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.


Coming Soon: The Holocaust Documentary Hitchcock Was Almost Too Scared to Make

Before Hollywood dubbed him the "Master of Suspense," Alfred Hitchcock made anti-Nazi propaganda films for the British Ministry of Information. Some of his work from that period, including "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) and "Saboteur" (1942), enjoyed wide release, but two of the films -- "Bon Voyage" (1944) and "Aventure Malgache" (1944) -- were deemed by ministry officials "too subversive" to serve the allied cause and remained in storage until the 1990s.

Now another of his long-forgotten propaganda films -- perhaps the most disturbing -- is set to make its worldwide debut. The Imperial War Museum announced Wednesday that it had digitally restored and re-edited a nearly 70-year-old Holocaust documentary that Hitchcock worked on with Sidney Bernstein, the film chief of Britain's Psychological Warfare Division. The film has never been publicly screened in its entirety.

Toby Haggith, a senior curator at the Imperial War Museum and one of the people responsible for reviving the film, told the Independent that "colleagues, experts, and film historians" who had pre-screened the movie were profoundly disturbed by it. "One of the common remarks was that it was both terrible and brilliant at the same time," he said.

The film consists of footage captured inside concentration camps by Army videographers at the end of World War II. As the story goes, Hitchcock found the footage so horrific, he refused to return to the studio for a week after first screening it. When he finally did come back, he worked with Bernstein to give the film a cinematic treatment that would set it apart from conventional newsreel documentaries from the period.

The project was meant to be a British-American collaboration and the film was to have three versions, according to documents drafted by Bernstein: one for Germans living in Germany, one for German prisoners of war, and one for Allied audiences. The German versions were intended to remind "the German people of their past acquiescence in the perpetration of [war] crimes" and encourage them to take responsibility for those crimes.

It's not clear how much Hitchcock contributed to the film. He certainly didn't oversee any of the filming -- but he helped Bernstein order and set the mood of the piece. One of his major contributions, according to Bernstein, was situating the atrocities of the Holocaust within a familiar, pastoral setting, the proximity of which would shock audiences. A 2011 article in the journal Arcadia argued that the auteur's influence is "clear already in the beginning of the film when images of an idyllic countryside create, in light of the horror to come, a kind of vintage Hitchcockian suspense."

The project was abandoned for a number of reasons. The production ended up taking much longer than expected due to myriad logistical challenges. The U.S. Department of War and its collaborators, impatient to produce a short, to-the-point atrocity film, pulled out in light of these delays to make their own movie, "Death Mills." After hostilities ended in May 1945, the psychological warfare office was dissolved, leaving the film in the hands of the British Ministry of Information. By 1946, official demand for atrocity films had diminished in response to the changing political climate. A note (documented here) to Bernstein from an official at the Foreign Office highlighted some of the challenges to completing the film: "Policy at the moment in Germany is entirely in the direction of encouraging, stimulating, and interesting the Germans out of their apathy and there are people around the [regional commander] who will say 'No atrocity film.'"

Eventually, Bernstein, too, abandoned the film. Comprising six reels, the documentary lay forgotten in government archives until the 1980s, when they were discovered by a researcher. Shortly thereafter, PBS aired a version of the documentary made up of the first five reels and some additional Russian footage used in previous Holocaust films.

The digitally remastered version of the film to be released by Imperial War Museum next year will include all six reels, edited in a the way "that Hitchcock, Bernstein, and the other collaborators intended."

But will the footage leave contemporary audiences as traumatized as it left Hitchcock?

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