Into The Black: 36 Intense Hours In Iceland

When the weather's as grim as it is now and you're offered a "two-day whisky immersion experience in the rugged wilds of Iceland’, you don't turn it down. Especially when the promise of helicopter rides is thrown into the mix...
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When the weather's as grim as it is now and you're offered a "two-day whisky immersion experience in the rugged wilds of Iceland’, you don't turn it down. Especially when the promise of helicopter rides is thrown into the mix...

It’s a dismal, early-winter’s morning in London when the email pings in from a Sabotage Times head honcho. ‘Fancy this?’ I scroll down for details:

‘Escape The Sun press trip’ … ‘Two-day whisky immersion experience in the rugged wilds of Iceland’ … ‘snowmobile drive’ … ‘helicopter ride’ … ‘Northern Lights’… ‘stay in two of Iceland’s best hotels’ … ‘top-quality food from some of the country’s best chefs’ … ‘meet the James Bond of the whisky world’

Um, yes, I do fancy it. London seems to be doing a pretty good job of escaping the sun anyway, but I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for years.

A month later, I’m in the arrivals hall at Keflavik Airport, on the edge of Reykjavik, along with a collection of 20-odd scribes and photographers, bloggers and vloggers. We’ve all been driven then flown in via Heathrow from all around Europe by scotch whisky behemoth Johnnie Walker to sample their newest concoction, Double Black.

It’s been created from specially selected whiskies from the west coast of Scotland, which begs the question: why are we in Iceland? The aforementioned James Bond of the whiskyverse, Ewan Gunn explains that Double Black is the most intense, smoky, rich blend they’ve ever made, so they decided to bring us to a country where, currently, it’s dark for 19 hours a day to taste it. In short, they’ve gone one blacker. And why not?

Sure enough, it’s 4pm and dark when we shuffle out of the terminal into nature’s blast chiller. The PR folk have come prepared, furnishing us with rucksacks (black) containing super-duper polar jackets (black) before ushering us towards five massive jeeps (shiny black) manned by well-upholstered drivers.

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As the motorcade sweeps out of the car park, I feel like Donald Trump must do when he pitches up in an unspoilt country ready to slap an environmentally catastrophic golf course on its ass. Luckily for Iceland, I intend mostly to be drinking scotch instead.

I’m sitting in the back row chatting with a bright spark from the Huffington Post, when we hear Ewan’s disembodied voice from the lead car: “Are you ready to go into the darkness?”

Yes, tonight, we’re bypassing the delights of Reykyavik and heading straight into the wilderness. Soon, virtually the only visible lights are those that mark the edges of the road and the traffic diminishes to the odd passing car. Our driver sticks AC/DC’s Highway to Hell on the iPod. This blackness shit is already getting very real.

After an hour or so, we are near our destination and it becomes clear that the jeeps’ tractor-esque wheels are not just for show. Our destination on the south-western tip of Iceland is Lake Kliefarvatn, the largest lake in volcanic Reykjanes peninsula, which is only reachable by a bumpy snow-covered track.

On arrival, everyone dons their mega-jackets and jumps out of the jeeps. A trail of tea-lights guides us over rocky outcrops to a small cave where amid the orangey-yellow glow of a fire and lanterns, Icelanders offer us canapés and glasses of the new Johnnie Walker brew. The Double Black is slipping down nicely (I’m certainly getting smokiness, and don’t think it just the campfire fumes) as we survey the vista beyond the cave. The lake is just 50-odd feet away, but all I can really make out are the sinister shapes of huge, angular rocks against an inky blue sky.

After a hearty solo rendition of a traditional Icelandic song by one of our hosts, we rejoin the motorcade for a drive to our accommodation for the night.

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Hotel Ranga (hotelranga.is), the only four-star hotel resort in Southern Iceland, and renowned as one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. A vision in pine, the hotel is run on environmentally-friendly principles, with naturally heated hot spring water delivered from a local geothermal power plant so you can feel good about yourself when you take a Jacuzzi (most standard rooms come with a Jacuzzi). It has also got a massive stuffed polar bear in jazz-hands pose and wearing a Santa hat in reception. All good.

After a quick freshen up, it’s time for a ‘vertical tasting’, led by Ewan.

A lover of whisky and travel, Ewan has basically scored his dream job as Global Scotch Whisky Ambassador & Category Training Manager for Diageo (the parent company of Johnnie Walker). Brought up in the tiny Scottish hamlet called Bower, nowadays he travels for 70 per cent of the year and has clocked up nearly five million air miles in visiting more than 60 countries across six continents. Johnnie Walker whisky is drunk in over 200 countries, so he’s still got a fair way to go yet, mind.

Tonight Ewan takes us through the entire Johnnie Walker range, bar Double Black. While we swill it, nose it and sip it, he offers his poetic descriptions of the layers of favour in each blend and how they are made. This is a man who has tasted single malt scotch whiskies from every distillery in Scotland, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Ewan is not one of those whisky snobs who think mixing good whisky is a crime. He has just returned from the Dominican Republic, for instance, where they mix whisky with coconut water. Better than is sounds, he claims. In China, some people like to mix it with green tea.

We have a snifter of the Gold Label Reserve, a whisky with a creamy, honey sweetness. Ewan recommends pairing this with chocolate or a crème brulée. Some drink it straight from the freezer “for increased viscosity” and it’s also great on crushed ice with a slice of orange.

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He tells us that the favourite whisky of Johnnie Walker’s master blender, the almost perfectly surnamed Jim Beveridge, is Red Label. Jim likes to drink it with lots of water to bring out the individual flavours from the different distilleries from which he blended the liquid.

While Beveridge has the latest technology at his disposal nowadays, it’s rather comforting to hear that it is still his sense of smell and taste that are the key to making a good whisky.

Ewan is also keen to expose the myth that ageing whiskies for longer necessarily makes them better. It doesn’t – there are some very bad old whiskies. However, when you do find a good one like the 18-year-old Platinum Label, you can count on a hefty price tag as a third of the whisky in each cask evaporates during that time period.

Squiffy, but defiantly still vertical, we adjourn to the dining area. Highlight of the meal is a delicious locally-sourced trio of salmon for a starter – fishing is still key to Iceland’s economy so you’ll never go far wrong ordering fish.

To further illustrate the versatility of whisky, Ewan proffers a Double Black, crème de menthe and lime cocktail to accompany dessert. Drinkable, but, personally, I won’t be rushing to order it.

A local scientist gives a little talk on the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, she also predicts that we won’t see it tonight. Nonetheless, after a Platinum nightcap (rude not to), I join the optimists who put our names down at reception to be woken up in the event of Northern Lights action.

After a disappointingly undisturbed night’s sleep, we’re up and on the road well before the crack of dawn. Dawn doesn’t crack until about quarter to eleven as we are approaching the Mydalsjökull glacier, and we get our first glimpse of the Icelandic landscape, with its wide open spaces in shades of chocolate, punctuated by snowy peaks.

First activity to cram into the daylight hours is a snowmobile safari (arcanum.is).

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Most of us get a snowmobile to ourselves, but up at the front of the peloton, Ewan has the trip’s official cameraman sitting on the back of his snowmobile facing the other way to capture all the action behind. We’ve been briefed that the most important thing to remember when snowmobiling on a sidehill is to lean hard towards the slope or the snowmobile will flip over. As the cameraman has no idea when they are approaching a sidehill, Ewan’s solo leaning is not always enough for them to remain upright. With frequent stops to rescue the duo and other fallers on the ride up to the top of the glacier, we resemble more a procession of old grannies on mobility scooters than the Milk Tray man vibe I was expecting. It’s worth the schlep though for the spectacular views, and on the way down as people get the hang of the steering, we manage to reach some adrenaline-pumping speeds.

Back at basecamp, there’s just time for a wee dram before four helicopters appear on the horizon, arrow in low over our heads and land nearby ready for our flights over the Icelandic Highlands. (The helicopters were booked from two companies: Heli Iceland – heli.is –  and BlueWest Helicopters – bwh.is).

After a quick briefing from the pilot of our eight-seater helicopter about how to avoid getting our arms chopped off by the propellers on exit – basically, don’t wave to your mates – we’re up and away. Now I’d love to tell you all about the geology of the area we flew over, and, apparently, our pilot dispensed nuggets of information about it throughout the journey. However, I didn’t hear one syllable because my headset didn’t work. Also I was slightly preoccupied by the possibility of throwing up on the Dutch journalist sitting in front of me due to a combination of the pilot’s intermittent comedy swoops down into the valleys and a chocolate bar inadvisably wolfed just before take-off. What I can say is that the landscape is bleak and breathtakingly beautiful.

The helicopters take turns to land on a track close to the pine forest. Disembarkation goes smoothly without any loss of limbs, and we’re led to an octagon-shaped wooden hut for a lunchtime barbecue followed by another tasting. This time Ewan presents us with three glasses of unidentified whiskies – one served on the rocks, one straight, and the other with water.

The one with ice tastes citrusy. Grassy-ish. It’s also quite creamy which of course is due to the ice increasing viscosity (see, I was listening last night). The straight one is also fruity with a hint of vanilla, has a good mouth-fill as they say, and lingers a bit longer on the palate.

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The one with water is very smoky.

After supping all three, we are asked to guess which whiskies are which. Although I’m getting right into this whisky-tasting lark now, clearly I have no idea. Ewan reveals that they are all in fact Black Label which goes to show that the way you serve whisky can unlock different flavours and layers of complexity.

All very interesting, but daylight is running short already, so we hop into the jeeps and zip off to see some geysirs in an area called, um, Geysir.

Geothermal areas in Iceland are divided into high- and low-temperature areas depending on the nature of the geothermal system. As it is within the volcanic zone, Geysir is a high-temperature area with a base temperature of around 250ºC, so when water below the surface touches the red-hot base rocks it bubbles up and spurts up towards the surface surface. Or something like that. Anyway, we stand near one steaming hole (to use the technical term… ) which ejaculates a jet of ultra-boiling water every five minutes. Very impressive.

Afterwards there’s time for a spot of shopping in the Geysir Center (geysircenter.com). Obviously, no-one can afford to actually buy anything because Iceland is ludicrously expensive. I am sorely tempted by a woolly balaclava-with-handlebar-moustache which would lend panache to any armed robbery, but the £75 price tag is criminal. A tin of Icelandic air costs a fiver.

As darkness falls, there’s just time for a steam, sauna and open-air thermal bath at the nearby Laugarvatn Fontana Spa (fontana.is) before dinner. Outside, the contrast between the sub-zero air temperatures and the naturally-heated 40ºC water is hugely refreshing, although, be warned, that the water drawn directly from the ground beneath has a slightly sulphuric, stink-bombish odour.

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For this, our second and last evening, we are promised a ‘Feast of Intensity’ at the Trophy Lodge down the road from Geysir which is so exclusive it doesn’t have a website. The head chef, Jón Örn Jóhannesson, a Heston Blumentahl lookalike, has been challenged to create a five-course meal where each course is paired by Double Black whisky rather than wine. We shall be eating and imbibing in a candle-lit room watched by herds of taxidermy (never seen so many stuffed animals in one place – polar bears, mooses, reindeer… the lot – there’s even a little Arctic fox, the only native land mammal to Iceland) and just in case anyone’s in doubt that the intensity is about to be cranked up to 11, we’re given a ‘Dark Smoky’ whisky cocktail aperitif to start. After the crème de menthe misfire of last night, I have to say this one – made by heating a mixture of apple cider, honey, lemon peel and a cinnamon stick for three minutes before adding Double Black and a squeeze of lemon juice – is rather delightful.

Turns out that Icelandic Heston is a fantastic chef too. The dainty dish of breast of wild goose with blueberries complements the whisky, as does a beautiful lobster soup with star anise, ginger and chilli. My favourite companion for the whisky though is grilled venison loin with braised red cabbage, pears and creamed mushrooms.

Sated and with total whisky immersion achieved, it’s a merry hour’s drive back to Reykjavik, arriving at the plush 101 Hotel (101hotel.is) in time for second-to-last orders at the bar.

The next morning, my deep slumber is disturbed by banging on my door. It’s 6.15; check out was at six. Alarm failure (or perhaps a failure to set alarm?).

Wild-haired, red-eyed and in the formative stages of an iconic hangover, I’m the last man out and into the darkness and the black jeeps for the ride to the airport. Time to return to the light.