Reviewed by: Ted
Iceland loves a good renewable energy source. Sitting out in the wild northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 900km away from the UK and Norway, means that the island is cut off from the major power infrastructure of the continent. Luckily Iceland has a red-hot spade tucked up its sleeve. Thanks to its position directly over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the island is rife with volcanism (fun fact: apparently Iceland’s 30-odd volcanic systems have contributed around a third of global lava output over the past 500 years. The more you know eh?). Sure, this of course means there’s a decent risk of a fire mountain going boom and causing all sort of havoc (remember Eyjafjallajökull? And that was pretty small in historic terms as it turns out – check out Lakagígar), but the big upshot for the locals is that there are bag loads of geothermal and hydrothermal energy to tap into, with around 80% of energy production coming from these sources in 2016.
Historically, like many other places in the region, the islanders would have probably burned peat as their energy source; around 10% of the island is actually covered in the stuff. These days people are generally more familiar with peat in the context of whisky making (or sticking it in the garden) rather than using it for heating or cooking, with places such as Islay and a number of other islands off the west coast of Scotland famed for their smoky drams. As it happens, Iceland has a couple of recently opened whisky distilleries, although only one has actually released any product.
Eimverk Distillery, located in Reykjavík (unsurprisingly, seeing as about two thirds of the population lives in the capital region), are the makers of Flóki. While the official release hasn’t debuted at this point in time (the first release at 3yo is due in November 2017), Eimverk have previously tantalised the masses with a limited duty free pre-release for the Reykjavík International Airport. Thanks to my mother happening to be travelling in Iceland at the right time, we were amazingly able to try the Flóki Young Malt early last year and found it full of intriguing promise.
So, when I heard Eimverk had released a smoked version of their Young Malt I was instantly curious. The Icelanders have been smoking stuff like fish for centuries, so they should know a thing or two about the practise. Now, you would think that they would use local peat to smoke their locally grown barley, but not so. Well, I mean it’s not a particularly renewable source of energy now is it (peat bogs can take thousands of years to form, generally accumulating at an average rate of around 1mm per year)? And collecting it would mean digging up chunks of the astounding landscape that Iceland is famed for. So what was Eimverk’s creative solution?
You know what else Iceland has bag loads of, apart from renewable energy sources, interesting geology and indie bands that is? Sheep. First brought over by the Vikings circa the 9th or 10th Centuries, there are around 800 000 of them wandering about the island these days, approx. 2.5x the human population. Now sheep are a pretty good renewable resource – you can get wool, milk and meat from them, and they seem to do a rather good job of replenishing themselves with new little sheepies every year. There’s something else sheep make though, in great quantities every day: Shi… ahem, sorry, poo.
As it happens, when you dry sheep poo you can set it on fire and use it as a fuel source. Humans have actually been practising this sort of pyroscatology (and if that isn’t a word then it damn well should be!) all around the world with all sort of interesting varieties of poo for millennia. If it has one flaw though, burning poo does tend to be rather smoky… which on reflection could be just the thing for smoking some barley! And that, my friends, is exactly what Eimverk have done!
Introducing: the Flóki Young Malt – Sheep Dung Smoked Reserve. Now, while you may find this all a bit weird, Eimverk note that in Iceland there has been a tradition of using sheep poo for smoking for centuries, so I think it’s only fair that we all remain open minded and give it a shot. Being rather geographically distant from the Reykjavík duty free, my initial excitement about this new release was somewhat tempered by the fact that it would probably be a very long time before I was able to try it. Therefore I was rather astounded (as was m’colleague when I whipped it out unannounced in front of him one night… the Flóki I mean!) to discover that I was able to source a bottle through local outfit Sigrún Whisky, who seem to specialise in Scandi drams.
According to Eimverk, the Smoked Reserve is ‘a limited reserve of a selection of single barrel bottling (sic) from our distillery’. Visually the 500ml Smoked Reserve bottle is almost identical to the original Young Malt release: a dark textured label with the cool white runic design and angular font, although the background in this case is of rough homespun wool cloth, the only other real difference being a small red square on the cork seal.
The nose is very grassy and metallic; if Philip K Dick’s androids really do dream of electric sheep, then this would be the smell of the organometallic grass that the sheep are eating. There is also a big, punchy acidic layer, like mainlining a tin of pineapple, under which sits a fug of chocolate and leather.
The taste is sharp and hot, drying the tongue like strong citrus or tart fruit. Straight afterwards you get a sluggish hit of dull, ashy smoke. Think a pub any time before the smoking bans. Or perhaps it’s like walking past a smoking shed where they’re burning sheep poo (I can’t profess to have ever done so)? The finish is shiny and metallic, akin to drinking strong spirits from a cheap tin mug.
Look, it isn’t the easiest whisky to drink admittedly, but then it isn’t really whisky is it? It hasn’t aged long enough to legally earn that title and it shows. Perhaps they used bigger barrels for the Smoked Reserve, so it hasn’t hit the same point of maturity at the same age as the original Young Malt was released at? I would definitely like to come back to this in a few years’ time and see what it’s like after the barrels have had time to work their magic.
As for whether the sheep poo was a good idea… well the flavour was definitely different to your normal smokiness in a whisky. But again, the spirit really needs to age further before we can properly judge the true subtleties of its nature. If you’re absolutely hell bent on possessing a unique Icelandic (almost) whisky then there can be no substitute for the Flóki Young Malt – Sheep Dung Smoked Reserve. For everyone else, perhaps give this one a miss for the time being and instead save your pennies for a trip to experience Iceland’s true natural wonders.