Grain to Glass in Iceland

by Charles West

icelandic landscapes can be barren.

icelandic landscapes can be barren.

 Mention of the Arctic Circle brings to mind vast ice flows, glaciers and howling subzero winds.  Farms in the Arctic and distilling of farm products would seem to most of us as a wild fantasy. But, in at least one country farm distilling has come to the Arctic.

 Passing through the duty free shop of Iceland’s bustling Keflavik International Airport, the discerning traveler may spot elegant displays spirits. Intent on a quick purchase and in transit to the capital cities of Europe, that same traveler may not notice that those spirits are the products of local farm distillers.

 Iceland seems an unlikely place for a farm distillery. Exiting the airport for the half hour bus ride into the capital city of Reykjavik, a blustery wind easily cuts through the visitor’s lightweight jacket on this early fall day. Fast moving clouds bring cold intermittent showers that alternate with brief glimpses of rainbows and dramatic landscapes backlit by a bright October sun low in the sky.  The land is volcanic. The collapsed domes and tubes of ancient lava flows are easy to spot. Plumes of steam emerge from the ground in the distance. It seems too barren and cold to grow anything here.

Curious Icelandic poinies stop for a visit.

Curious Icelandic poinies stop for a visit.

A few hundred years ago you’d use sheep dung for fuel and for cooking. In Iceland there are plenty of sheep, plenty of sheep shit. So when you’re smoking salmon or your meat you’d use sheep dung.
— Halli Thorkelsson

 But, just a few miles away, about one hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, farm distilling has come to Iceland.  One of the pioneers of the Icelandic farm distilling movement is Reykjavik’s Eimwerk Distillery. Eimwerk is a small distillery set in a non-descript warehouse on the edge of the city. It may be small, but its products—that include a local gin, aquavit and a triple distilled whiskey—are responsible for a large part of the spirits on display back at the airport.

 For a visiting distiller from much warmer climates, a visit to Eimwerk is series of surprises. Not only is it possible to be a farm distiller here, there are some real advantages.

 It’s cold here.  Heating their mash tuns and stills should be a matter of careful planning and expense. It is for most farm distillers, but not here.  There is no boiler room, no expensive plumbing to heat water for the jacket of the polished copper Holstein pot still at Eimwerk.

 For that matter, there may be no boilers or even hot water heaters in the whole city of Reykjavik.  Heating here, and hot water—hot enough to run the still—are geothermal. 87% of all the buildings in Iceland have geothermal heating and hot water. Power is either geothermal or hydroelectric, a result of Iceland’s ubiquitous volcanic activity and abundant rivers.

 For the fledgling distiller, Iceland has some of the cheapest power in the world, and it’s all environmentally friendly, renewable green power. Iceland uses no fossil fuel to make electricity.  It’s also tech savvy. Almost every café, restaurant, bar and hotel in Iceland has wireless Internet.

 At the Eimwerk distillery, technology is put to good use. Their pot still is controlled by a computer programmed with alternative programs depending on the recipe of the product being distilled. If no distiller is present when the still is operating, it’s no problem. The still will text the distiller’s cell phone as the distillation recipe progresses. The distiller can use his cell phone to override the program if he would like to make a change.

 Green power and technology are great. But, still this is a cold climate. How much can grow here? Eimwerk needs botanicals for their Aquavit and Gin. Logic would dictate that they import most of their botanicals from European countries to the south. Although it may seem illogical, Eimwerk doesn’t import. The botanicals they need are grown right here.  A visit to the nearby Islensk Hollusta herb company and a tour by its proprietor, Eyjolfur Fridgeiersson, shows off the amazing diversity of botanicals found in the Icelandic countryside that are available to the creative farm distiller.

 For the whiskey connoisseur, drying and smoking of malt for their whiskey is definitely a surprise. Eimwerk’s Chief Executive Officer, Halli Thorkelsson explains it, “ In Iceland we historically smoke with sheep dung rather than peat. Peat is a littler harder to come by and it’s a question of the environment. With peat we’re digging away part of our country.”

The still room at eimwerk distillery

The still room at eimwerk distillery

 He went on to say, “ a few hundred years ago you’d use sheep dung for fuel and for cooking. In Iceland there are plenty of sheep, plenty of sheep shit. So when you’re smoking salmon or your meat you’d use sheep dung.”

 Now, Eimwerk uses sheep dung to smoke the malt for their whiskey. Distillery Manager Eva Sigurbojornsdottier explained that the concept isn’t quite as bizarre as it may seem. Due to the cold, sheep are kept inside during the winter. Straw is regularly added to the floor of the stable building creating a straw and dung mixture. 

 She said, “ …then you have to dig the house out in the spring, put it outside and turn it every now and then to dry it out. I thought this was easy, but according to the farmer who makes this for us, it is a two year process to make a good sheep dung that will give you a good smoke.”

 Eventually, the dried mixture looks and performs like dried peat and gives the malt a strong smoky flavor. Where the malt comes from provided another surprise for the visiting distiller.

Eimwerk's master distiller egill thorkelsson.

Eimwerk's master distiller egill thorkelsson.

 CEO Thorkelsson said, “we’re grain to glass. We have a little farm in the family where we’re growing our own barley, drying, malting and smoking it. As it stands now a third is our own product, but all of it’s Icelandic…from the farmer next door.”

 On the next day, the distillery visitors had the good fortune to see some of the countryside during a drive to the family farm.  Iceland is a small country that’s about the size of the state of Ohio. At about 325,000 people, its population is even smaller. Two thirds of the country’s population is centered around Reykjavik. Just a short drive outside the capital city, the malls, industry and suburbs of urban life give way to a sparse rural population set in a desolate, but spectacular landscape. Treeless mountains disappear into the clouds of an overcast sky. Muddy rivers born in unseen glaciers fall from the heights and wind through the valleys in a race to the sea. Distant columns of steam rising from fissures in the earth are common.  Sheep and hardy Icelandic ponies graze the hillsides.

 During the hour long drive Master Distiller, Egill Throkesson, explained that as the climate warms, Iceland can now grow barley when that had not been possible for centuries.  He said that although barley had once been grown here in ancient times, the climate had grown cold. Without the nutritional value of the barley, Icelanders needed more land to grow what little food they could. The struggle to survive brought the country close to civil war and spawned an era of sea going raiders.

 Leaving the main road, for a small back road, the travelers soon turned down a gravel track that led to the family farm. Nestled in a valley, the farm is surrounded by treeless rolling hills. A short distance away stood acres of barley. A herd of Icelandic ponies were fenced in a neighboring pasture.

Icelandic barley just a few miles from the arctic circle.

Icelandic barley just a few miles from the arctic circle.

 Although late in the season, much of barley had yet to be harvested.  The Viking raiders are long gone, but the climate here is still harsh. While Icelanders can once again grow barley, the barley is damp. It doesn’t dry in the field nor does it come close to the eighteen percent moisture content recommended for harvest in American fields.  For the Icelanders, wet barley didn’t present a problem. Electric power here is cheap. They rolled large bins with about one ton of the wet barley in each one into the barn, hooked up duct fans to the bins and blew hot air through the grain until it was dry.

 Back at the distillery, the visitors tasted the grain to glass spirits distilled at Eimwerk. All were of a uniformly high quality. But, that was no surprise. The staff here was trained in the highly regarded distilling program of Scotland’s Heriot Watt University. Once back in Iceland, they’ve polished their skills and applied their knowledge of the unique country of Iceland to their spirits.

 While still small, the farm distilling movement is rapidly growing in Iceland, and farm distillers here have big dreams. As Master Distiller, Egill Throkesson, said, “Iceland is going to be the next Scotland.” Who knows? Perhaps it’s true!

… The End …