Like most numbskull ideas, this one sounded perfectly sane at the time.
The “time,” not surprisingly being the end of a long, confused night at a Center City tap room a couple weeks ago, when a pal told me, “Yo, did you know March 1st is National Beer Day in Iceland? “
Who cares? It’s too freaking cold up there, I say.
That’s a myth, he tells me. The Gulf Stream warms the whole island. And besides, they only call it Iceland to fool the foreigners, so they don’t run off with their gorgeous women.
Doesn’t take much to get me off the barstool. Like that, 700 bucks goes onto the Visa, and I’m flying 2,700 miles to this Northern Atlantic outpost to check out the sun, the beers and the babes.
Once again, I’m sad to report, I have been duped.
It’s minus 4 centigrade outside, it’s snowing sideways, and I’m trapped in the back of a tourist van with a bunch of drunken Norwegians on the prowl for, I believe the way they put it is, “da booty. “
Thus, when a bottle gets handed to me, I don’t pass.
The label says Berserkja Brennivin, and it goes down like week-old kerosene. Not a single brew to chase it, either.
Welcome to National Beer Day.
The event supposedly marks the date in 1989 when the government lifted the nation’s 3.2 max on suds. For most of the 20th century, the authorities had wisely feared that, supplied with anything stronger, the frozen, isolated population would drink itself into a permanent stupor.
Only problem: when they lifted the ban, someone forgot to tell the country’s brewers that they were now authorized to add a little flavor. It’s no wonder that, when I asked the locals about Beer Day celebrations, they shrugged and pointed me to the city’s infamous Icelandic Phallological Museum – a collection of severed penises, from whale to rat.
After a quickie tour of the weiner house, it takes just 90 minutes to consume the nation’s entire variety of lagers on hand at Reykjavik’s best beer bar, Kaffi Brennslan. By my count, there are four: a zero called Egils Gull, a waste of time labeled Thule and two from Viking. Even the local version of Guinness is weak as chamomile tea. Believe me, you’d rather drink Meisterbrau than any of these losers.
Even the locals turn their back on them. On Laugavegur Street, which is party central in this town, everyone walks around with sixpacks of Carlsberg and Heineken.
There is, however, the aforementioned Berserkja Brennivin.
This is a local specialty, which is to say it is most appropriately distilled in a bathtub. It’s named after the Berserkers, the screaming Aryan maniacs who bit their shields before raging into battle. Its name means “burning wine,” which is an understatement. Clear and caustic, it’s a schnapps made from potatoes and spiced with, egad, cumin and coriander. Whatever the proof, it’s toxic.
The government never banned the stuff, since the island had been drinking it since Erik the Red. Instead, it was packaged in an ugly black bottle with a generic, black label. The medicinal packaging, the authorities hoped, would turn off the citizens.
Instead, Brennivin sold better than ever, thanks largely to its new nickname: Black Death.
Black Death – you’ve gotta like that. In America, brewers spend millions boasting about their sparkling water from cool, mountain streams, and wineries choose select grapes grown in organic vineyards.
In Iceland, the national drink is a plague.
I take another gulp and look outside the window at a view that is vaguely reminiscent of the 7th ring of hell. A mile outside the capital, the landscape is a vast, ice-covered lava field, dotted with steaming geysers and dormant volcano craters. There are no trees, no houses, just gaping glacial fissures that have presumably consumed all living beings.
The more I swallow, the more I appreciate the barren beauty.
The babes, on the other hand, require no alcoholic enhancement. They are, present company excepted, The Most Beautiful Women in the World. We’re talking Nordic goddesses here, guys, statuesque and stunning, blonde and blue-eyed, and . . . OK, if I sound like a dog, excuse me. But Reykjavik’s reputation for centerfold-quality specimens is so well established that the national airline now runs cheap “midweek madness” tours just to ferry in foreign oglers.
Unfortunately, that means the streets are now full of pathetic cases, staggering around with half-finished bottles of Danish beer, looking for pickups and striking out. It’s getting so bad, one local magazine columnist recently warned visitors, “Let’s be real, do you really think a superstar lady is going to fall for a drunk, drooling tourist? “
Like I said, it’s very cold here in Reykjavik.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a Viking Sterkur.