Whisky is a funny old thing. Breaking the mould, doing something new and being on the forefront of whisky advancement is on a lot of people’s minds. Last week we saw a whisky that had gone on to copyright the term ‘London Rye’, recently some seaweed dried whisky has become a big hit in Ireland, and cask experimentation is at an all time high throughout the industry. So, in this age of advancement, pushing boundaries and challenging tradition, one man in Australia decided to have a laugh and dry – wait, what? This isn’t Peter Bignells dung dried whisky? Iceland? Eimverk? More people are using sheep shit to make whisky? Ah. Well that is awkward. For this weeks World Whisky Wednesday we’re not heading home, but instead heading further north to Iceland for a look at their Smoked Sheep Dung Reserve.
Eimverk Distillery sits just in the borders of Reykjavik, Iceland. Founded in 2011, the idea sprang forth three years earlier in 2008 from the Thorkelsson brothers, Pall, Egill and Haraldur. Turning the dream into a reality took a few years with plenty of study and learning through various online tools, but distillation began in 2012 and the distillery was in complete operations by August of 2013.
As Icelands first whisky distillery, Eimverk does things a bit differently and wants to respect their traditions. Even that name, Eimverk, comes from the Icelandic Eim for distillation, and Verk meaning to get a job done. Following that, when making the whisky only organic barley grown in Iceland is used, however this comes with its own small concerns. The colder climate in Iceland means that their barley is lower in sugar than the barley most other distilleries would use, and as such they need to use more to produce the desired amount of alcohol. On the other hand, that same climate results in no need for pesticides, so its swings and round abouts.
Due to the young age of the distillery however their first bottlings were of ‘young malt’ instead of whisky, as can be noted with this drop. While the product if kept inside barrels would one day be whisky, European law dictates a minimum of three years maturation. It wasn’t until November of 2017 that we saw their first whisky release with a very small though highly desired offering. Who doesn’t want to try Iceland’s first whisky? Bottled under the Floki label, that name holds reference to Hrafna-Floki, the first Norseman who sailed around Iceland.
I’ve left out the drying process until this point as it is the elephant in the room, or in this case the sheep in the room. While whisky has a long history of being dried over peat, and more recently coal, Eimverk have used both peat and sheep dung to dry their barley. I’ve no doubt that at some point in time dung was used by many folks around the world to dry barley and in Iceland it is apparently a tradition to smoke all many of products with sheep dung. So, what goes into the drying process? Let’s run through what malting is.
It starts as unmalted barley from arrives at the malt house. First we steep the barley, immersed in water for two to three days. The barley wakes up and starts to convert the starch inside the barley kernels to sugar. After this the barley is spread over a malting floor to germinate, being turned regularly to prevent overheating. This barley continues to convert starch to sugar, the sugar we’ll use to start the fermentation process, though the barley wants it too. This brings us onto the kilning stage. Here the barley is blasted with hot air, effectively killing the barley and halting that germination. While this is done in a manner of ways, most famously it is can be done with peat, where the smoke and flavours of the peat is trapped inside the barley, resulting in the famously peaty and smoking flavours of your Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg to name a few.
There’s a lot more after to make it whisky and its certainly more complicated than is stated above, but that’s the rough gist of it. Eimverk have gone a step further here, innovating while respecting their tradition and used sheep dung to smoke their whisky. Now as peat smoke leaves those peaty flavours we know and love, we can only assume that there will be some elements of sheep dung in our whisky. Let’s head into the glass to find out.
The nose starts spirity, there’s a touch of eucalyptus about this one. Some feints coming through and then it hints grass, straw, green apples and there’s a wet tweed jacket kicking about somewhere in there. Fresh plums, it turns quite earthy and has somewhat of a metallic tang at the back, not sure where that’s coming in. A hint of leather, the whole thing comes together like a big red barn. Its not bad at all, there’s hardly a hint of dingle berries at all.
The mouthfeel is the first thing you notice on the palate, very oily and with a velvet spiced quality that moves the dram around the mouth consistently. Earthy, plenty of rich dirt, some spice and chai latte comes into the fray. And then it hits the dung. It’s the taste that comes into the mouth when stepping onto a farm, grassy, iron rich earth, flower stems and dung. Its natural, no doubt about that, but it’s definitely dung. The finish brings it in as well and show cases that barnyard appeal, and it heads for the grassy notes. Strawberries and wet straw, a few olives and then a sliding finish that I don’t want to think about.
This would be my first pick for a blind tasting, number one. The flavours are all there neatly lined up but the thing that you can’t help thinking about is the fact that it was made with sheep dung. It has some gin notes running through it as well, almost as though it’s picked up something along the way. Is it good? Actually yes, it is, but confirmation bias is rife through tasting and you just can’t help thinking about the dung the entire time. Would I buy a bottle of it? Yeah, I would. Could I ever drink it and not think about how it’s made? Like I said, confirmation bias.