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While everyone associates vodka obsession with Russia, the tiny-Nordic island of Iceland may just be trailing the ranks; and if not with vodka specifically, then with drinking in general. Earlier this year, Russia’s most popular vodka, Russian Standard, expanded its European market when it launched its brand on the Icelandic market, a welcome addition to the expansive-drinking options becoming available in Iceland.
If Russia’s national spirit is Vodka, then Iceland’s national spirit is undoubtedly Brennivín. Sometimes called ‘black death’, it is a schnapps distilled from potato mash and caraway seeds. The drink is the shot of choice for celebratory cheers and often mixed with coke, coffee, or the occasional handcrafted cocktail. Brennivín is only produced in Iceland and only by one distillery. As a special-occasion drink, it is not consumed regularly by locals. It is especially in the order of tradition to drink the schnapps during the mid-winter feast, Þorrablót. It is well known to be the best for washing down the taste of the putrefied-shark dish, hákarl.
With beer being outlawed in Iceland until 1989 due to strict-prohibition laws, the nation grew a natural taste for strong spirits. (Side note, this is not the only unusual ban in Iceland: there was no television programmed during the summertime between 1966 and 1983.) In the years preceding the beer ban’s lift, Icelandic pubs sold ‘bjorlíki,’ a vodka-Pilsner cocktail that was reminiscent of beer. During the prohibition days, it was very normal to only drink on the weekends with the explicit aim of getting very drunk. This was the standard, and any weekday drinking was suspicious of a problem. These days, Icelandic grocery stores do not sell alcohol with higher than 3.2 percent and the advertising of alcohol is very strict. One can only buy alcohol in the government-run liquor shops of which 12 out of 46 in the whole country are in Reykjavik.
So what does this means for those visiting Iceland? Pick up a bottle of liquor at the airport duty-free that costs what a single cocktail at a Reykjavik bar may cost. Try the Icelandic-brand Reykja Vodka or Fjallagrasa Moss Schnapps, made from ocean moss which has been traditionally used as medicine. Floki, Iceland’s only single-malt whiskey, is a honey-flavored herby brew. Of course, the notorious Brennivín is a must, at least for the return trip to bring a taste of Iceland to family and friends. The government-run Vínbúðin liquor shops are also cheaper than drinking at bars, and they offer a wide selection of options from both international and local breweries and distilleries. There can be long lines on the weekends, however.
The drinking culture is such that many people spend time at home pre-gaming with friends to save money and only venture out to bars around midnight. But once out, it is not unusual to stay out until shop owners are opening shop again the next morning.