Saturday, January 03, 2015

Iceland! Fire & Light

What better way to spend New Years Eve than at a fabulous artisan gin and whiskey distillery in Iceland? My thoughts exactly.
We somehow managed to get ourselves to the Eimverk Distillery near Reykjavik today. We spent a few days already in Iceland. 

Eimverk distills small batches of gin and whiskey using all Icelandic barley and herbs. We had a full lesson of what it takes to make a great gin or whiskey, what exactly barrel aging does, and some of the subtleties of alcohol distillation.

I distill frankincense but essential oil distillation is completely different than alcohol distillation.
In simple terms, distilling frankincense means slowly cooking frankincense gum in water, cooling the steam as it comes out, so that it turns back into liquid, and then separating the oil from the water. Pretty simple really, at least in theory.

Distilling for gin, tequila, rum, vodka or whiskey means you start with a base of grain, or potato, or sugar cane, or agave, or whatever. It has to ferment. Here in Iceland, Eimverk distillery uses an organically grown Icelandic strain of barley as their base, and this is for both gin and whiskey. Not being an avid drinker I didn't know any of this stuff. But that is now rectified.

So this organic barley is grown at the Arctic Circle and was apparently grown for hundreds of years in Iceland but then disappeared for a long time due to a minor temperature dip and is only now, in the last twenty years coming back. It's a hardy and complex barley, with a lot of tastes and aromas.

Icelandic Strain of Barley. Organic from the Arctic Circle

First the barley is soaked in lovely machines-- former milk tanks-and then left to ferment a little while. Then it's distilled in this magnificent German copper still and what comes out of there was delicious enough for me. It was like an eau de vie, light and lyrical yet very clear and crystal-like in the medley of tastes. But at this point it's still not ready; only a kind of bare bones canvas. But it was already magnificent. And this is the base for both the gin and the whiskey. It's what happens after that illuminates it and creates those distinctions.

For gin, it goes next into another still, along with some handpicked and fairly native Icelandic herbs and gets distilled again. While all gin must include juniper berries, this one also has rhubarb, crow berries, Angelica root, birch leaves, wild Icelandic thyme, kale (!), Iceland moss and sweet kelp! That's crazy ridiculous in my book, just what I'd hoped to find here.

Young Malt Whiskey and Pot Gin
 As I said, I'm not really much of a drinker, but something like this.....? Absolutely. Each sip of Vor premium gin was an aromatic and gustatory adventure. Those botanicals just paraded by my nose, each one bold and identifiable, with the alpine crispness of juniper dancing along throughout. I think they are making the final preparations for export to the USA, so I expect we'll be able to find it in New York pretty soon. It's worth noting that this delightful Gin just won a double gold award at the San Francisco world spirit competition.

Floki whiskey is also unique and wonderful. Rather than go into the still with those botanicals for a third distillation, this goes in a barrel, to age. The barrels are fired on the inside and made of white oak, from the United States. The marriage of oak and burnt help create that caramel note, and the sweet surprises like banana and brown sugar I found. I'll point out again that I am not a whiskey aficionado, or a wine connoisseur, although I enjoy them both. I just smell essential oils and eat ice cream, and while I do enjoy some odd liqueurs I am not a cocktail person by any means. This whiskey was so inspiring! Chocolate! Coffee! Caramel! There's a whole lotta love goin on in that puppy.

Aquavit, Gin, Barrel Gin, Single Malt Whiskey and peaty one

Practically speaking, I can also say (this from the Master Distiller himself,) that the Icelandic barley is low in sugars and this results in a bigger, more interesting and more complicated flavor.  Both of these alcohols were just great, absolutely wonderful. Look for them in your country soon, or give them a call next time you're in Reykjavik. Links to follow at the end of this post.

I'm here in Iceland with Tom; we used to do a little New Year's Eve thing and now we're doing it away. We flew here for a few days just to enjoy a different scene and nothing to do with essential oils and what a different scene it is! I didn't realize three and a half hours of daylight would throw me off so much!

Blue Lagoon

We spent yesterday at the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor geothermal pool. In their own words: "Iceland’s high-temperature geothermal areas are found inside the spreading zone of two tectonic plates: the American and the Eurasian. Iceland straddles the two, resulting in the country's active volcanic systems. A cold mixture of seawater and ground water meets cooling magmatic intrusions deep in the earth, where it is rapidly heated and moves towards the surface. The temperature of this geothermal fluid exceeds 200°C at a depth of less than 1 km."

The pools contain silica and an abundance of minerals:

Silica (SiO2)               251
Sodium (Na)               7.643
Potassium (K)               1.117
Calsium (Ca)               1.274
Magnesium (Mg).           0,60
Carbon dioxide (CO2)   11,4
Sulphate (SO4)             31,8
Chlorine (Cl)               15.740
Fluorine (F)               0,18
Total Soluble Chemicals. 25,800 mg/kilo

It's pretty cool, and lovely in the short winter days. If you're in Iceland, make sure you make a reservation. There are buckets of white silica everywhere and you are welcome to slather it all over your face while you bathe.

We've also been to the penis museum, really. It's very strange and they have lots of giant whale penises in formaldehyde.

Icelandic National Handball Team 2008

If you're a vegetarian here, better to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel because the Icelandic restaurant scene is not pretty. Sheeps head, putrified shark, blood pudding, minke whale steaks and horse are all on the menu, in addition to excellent seafood, but it's gonna cost ya....

Totally badass--Here's what Icelanders do at New Years

Everything shuts early, 4 pm at the latest. They go have dinner with family, party with friends, then bonfires are lit throughout the city, symbolically burning away the old year. About 10 pm people (maybe 90%) go home to to watch a television show I can't write because I don't have the patience to find the accent marks necessary for Icelandic. This show is a year end in review and very satirical, and hilarious, they say. After that's over most people in the city come out of their houses and plenty of them made their way up to the Church (Reykjavik Catherdral) where we were. Now, mind you, a few fireworks have been going off the entire time, from different places. Fireworks are sold by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue; it's all volunteer and this is one way to make sure they have the best equipment. They rescue about 1200 people a year. 

The streets were still basically deserted at 11 pm, with the odd firework or two somewhere out there. So we walk up to the church at 11:15 and there are lots of people and tons of them are setting off their own fireworks and it just crazier and crazier. It's your civic duty to buy as many fireworks as you can! By a quarter to 12 it was complete mayhem-fireworks everywhere, in every direction, from the middle of the crowd, from people's houses, with their kids, everything. The entire sky was exploding, and there was not a single police officer anywhere. Not one. In fact, we have not seen a single policeman anywhere, the entire time we've been in Iceland. We did want to, as their Instagram account is adorable.

Everyone was on foot. It was freezing and began to rain, then sleet. No one budged and they don't use umbrellas in Iceland either-too much wind. It was easily the most badass display I've ever seen. They didn't even bother counting down the time to 2015. Really. Just kept setting off their rockets and firecrackers and fireworks and all. There's a big clock on the front of the church and Apple owns time now anyway, but no one noticed. They just don't give a shit. Not an authority figure in sight. Some people were drinking but hardly anyone seemed drunk. It was just a big crowd of people making their own celebration in the middle of town with a hell of a lot of gunpowder and no animosity. New York seems absurdly tame. I can't imagine any place I know where people would act like this. Not New York, not Muscat, not Salalah, Rome, nowhere. It was quite liberating. There is no public fireworks display from the city of Reykjavik. It's all private and no controls at all. For all I know, the prime minister was standing in the crowd setting off his own bottle rockets.

I swear Iceland is the honey badger country. All that endless geothermal energy, and pretty extreme weather although I gather it could be a lot worse. They just deal and they totally don't care. They heat their floors. The energy is endlessly renewable and the population of the entire country is less than 350,000. They have whale watching tours but also eat whale steak. They have volcanos and northern lights and for some reason the moss (really a lichen) is preternaturally beautiful. Elves and fairies live everywhere. The Icelandic ponies are fierce and hardy. There is a group offering hikes only in snowstorms! They don't even bother to salt most of the sidewalks as ice doesn't faze them. Local people can wear slick bottom shoes, and still walk normally down an icy path with no problem. I can't walk though the parking lot without falling on my ass.

We came for a few days holiday, and I was surprised at how the long nights affected me, and how free society seemed. Living as I do in two ultra-controlled environments, (Oman and New York,) it invigorated me with an arctic blast!

 Vor Gin
Floki Whiskey
Blue Lagoon Geothermal Pool
Iceland Penis Museum
Reykjavik Police on Instagram

Monday, October 13, 2014

Welcome Back Absolutetrygve!

Like lovers who can’t stay away from each other! I left my blog but it didn’t last, did it? And why should it? I never said it was permanent, even if I did say goodbye! I closed this blog because of the ferocity of attack from unnamed persons. Trust me, it wasn’t some nasty emails but far more malevolent. For a bunch of reasons, I’m now reinstating it. I missed absolutetrygve. I felt like a part of me was missing. And even though I tried to make the store blog a substitute, it wasn’t the same and the result is that I didn’t write for that one either. Maybe I will now, if my brain can be free to write this one.
Most people everywhere are anonymous these days--I’m not. It’s probably smarter to be, from a safety standpoint, but I haven’t lived any of my life from a safety standpoint, so why start now?

This isn’t a diary and it’s not meant to be a professional mouthpiece nor am I a chemist, botanist, or scientist. I just do what I do, thank you very much. That involves distilling frankincense, playing in jasmine flowers, making some very interesting and wicked cool sweet things, like gelato and candy, and traveling a lot. It also involves living in The Sultanate of Oman, my adopted home. Yes, I live in the Middle East, in case you are reading this for the first time. I live in a country routinely described as “The Sleepy Sultanate” and which I can describe as one of the most peaceful countries I know. I try not to write too much about politics because there is no point. All I know is that almost everything I thought long ago was mistaken. Not really. Kind of. I can’t describe my political views in a glib sentence or two. Or a paragraph or two. I come from Southern California, which was very liberal when I was growing up, lived mostly in New York City, where annoyance, impatience and complaining is the national sport, and have traveled extensively, mostly of the long rambling hitchhiking trips in the era before the internet. And I am very grateful for that. I also lived a few years in Vancouver Canada, which was very kind to put up with me, an over-everything punk rock enthusiast. Now I have been living for about 5 years in Salalah, which is basically an Arabic Tea Party state, but with tribes. And am now spending most of my time in a particularly fine and elegant part of Muscat, the capital, and it’s all flowers birds, the sea and beautiful architecture.

I am still alive and well, as of October 13, 2014, as I sit writing this in the Oman Air lounge at Muscat Airport. I have been living in Salalah for many years now, and my distillery is slowly but surely growing and morphing into an elegant and professional artisanal factory.....

Our essential oil production has grown and we now make enough for me to finally visit the IFEAT show, in Rome this year. That’s the International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades. It’s an event I wanted to go to for about 15 years but until now there was really no reason. It was a spectacular event, and even though they pulled out every stop, as they say, to put on a great show, it was primarily because I was simply bowled over by how nice people were. It was a big shock. Anyway, it was grand, and now over, and I’m in Muscat, in delightful circumstances and  on my way down to see about a few things in the south.

We did a few crazy distillations the past few months too. Tom was here a couple of weeks ago and he goaded me into doing some of the resins I always threatened to do--green. And white. The oils are beyond spectacular. We’ll be doing more of them!
I’ve also done the occasional myrrh distillation, but myrrh is very unpredictable and obstreperous. It’s the original hell distillation, although I guess you could argue that other oils are more hellish for different reasons, like garlic, or nasturtium. But if you’re thinking of a career as a myrrh distiller, stock up on those antacids cause you’re gonna be a continual basket of stress bubbles.

We also did lemongrass! That was fun; I didn’t expect it would be. Lemongrass is just so....plentiful and ordinary, like grass I suppose! I just did my small experimental 25 litre litre still so I can’t make too many statements about any of these aromatics, but still, it was fun. And the Dhofari lemongrass was about as dark and virulent and complicated as you could imagine. It doesn’t have much in common with that ordinary little standby bottle everyone keeps in stock and uses regularly and without enthusiasm. Lemongrass is usually an oil people talk about the properties of. Like saying she has “a great personality” or he’s “a lot of fun.” No need to go that route here. The Dhofari lemongrass rocks very hard, and very individualistically. I should seriously shut up about it now, because I don’t have any for sale.

I finished my gelato studies this past May in Bologna and am now a certified Gelatiere. I had a completely fabulous time and am happy to report that the kind of people who are serious enough about Gelato to spend an entire month in Italy learning how to make it properly, are really fun people to hang out with and also really nice as well. So this year has been a lot of shockingly nice people and I know that’s kind of an annoying adjective and very trite and meaningless but it gets the point across and that’s enough for me.

There’s all kinds of crazy wild stuff bubbling in my various pots and I’ll write about them as they happen not before, because I did learn quite a harsh lesson before.

We did a CNN interview last month and it’s broadcast this (October 2014) month on CNN International’s Inside the Middle East. You can watch it online! I’m only a tiny part of it; you can get a great idea of Dhofar’s wildlife, monsoon, language, food and people.