Root + Bone does Iceland

Words: Anthony Power  

Root + Bone does Iceland

Look out Björk

Let me state it right here, right now; I am not a fan of Björk. Not one bit. I’m not really sure why, but for me, and this is only my personal opinion, she creeps in somewhere around number 3 or 4 on the All Time Top 5 female singer shit-list alongside the likes of Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Alanis Morrisette and Enya (I’ve since been told that hating Enya is like hating waterfalls). For the record, my All Time, Top 5 Male Vocalist Shit List includes, in no particular order; Chris De Burgh, Rick Astley, Justin Bieber, Michael fucking Bolton and Nickleback – although they are a band the lead singer makes it on his own merits.

Anyway, rant aside, when I recently got the opportunity to visit Iceland, my first thoughts were: here’s my chance; find Björk and ask her to explain herself. And then there is the Eyjafjallajökul volcano that still has to answer for shutting down the skies for weeks back in 2010. For many people, myself included, this is all we knew of Iceland. That, and unbelievably scorching hot women. Women who also just so happen to be some of the most empowered women on the planet. In 1975, 90% of the nation’s women went on strike shutting down airports, schools, and hospitals – basically the whole country ground to a halt. It worked, Iceland’s Parliament passed a law guaranteeing women equal pay and paid maternity leave. Four years later, Iceland elected the world’s first female President. However, I was willing to try and forget all this hoo-ha and just go with an open mind and an open heart and concentrate on drinking as much vodka as I could. What I thought I was in for on this trip was so far from what I experienced. It was magnificent. It’s taken me a while to put the pieces of the trip back together, mostly with the help of iPhone photos and catch up conversations, but I think I have the full picture. Here’s how I remember it, which doesn’t necessarily mean that this is how it happened.

Root + Bone Does Iceland

4.30am cab picked me up and made Luton in record time, 2.5 hours early for my flight. At Luton I found a few of my fellow tour people and we headed straight to the bar for a few Bloody Mary ‘eye-openers’. Passed out on the plane and woke up in Reykjavik. In the afternoon I met the rest of the crew on the tour and immediately felt I was a little out of my league. These people were professional journalists, a dozen or so experts on the beer and spirits business from as far away as LA, New York & Singapore. Now while my comrades may have been professional journalists, for the Root+Bone editorial team, journalism takes a back seat to professional drinking. Functioning alcoholics, over-achieving lunatics, we are the first ones invited to the party and the last ones to leave (maybe this is why we don’t get invited to many PR events). So an hour into our ‘meet & greet’ and I was sizing up my team. Who can I break? Who will go the distance? Time to put them to the test.

The first afternoon’s activity was a mini tour of downtown Reykjavik with a stop at a gallery, a whale museum and a wander around the fishing port, but not before hitting the local, and only, food truck in town, famous for dishing out dirty hot dogs at 4am. I understood why no one eats them at 4pm. Noticeably dry on the drinking at this stage; the trusty hipflask of vodka in my pocket warmed the cockles as we took in the town. It was at dinner that I first realised the next few days would be something special and not just a chance to get shitfaced (although that was a bonus). A degustation menu at Apoptek restaurant was exceptional. An amuse bouche of puffin (yes those cute little birds) was followed by well executed dishes including: seared tuna with avocado and pickled watermelon; Minke whale with shallot vinaigrette and Jerusalem artichokes; beef tartare with spiced nuts feta and lime; ocean perch with beetroot, spiced butter and Serrano, and finally a lamb dish with pickled onion, leek and celeriac to finish of the mains. I recall dessert being equally delicious however the meal had been made more enjoyable by an excellent seat choice at the table next to a couple of lads whose lives revolve solely around the reportage of spirits and beer. I’d found my wingmen. These lads knew how to order drinks too, while they toured the extensive whisky lists and debated their characteristics, I felt it right to drink vodka, and did so with reckless abandon.

The remainder of the evening was spent stumbling through the streets of Reykjavik sampling a plethora of Reyka vodka cocktails at some magical bars, all of which were brimming with aforementioned beautiful women. Day two began with a hazy breakfast in the lobby with eggs and shots of cod liver oil, before being loaded up into the most badass mini van I’ve ever seen with room for 18 crew, massive knobby tyres that would look at home on a quad motorbike, and constant Wi-Fi hook-up on the road. Hell, I can’t get Wi-Fi in my own kitchen yet this van had me swiping Tinder half way up the side of a volcano. Driving out of town, the landscape resembled an alien planet as we passed along roads cutting through treeless lava fields with snow capped tundra fading away on the horizon as far as the bloodshot eye could see. Peeling off the marked road, we ploughed through the white abyss, the monster tyres on the van making light work of the snowpack. First stop was a drinks break at a pristine glacial river to taste this so-called ‘ultra’ water straight from the source. I have to admit, it was pretty fucking special. I couldn’t taste the taste that I was tasting. Then it dawned on me; it tasted like nothing, the way water should taste. Pressing on back on the highway, a few miles down we again peeled off the sealed bitumen, our driver stopping to deflate the tyres a little to give us extra purchase on the snow, which, we were told was the only way to allow the beast of a van to drive straight up the glacier. No marked trail, white out conditions, there were a few nervous passengers as we ploughed our way through snowy wind drifts and craggy lava rocks.

Root + Bone Does Iceland

Arriving at our destination there was nothing to greet us other than a couple of other vehicles and a large mouth of a tunnel that disappeared under the Langjökull glacier. Walking 400 meters under the icepack we passed workmen carving out the finishing touches to the tunnel, tractors and other heavy machinery, and glass-like icepack illuminated with fairy lights to arrive at the first ever ‘pop-up’ cocktail bar housed under a glacier. We stopped for a bite and were treated to more fine vodka cocktails whipped up by the Reyka brand manger and my new best mate, Joe Petch. It was an experience to say the least, but unfortunately it couldn’t last because – as you’d expect 300ft under a glacier – it was so cold I thought I was wearing my balls as earrings at one point. Safely back off the glacier and defrosting in the van, we stopped off at the Hraunfossar lava falls to see first-hand how water is pushed up from deep underground through the 4000-year-old porous lava to create such pure water. We also made a quick pit stop at a thermal spring on the side of the road to boil a few eggs for snacks, as you do.

Root + Bone Does Iceland

Our next stop, and the highlight of the trip, was the Reyka Vodka Distillery. From the outside, the distillery itself is an unassuming white shed in the middle of nowhere. Inside it’s a slick operation. Dominating the room is the Carter Head copper still, one of only 6 in the world, and the only one that is used to make vodka. William Grant & Sons owns 3 of these stills: this one in Iceland and two they use in Scotland to make the editorial team’s other favourite social lubricant, Hendrick’s Gin. Iceland is one of the purest countries on the planet. Over a quarter of the country’s energy consumption is naturally produced by geothermal energy, the air is virtually untouched by pollution (barring unpronounceable volcanic eruptions) and a tenth of the country is covered by glacial icecaps that supply homes with the most pristine, unfiltered drinking water on the planet. It is this water that helps create the unique flavour of Reyka Vodka. Reyka Vodka Master Distiller, Thordhur Sigurdsson, led the tour of the distillery where he explained the process by which they create what was fast becoming my new favourite spirit. In the still, the spirit is heated to 90 degrees where the purest vapours are extracted and then piped through a custommade filter containing lava rocks gathered from a nearby lava field. Once cooled, it is then passed through yet another lava filter before it goes into the tank.

We were given a tasting of the spirit at this stage and with a 90% ABV and I can tell you that it knocks your socks off. I had more than my fair share and finished off a few glasses that the others had left, and was nicely primed. To this pure spirit, they add the spring water, which brings the alcohol content down to a respectable 40%. Did I mention the water is lava filtered? Once it’s mixed and tested for purity, it is shipped back to Scotland to be bottled at the William Grant Distillery. Back into Reykjavik, we had another great night ahead of us. Dinner was at the iconic Fish Market restaurant, by now I had taken to drinking Reyka on the rocks and I was surprised how brilliantly the straight vodka matched the Asian influenced tasting menu. With the sunsets lasting well into the early hours we hit the town where I drank my body weight in vodka cocktails with my wingmen and new found ‘wing women’ (its worth noting here that there were a couple of ladies on the trip who could drink like a proverbial fish. You know who you are). Late into the night, we had the courage to try a few local bar snacks of cured puffin and the infamous fermented shark. The shark is given a fermentation process before being hung to dry for about 6 months. I don’t know who or why they came up with this method of curing the fish, but it was indeed a very brave man who first ate it. Putrid is the word I’d use to describe the flavour.

Root + Bone Does Iceland

Day 3 began with a raging hangover as we headed off for a foraging master class with top Icelandic chef and foraging expert, Úlfar Finnbjörnsson. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I am hung over, there is nothing I want to do more than forage for seafood. While the rest of the group foraged for mussels along the shoreline, Joe Petch rose to hero status when he appeared on the beach with all the ingredients for Bloody Marys. Good boy Joe. Once the group had enthusiastically collected all of about 8 mussels, we loaded up the van and made for a place to eat lunch next to a geothermal energy plant. Luckily Úlfar had stocked up on mussels before hand, expecting little bounty at that time of the year. The group feasted on mussels while I feasted on more Bloody Marys and a few stiff Reyka shots while Úlfar taught me about some of the many native herbs and plants that can be foraged in Iceland.

Dinner was a degustation menu at the renowned Nordic restaurant DILL. Opened in 2009 by local chef, Gunnar Gislason, in the depths of Iceland’s economic implosion, this labour of love has been voted best restaurant in Iceland since opening. If the previous night’s meal had impressed me, DILL really took it up a notch. Salted cod, crispy parsnip and dill started the small bites along with fairy floss like dried catfish with burnt butter and smoked mayo. The beetroot with liver and roasted yeast was brilliant, the roasted yeast lending a caramel nuttiness to the dish. The larger plates included highlights of more salted cod, this time paired with apple, celeriac and fried cod cream. Pork belly with sun chokes and smoked hazelnuts was suitably sticky and earthy and the lamb fillet with salsify was served with lamb fat giving the dish a richness that rounded out the meal perfectly. Dessert was Skyr: Icelandic yoghurt served with celery and roasted oats. The meal was exceptional and matched with wines and champagne by our knowledgeable and passionate Irish sommelier. Of course we followed this with a tour of more cocktail bars and even more Reyka cocktails with everyone on the tour giving it a good nudge, some taking it to the next level and drinking through to dawn.

Saturday was the final day of the tour, but before heading to the airport we stopped off at the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa for a treatment and a good old fashioned soaking. I was impressed with the moon-like barren volcanic landscape and the steaming lagoon; however, the floating ‘massage’ was a true test of mind over matter as found myself resisting getting a raging erection in front of the family visitors and my fellow tour buddies. Don’t make it weirder than it was. I was also impressed by the fact they had a bar in the lagoon where you could buy beers. By this stage there were a few of the crew who were struggling, and by struggling, I mean dying. One passed out on the toilet and nearly got left behind while another spent most of the flight home blowing chunks in the loo. Others had a slight greenish tinge to their complexion. A few seemed normal. If you get the chance to go to Iceland, take it. For the ultimate outdoor experience, it ticks all the boxes; a spectacular island with a surreal landscape, hot springs, fresh air, volcanoes and women that are very easy on the eye. The restaurant and bar scene is excellent, led with passion by some very talented chefs and bar tenders, and be sure to visit the Reyka Distillery. William Grant & Sons have created something special in Reyka Vodka; one of the purest vodkas distilled in one of the purest countries on the planet. If you happen to see Björk, tell her I’ll be back.