The Black Death*

Brennivin, also called “Black Death,” is Iceland’s national drink made from fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway seeds. Legend has it that brennivin achieved its ominous nickname during the Icelandic prohibition, which was more lenient than the American prohibition.

During prohibition (from 1915 to 1922), the Icelandic government placed a skull and crossbones logo on all liquor bottles. Soon, drinkers grew accustomed to requesting “black death” at the counter of their local liquor store.


How to Drink Brennivin

Though some critics may say the best way to drink brennivin is not to drink it at all, many people enjoy its strong flavor.

When drinking brennivin by itself, many prefer it to be ice-cold. You can achieve this by cooling the bottle in the freezer or pouring refrigerated brennivin into chilled shot glasses. Brennivin can be enjoyed in a tumbler over ice.

Brennivin with Food

In Iceland, Brennivin is best enjoyed with traditional Icelandic dishes, especially those that feature lamb or strong fish.

Originally, Brennivin was served with hákarl, which may explain brennivin’s strong flavor. Hákarl is basically rotten shark that is actually poisonous when eaten raw. To prepare hákarl, Icelanders gut the shark and bury it in a shallow, sandy grave for 6–12 weeks. The pressure from the sand squeezes out the uric acid in the fish. The meat, which carries an almost intoxicating ammonia-like smell, is then cubed and served on toothpicks. Brennivin is served as a chaser.

Who Drinks Brennivin

Although Iceland levies a heavy tax against most alcoholic beverages, brennivin remains reasonably priced. Perhaps because it is the cheapest, strongest liquor readily available, brennivin is sometimes associated with the homeless or alcoholics in Iceland.

Brennivin is enjoyed on a larger scale on St. Thorlac’s Day (December 23), a holiday that honors the patron saint of Iceland. The traditional St. Thorlac’s meal is skate (another cured fish), mashed or boiled potatoes and a shot of brennivin.

*Excerpted from

— Dandy Will


1 Comment

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One response to “The Black Death*

  1. Jill

    Hey Will,

    I brought a bottle home myself from last years trip to Iceland..the tasted was worse than shots of wheat grass.

    Stick to the local vodka. Reyka, it’s like drinking from metled snowcaps. Yum.

    ~Aunti Chianti

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