How to Tell if You’re Drinking Whale

How to Tell if You’re Drinking Whale

What does it take to become a true Viking? According to one Icelandic brewery, drinking their beer made with ground up whale bones will do the trick just fine.

To the consternation of much of the non-whale-eating world, the brewery, Steðji, announced Sunday that it was introducing a limited run of beer brewed with whale bones, making those who drink it into "true Vikings." The brew’s month-long run during the Icelandic winter festival of Þorrablót is the product of a partnership with Icelandic whaling company Hvalur and has quickly incited a backlash from environmentalists against the whalebone-quaffing people of Iceland.

But for all the ire it’s raised, here at Foreign Policy we can’t help but wonder: What does it taste like?

It’s dark, according to Dagbjartur Arilíusson, a spokesman for the brewery, and has a "smoked caramel taste with barbecued whale meat taste in undertone and aftertaste." The whale meat flavor, he says, might be described as somewhere "in between beef and fish." The beer, which will not be available for export, is meant to be sipped alongside such traditional nosh as "soured whale fat, burned sheep heads, soured sheep testicles, salted fish, shark, etc.," that weighs down the tables of Þorrablót celebrations.

The brewery uses the ground up bones of fin whales, adding the sterilized bone meal at the beginning of brewing and filtering it out at the end. "I’d say that it brings this grill barbequed whale meat taste into the beer," said Arilíusson. "But we don’t use that much of it, so it works a bit like a spice."

Iceland, along with Norway and Japan, is one of the few countries that still hunts whales after an international whaling moratorium went into effect in 1986 and is one of the last remaining commercial markets for whale products. After a two year hiatus, Icelandic whalers killed 134 fin whales during the 2013 whaling season — less than the 180 it aimed for — most of which were sold to Japan. Recently, it’s been running into trouble getting the meat out of the country: it’s illegal for whale meat to pass through European Union ports, and a shipment bound for Japan was turned back while en route through Germany. This past summer, the Icelandic shipping company Samskip announced that it would no longer take whale meat on as cargo.

"Demand for this meat is in decline with fewer and fewer people eating it," said the Whale and Dolphin Coalition’s Vanessa Williams-Grey. "Even so, reducing a beautiful, sentient whale to an ingredient on the side of a beer bottle is about as immoral and outrageous as it is possible to get. The brewery may claim that this is just a novelty product with a short shelf life," she said. But what is the "price [of] the life of an endangered whale which might have lived to be 90 years?" she asked.

But there is still a lingering domestic market. Icelandic whalers killed 38 minke whales — far short of their goal of 200 — for Iceland’s restaurants. According to the WDC, tourists consume as much as 40 percent of Iceland’s domestic whale meat. (Arilíusson’s description aside, most of the recipes for whale that I found involved cooking it like a steak — a practice described with some relish by onetime-whaleman Herman Melville in Moby Dick, where he declaimed the meat’s "exceeding richness," noting, "He is the great prized ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good.")

There doesn’t seem to be a precedent for such a thing as whale bone beer – or bone meal beer at all. "I think this the first beer of this kind here in Iceland," says Arilíusson. "The whale meal has got a lot of protein and very little fat, so with that and the pure Icelandic water and no added sugar, we have this ‘healthy’ beer."

The beer will be sold in Iceland from Jan. 24 through Feb. 22 and boasts a very sensible 5.2 percent alcohol by volume. After all, all those would-be Vikings don’t want to get too wild while sipping on endangered animals.