Iceland's history with drinking is unusual. First, Prohibition was declared in 1915. But this was broken rather quickly. Spain threatened to boycott Icelandic cod fish imports if Iceland didn't in turn allow Spanish wines to be sold in their country. So in 1921 Iceland caved, and legalized wine. Then, hard liquor was legalized in 1935. But here's when things got especially strange. Beer, at least that which had an alcohol content over 2.25% (or basically every beer but near-beer, or maybe some light varieties), was still banned, even though its stronger cousins were okay. Huh? The thinking was apparently that since beer was cheaper than wine or hard liquor, if it was legalized alcohol abuse would be out of control. Also, Iceland was trying to get its independence, and beer was associated with the country it was trying to free itself from, Denmark. At one point, in the 1970's and 80's, the standard practice for those wanting beer was to mix a weak, legal, less than 2.25% beer with vodka. Which, not surprisingly, was considered by most to be an unappetizing compromise. Finally, in 1989, "real" beer was legalized.
I was able to try two Icelandic liquors, both in 2014. A friend of mine (Hi Justin!), went there on vacation, and brought back Brennivin, and Opal Red. The former, nicknamed "Black Death," is Iceland's signature drink. It's a type of schnapps made from potatoes, and flavored with caraway, and has an alcohol content of 37.5%. Opal Red is made by a company, Noi Sirius, that also makes candies and chocolates. It's also a type of schnapps, and has an alcoholic content of 27%. I didn't take notes, so my memories are therefore a little vague. However, I recall not liking the Brennevin that much, finding it harsh and strong tasting. But, on the other hand, I really did like the Opal. It was herb-y, and had a mentholated-type flavor. I declined a second Brennivin shot, but did have a second Opal. (Incidentally, movie director Quentin Tarantino opined that Opal is, "The worst drink on Earth," so clearly he disagrees with me.)
Now onto the great taboo, the beer. In about 2013 I saw Olvisholt Brugghus Lava smoked stout for sale. Stouts are a style I almost never like. It was also expensive, being about $8-10 for a 16 ounce or so bottle. But, I figured, "When else am I going to find a beer from Iceland?" and bought it anyway. It was, alas, just as I thought--pretty terrible. And strong at 9.4% alcohol. I recall I did finish it, but only because it was so rare and relatively pricey, not out of interest or enjoyment. But, most raters on Beer Advocate thought it was good, so if you like the style, you might like this one.
Happily, a local beer store in South Jersey got in some other Icelandic brews about six months ago. As I do have my notes for these, I'll reproduce them.
1) Einstok Icelandic Pale Ale (listed as an American-style pale ale) 5.6% alcohol: B-. Seems more like an European-style pale ale rather than American. More malty than hoppy. Good, but not great.
2) Einstok Icelandic White Ale (a witbier) 5.2% alcohol: C+. A bit bland for a witbier. Not that spicy or wheat-y. Drinkable, though.
So, as you can see, both were at least decent. They are, not coincidentally, both beer styles I tend to enjoy, so this makes sense. They were also more reasonably priced, being about $2-$3 for a 11-12 ounce bottle. In Olvisholt's defense, though, while I thought what was in the bottle was inferior to the Einstoks, the bottle itself was cooler--it has a cool erupting volcano on its label.
Therefore, when it comes to Icelandic alcoholic beverages, I found them to be a mixed bag. Some were kind of bad, others good to very good. I look forward to trying some of these again, and other new types, but honestly, I don't know if/when this will happen, given Iceland's exporting tendencies. Also, I'm hankering to try one of Iceland's infamous dishes called hakarl. It's fermented shark, and is supposed to be one of the most intense edibles in the world. Famous chef Gordon Ramsey couldn't keep any down. Anthony Bourdain said it was the worst thing he's ever eaten. And "Bizarre Foods" host/diner Andrew Zimmern called it "hardcore," and "not for beginners." So you can see why I'm intrigued.