Iceland’s burning wine: a taste of the ‘black death’

Brennivín was traditionally drunk to wash down rotting shark. Now this caraway-infused aquavit is firing up cocktails from Reykjavik to Brooklyn

Brennivín, Iceland’s signature drink, was never intended as a slow-sipping tipple. The caraway-spiced aquavit’s name translates literally as “burning wine”, and the colourless 37.5% ABV spirit looks more like vodka than a mellow aperitif. Traditionally, brennivín was shot quickly at the pagan midwinter festival Þorrablót, for the purpose of washing down hákarl – a rotting shark speciality that American Anthony Bourdain once said was the worst thing he’d ever put in his mouth.

The brand of brennivín most often seen in bars, Egill Skallagrímsson, was introduced in 1935, after Iceland ended 20 years of prohibition. To discourage consumption, the bottle featured a government-mandated matt-black label and a skull warning, earning it the nickname “black death”. That label essentially survives (though a map of Iceland has replaced the skull) and bottles are now popping up in bars outside Iceland.

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