In a country known for its quirks—its strange-sounding language, the prodigious use of sauces, and the ubiquitous belief in elves (known as “hidden people”), to name a few—it’s not surprising Iceland would boast a history of alcohol laws equally as strange. As the story goes, after a full prohibition was written into law in 1915, wine was quickly re-legalized in a trade agreement, and spirits followed soon after in 1935. “Strong” beer—defined as anything above 2.25 percent alcohol (or about half that of Bud Light)—however, stayed illegal through 1989. As a result, many bars served beer fortified with a shot of vodka—a concoction whose alcohol by volume far exceeded that of a typical brew found elsewhere in the world. (The ABV of wine typically hovers around 13 percent, liquor around 40 percent, and beer, on average, ranges between 4 and 9 percent.)
With Reykjavik’s local cocktail and beer scene booming today, that past feels like a distant memory. While there are several good beer-drinking options in Reykjavik, Skúli Craft Bar (Aðalstræti 9; 354/519-6455) is one of the nicer environments to choose from. Situated on a street corner and designed with large windows to let in an abundance of natural light, the brick-walled room has a Denmark-meets-Manhattan feel that attracts urban professionals from around the city. More than a dozen local and foreign beers are offered on tap; and sometimes they feature “tap takeovers” with multiple sections from one brand, such as Founders Brewing Co. from Michigan.
Inside the Hverfisgata 12 building—the same digs as Reykjavik’s top-rated restaurant Dill and the hip, oft-recommended Pizza With No Name—sits another of the city’s top choices: a tiny outpost of white-hot “gypsy brewer” Mikkeller & Friends (Hverfisgata 12; 354-662/1511; mikkeller.dk). There, they serve 20 beers on tap—about one for every person who can fit in the attic-like space, outfitted with colorful barstools and handsome, circus-themed art.
The town’s craft cocktail scene is still small, but one gets the sense it's changing fast—thanks to a couple stand-out venues. Icelandair Hotel Marina, located near the whale watching boat pier, is home to Slippbarinn (Tryggvagata; 354/444-4000; slippbarinn.is). On weekdays, the hotel restaurant serves up an eclectic menu of shareable bar fare (oysters, chicken wings, flatbreads) in a sunny, café-like environment. Come weekend evenings and “live music Wednesdays,” the room fills up with locals eating, drinking, and mingling over a rotating menu (currently in comic book form) of large-format punches and tiki-inspired cocktails made with craft ice and ingredients like birch syrup and kumquat-infused rum.
Fine dining restaurant Kol (Skólavörðustígur 40; 354/517-7474; kolrestaurant.is), not far from the landmark Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, boasts an impressive program running from behind its petit, nine-seat bar. They feature many of the techniques popular among bartenders in the U.S. (think: cocktails on draft and “fat-washed” spirits, like olive oil gin and smoked duck fat vodka), and the menu is divided into accessible, advanced, and professional sections to give drinkers an idea of how exotic the flavors will be. If in doubt, try whatever’s on tap—these are the drinks they plan to sell the most of, which often means they’ll be among the tastiest, if not the most ready to please.
Wherever you choose to drink in town, make sure to try some Icelandic beers and spirits, including the famous Brennivin—an aquavit more popularly, but unfairly, known as “black death”—and Foss Distillery’s Bjork birch liqueur and Birkir birch schnapps. Sweet, woody, and slightly earthy, they’re as strange and unique as the country itself.
Photos: Mikael Axelsson / Mikkeller & Friends (2); courtesy Kol