On a trip to Iceland, I was pretty excited to start talking to some of the local makers and distillers in the country. One that caught my eye was 64° Reykjavík Distillery. They use ingredients foraged from around the country to make some incredibly unique liqueurs. I had to reach out.
Snorri Jónsson, the founder, was kind enough to accept my interview request. Unfortunately, some scheduling difficulties got in the way so I wasn’t able to visit and chat with him in person. But we were able to catch up over email and he offered some great insights on the distillery and Iceland
When and where does your story begin? What got you interested in spirits?
SJ: 64 Reykjavik Distillery is the first Icelandic distillery, est 2009 in Reykjavik. We are respected for delivering our local customers high-end spirits such as Gin, Vodka, Aquavit, and liqueurs from foraged Icelandic botanicals. There was a gap on the market for quality spirits back in 2008, Both Internationally and locally here in Iceland. We decided to free our passion for alcohol and approach to quality and build Iceland’s first distillery. Our backgrounds in engineering and design were quite helpful in completing our journey. It was sometimes hard to explain our vision to the people around us. Friends and even professionals were looking at us with skeptical eyes.
What are some of the challenges of operating a distillery in Iceland?
SJ: It’s a small country of 350k people, alcohol is highly taxed, and a state monopoly on retail. NO supports are for small local producers. Thankfully Iceland has become very popular as a travel destination in the last few years. Our products are loved by locals and visitors.
How has COVID impacted Reykjavik Distillery?
SJ: Yes. Naturally, during COVID, there has been limited sales in HORECA and travel retail. The local government vines stores were limited affected.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
SJ: To feel the deep gratitude from our customers. They are thankful for having a chance to enjoy flavorful and honest natural spirits.
I’d imagine the line between work and play when running a distillery can get blurry. When you do manage to detach, what do you like to spend your time doing?
SJ: Work takes most of our time. But the best way to detach is with any kind of physical activity. The local swimming pools are very popular in this sense.
Can you tell me a little about Icelandic drinking culture? What are recent trends you’ve noticed in Icelandic (or global) drinking culture?
SJ: We do not follow up on trends. Icelandic drinking culture can be described as a fusion of Scandinavian cultures. Big volumes like the Finns, frequent like the Danes, monopoly like the Swedes, expensive like in Norway.
What are some of the ways that Reykjavik Distillery takes the environment into consideration?
SJ: It’s all about the environment and circular economy concerning all the steps, i.e., supply, process, distribution, recycling, and waste. For example, we use mainly locally foraged botanicals. In case we need to import, it comes from the closest suppliers in Europe, preferably straight from the farmer. All our facilities are operated with 100% certified green energy. Remains are 99% recycled.
Do you get to travel a bit for work? Where are some of your favorite places to travel?
SJ: We aim to minimize travel as much as possible. In case we travel, we try to be extra efficient, combining work, family visits, and pleasure.
What’s something my readers should know about Iceland?
SJ: Iceland is a unique untouched sensitive place with magical nature. It offers extreme variations of scenes; in August, there can be found the incredible quality of wild blueberries, crowberries, and other botanicals.
Can you tell me more about how and where you forage for ingredients?
SJ: We pick partly ourselves, and partly we get straight from farmers and foragers around the island. It is about 10 to 15 individuals with years of experience in foraging.
What are your thoughts on liquor having the same “terroir” characteristics as wine?
SJ: Terroir influences how things grow; hence terroir influences the flavor of the fruits of the plants, as seen in vines from grapes. The same applies to our wild foraged berries that have proven to give richer flavor than the cultivated ones. However, there is not the general habit of mentioning the terroir on liqueurs. As it has not made sense due to the sad fact that the majority of liqueurs from the big brands are made from artificial flavor and coloring and not with the real fruits. We hope one day this will change.
On your website, you say “hail to the elf,” where does that come from?
SJ: Icelanders are superstitious by nature. The elves around Iceland are powerful creatures that act supernaturally. It has been described by a clairvoyant that the distillery is watched over and protected by an elf named Benedikt.