Harnessing Iceland's elements at Eimverk Distillery

Harnessing Iceland's elements at Eimverk Distillery

Iceland is certainly not the most hospitable place in the world for a whisky distillery, but Eimverk — which named its whiskies after the island’s first known settler, Norseman Hrafna-Flóki — is determined not to let a little adversity stop it

Distillery Focus | 28 Feb 2024 | Issue 196 | By Jacopo Mazzeo

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It is a mere 10-minute drive from Reykjavik city centre to the small, sleepy district of Hraunsholt. Hidden  unassumingly behind the local fishing equipment provider lies one of the world’s most avant-garde whisky projects – and currently the only Icelandic one. Eimverk Distillery’s venture began in the early 2010s with the release of its Vor gin. Fast forward a decade, and the distillery boasts a solid portfolio of whiskies consisting of young and single malts, complemented by an intriguing range of variations on the theme, each bottle capturing a noticeable Icelandic element.

 

Still a relatively uncommon practice elsewhere, Eimverk employs local barley, particularly the Kria variety, across its entire range. It’s an extraordinary choice, considering Iceland’s average summer temperatures of just 12°C, as well as higher rainfall and significantly fewer hours of sunshine than Scotland or England.

 

“As temperatures rise, we have been able to grow barley varieties from Northern Finland and Northern Sweden,” says Eimverk’s distillery manager Eva María Sigurbjörnsdóttir. “The first attempts to grow barely here were made in the 1850s but that didn’t go so well. It wasn’t until the 1980s that we experienced new attempts. Scientists developed about 35 different varieties that work in Icelandic weather. Around four spring varieties are now used for human consumption.”

 

Eimverk relies on its own grain grown at a farm near Hella, about 90 kilometres east of the distillery. Despite the warming climate, growing barley in Iceland still comes with its own set of challenges. “Our farm is all wetland so if it rains a lot, we get no crop. This spring has been terrible so we aren’t getting anything from our farm this year,” says Sigurbjörnsdóttir. When the weather plays up, the team can resort to sourcing from third-party growers or from additional fields the distillery rents from the government.

 

“These fields have a sandier soil, which helps avoid waterlogging in wet weather. Fortunately from those we managed to harvest 45 hectares this year,” Sigurbjörnsdóttir says, pointing out that, despite the challenges, the distillery would never look for supplies abroad. “I could get cheaper barley from elsewhere outside of Iceland, but the whole point of Eimverk is about building a sustainable future for Icelandic whisky. We offer farmers an opportunity to be profitable by paying a premium for their barley and we are actively trying to recruit more farmers to grow barley for us so that we can use more and grow ourselves.”

Eimverk's Flóki whisky. Credit: Eimverk Distillery

Eimverk’s tight relationship with the national agricultural community isn’t limited to barley. Sheep dung, a traditional Icelandic combustible that the team uses to produce smoked malt, is supplied by a farm in the north of the country. “Before we knew how to use hot water we had to import coal, gas, or oil,” Sigurbjörnsdóttir explains. “We did use whale liver to make oil, but that just wasn’t enough to satisfy our needs. That’s why we’ve been using sheep dung.”

 

To produce sheep dung, sheep are held indoors during the colder months — i.e. throughout most of the year — which allows for a substantial build-up of dung on the floor. This is collected and dried for a couple of years to
turn into combustible material. Today, sheep-dung smoke is still widely used as a method of curing food, particularly trout, lending it a distinctive ashy taste.

 

“Sheep-dung smoking is an Icelandic tradition dating back hundreds of years, so per se it’s not really new to us,” says Eimverk Distillery owner Haraldur Thorkelsson, “but how hard to push it on the barley for whisky making is something we are still working on… it’s all about how much is good and how much is too much.”

 

The Eimverk team could easily source peated barley from abroad or even harvest peat in Iceland itself, yet they remain steadfast in their commitment to pursuing a more Icelandic and sustainable solution to whisky making. “We don’t want to make Scotch whisky in Iceland, so we aren’t interested in imported peated grain,” Sigurbjörnsdóttir points out. “As for local peat, we do have it, but harvesting it is very environmentally unfriendly. It’s just too cold here and the layers are really thin. It doesn’t rejuvenate as much as it would elsewhere.”

 

Alongside grains and animal waste, Iceland’s peculiar geological factors also help to lend the whiskies a marked sense of place. The country is rich in geothermal energy, and Eimverk makes full use of it throughout its entire process – eliminating the need for electricity for heating and cooling.

 

As anyone who has ever taken a shower in Reykjavik can attest, however, Iceland’s geothermal hot water carries a strong sulphur odour, so the team must take extra precautions to ensure it never comes into contact with the product. Fresh tap water, on the other hand, is of excellent quality, and the team utilises it to dilute the whisky before bottling. “Our tap water is high in pH and has low mineral content,” says Thorkelsson, “so it’s almost perfect as it pours from the tap.”

Inside Eimverk Distillery. Credit: Jacopo Mazzeo

According to Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Iceland’s marginal climate is another factor that significantly influences the final product as it causes the liquid to mature at a faster rate than it would if it was being aged in continental Europe. “We get about 4 per cent of angel’s share here compared to 2 per cent in Scotland,” she says. “It’s mainly because the air is really dry. Even when it rains, the air is too cold to hold the moisture. Water either falls on your head or on the ground, or it [storms] on your face in the form of snow.”

 

Due to the faster maturation rate, Eimverk’s whisky is likely to reach its optimal flavour profile earlier than what is typically seen in most continental distilleries.

 

“At the moment, we just stick to about three years of ageing for all our Flóki whisky,” says Sigurbjörnsdóttir. “We might release a 12-year-old at some point just to prove to people that long maturations don’t work for us. Six to eight years is probably going to be our sweet spot.”

 

Continuously engaging in experimentation, the Eimverk team is exploring not only different ageing periods but also various cask types and finishes. The distillery has primarily been using virgin oak barrels, which are seasoned for 12 to 18 months with spirits that will later become its fruity, bourbon-like Flóki Young Malt. Afterward, these barrels are filled with Flóki Single Malt-to-be.

 

Recently, however, the distillery has been elevating its barrel selection. Alongside the traditional virgin oak barrels, it also has acquired ex-bourbon barrels and ventured into more unconventional casks, such as ex-wine casks. Some of this wood is used for maturation, while some is reserved for finishing. The use of birch wood on Eimverk’s Flóki Single Malt Icelandic Birch Finish imparts to the liquid balsamic notes, herbal and fresh spicy aromas, and hints of blossom honey and liquorice. Meanwhile, casks seasoned with stout from a local brewery infuse Flóki Single Malt Beer Cask Finish with the coffee-like, malty, and chocolatey notes synonymous with the beer style.

 

Eimverk’s stock now consists of about 480 casks, all stored at the farm, plus a few more currently resting in an experimental cave nearby, where temperatures remain stable at 4°C year-round.

 

“We will be playing with ageing in different barrels [and locations], like those we have in the caves near Hella, or storing casks in ice caves underneath a glacier,” says Thorkelsson. “For the most part, the stuff we ‘play’ with is released as part of our blue-label Distiller’s Choice bottlings. But when we hit something we really like, then it gets a label of its own.”

Eimverk also produces a range of white spirits. Credit: Eimverk Distillery

The team is actively working on expanding its supply of Icelandic grain, too. Currently, Eimverk utilises just over 100 tons of barley annually, but it anticipates requiring 60 to 100 times that amount as demand grows over the next decade.

 

“Last year the total production of barley in Iceland was about 10,000 tons, so we still have a bit of leg room,” says Thorkelsson, “and we are also working with several farmers so we can sustain our short-term growth.” The team is also actively engaged in long-term government-led initiatives aimed at improving Iceland’s food safety and reducing carbon emissions by reducing its reliance on imports and prioritising local production instead.

“The government approved a number of grants to develop better infrastructures for grain farmers. Also, a facility to benefit storage and distribution will be built in the south of the country,” says Thorkelsson.


“We are actually considering relocating the distillery or building a second distillery close to this facility to minimise transports, ideally so close that we can just ‘pump’ the grain over from the silos.”

 

A few years ago, the distillery also began working with rye. The results of its efforts will soon be unveiled with the release of the first-ever Icelandic 100 per cent rye whisky. “It will be called Ð [eth]. A very small-scale project that uses only a patch at the farm, and perhaps sufficient to make about 10 barrels per year, most years,” Thorkelsson explains.

 

All of Eimverk’s ongoing projects are fuelled by a resolute commitment to drawing inspiration from its surroundings and crafting liquids that truly embody Iceland’s landscape and cultural heritage – a philosophy that has led it to accomplish an impressive feat, particularly considering the distillery’s relatively young age. Over its decade of existence, Eimverk has successfully created a diverse range of quintessentially Icelandic malts, some remarkably unique, yet all encapsulating the very essence of New World distilling. 

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