herself for the Hilton Canopy’s in-house restaurant, Geiri Smart. “I pair it with desserts on the menu like sticky toffee pudding, gingerbread and rhubarb and Risalamande. Instead of doing a classical red mulled wine, I made it white instead.” In 2018, however, Hough has concocted a rosé for the lucky guests of the restaurant.
Whichever drinking method you choose in order to materialize your inner Icelander, just make sure to watch out for the Christmas Cat, which will come and eat you if you don’t receive clothing as a gift. No pressure…