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Spirit of Scandinavia

(post, Jacob Grier)

Is aquavit poised to become the next trendy spirit on craft-cocktail menus? 

Perhaps not. Many American drinkers are completely unfamiliar with this Scandinavian spirit, and even liquor-store owners often seem perplexed by it, filing it away incorrectly with sweet liqueurs. 

Europe isn't exactly making efforts to market aquavit over here, either; in a recent trade article about aquavit’s potential growth, a spokesman for Norway’s largest spirits producer, Arcus-Gruppen, indicated that the company anticipates little demand outside of northern Europe.

But I am more optimistic about aquavit’s future in the United States, for three reasons.

The first? Our substantial Scandinavian population, built up from waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries and settled mostly around the Great Lakes region — largely in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. 

Second, skilled domestic distillers have begun trying their hand at making aquavit. And third — and most important — aquavit makes delicious cocktails.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Aquavit is traditionally enjoyed neat from small glasses. But it's also surprisingly good in cocktails."]

So what is aquavit, anyway? It’s a neutral spirit flavored with herbs and spices, historically made in Scandinavian countries. Its production process is similar to that of gin. 

For gin, the primary botanical is juniper, which is complemented by complex blends of other herbs and spices. For aquavit, the botanicals tend toward the savory side; caraway, fennel, anise, and dill are common. (In the United States, labeling rules mandate at least some caraway flavor.) 

Though often unaged, some aquavits are aged in oak barrels to mellow their flavor; Norwegian “Linje” aquavits are eccentrically aged at sea, passing the equator (the “line”) twice on their journey, a process that is said to improve their taste.

Aquavit is traditionally enjoyed neat from small glasses. Unaged aquavits benefit from being chilled; ones that have spent time in a barrel can be sipped at room temperature. The spirit is a natural match for Scandinavian foods like rye bread, pickled vegetables, and smoked fish, and bottles of aquavit are sure to make an appearance at feasts and celebrations.

Americans tend to drink their spirits in cocktails, which is perhaps one reason why aquavit has been slow to catch on here. Juniper spirits from Dutch genever to English gin have long played a role in American cocktail culture, which is reflected in our canon of mixed drinks. 

Aquavit, in contrast, shows up rarely in books of cocktail recipes. Yet aquavit has untapped potential as a mixing ingredient. In short, if you like gin, aquavit is worth exploring.

There are currently four distilleries producing aquavit in the United States, two of them introducing their products very recently. Here's a look at each, along with cocktails in which to mix them.

h3. House Spirits

The first contemporary aquavit distilled in the United States comes from House Spirits in Portland, Oregon, the producer of the well-known Aviation gin. For many local drinkers, Krogstad is the first aquavit they try. It’s made with caraway and anise, the latter coming through strongly. 

House Spirits has periodically offered limited-edition aged versions called Gamle Krogstad (“gamle” means old); this year they’re releasing Gamle Krogstad as part of their main portfolio of spirits. 

In the meantime, here’s an excellent cocktail featuring their unaged aquavit, recently renamed Festlig (“festive”) Krogstad, a spin on the classic Negroni from Kevin Ludwig, owner of Beaker & Flask in Portland.

Norwegian Negroni

1½ oz. Krogstad Festlig Aquavit
1 oz. sweet vermouth
¾ oz. Cynar

Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange twist.

h3. Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit

The newest entrant to the American aquavit market is Gamle Ode, a dill-flavored aquavit that hails from Minneapolis and is distilled by 45th Parallel Spirits in Wisconsin. Owner Mike McCarron produces the spirit to recreate dill aquavits he enjoyed during smørrebrød dinners in Denmark. The aroma of fresh dill fills the air as soon as one uncorks the bottle. I can imagine it pairing very well with cured meats and seafood. 

For cocktails? My fellow cocktail blogger Ron Dollete suggested a Bloody Mary, and that’s a great idea. Another way to feature it is in a simple Aquavit Collins — light, refreshing, food-friendly, and absolutely perfect for warm weather.

Dill Collins

1½ oz. Gamle Ode dill aquavit
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water)

Combine in an ice-filled collins glass and stir. Garnish with a sprig of fresh dill.

h3. Sound Spirits Aquavit 

Sound Spirits, a new distillery in Seattle, Washington, offers the most botanically complex aquavit on the American market, made with caraway, dill, coriander, fennel, and anise. No single one of the botanicals dominates. This balance lends itself to pairing with a quality real-quinine tonic, such as Q Tonic or Fever Tree. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try making your own; here is the recipe we use at Metrovino, where this pairing is on our cocktail menu.

Aquavit and Tonic

1½ oz. Sound Spirits Aquavit
2/3 oz. house tonic
1 lime wedge

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled collins glass, squeezing the lime wedge into the drink. Stir gently before serving.

h3. North Shore Aquavit

Of the four domestic aquavits currently on the market, only North Shore’s is barrel-aged. Made near Chicago, which once boasted a Swedish population second only to Stockholm’s, North Shore Aquavit is flavored with caraway, cumin, and coriander. 

The oak aging helps mellow this spirit, making it a good one for sipping. The strong cumin notes also make it an excellent spirit to use in the Golden Lion cocktail, a drink I originally devised with cumin-infused vodka. The aquavit, Galliano, and celery bitters add savory notes to the sweet white vermouth.

Golden Lion

1½ oz. Dolin Blanc vermouth
¾ oz. North Shore Aquavit
½ oz. Galliano
2 dashes Bitter Truth celery bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.

Hopefully these four aquavits are just the beginning for American distillers, and perhaps if the market grows we will see more imports, too. Aquavit’s wide range of flavors and versatility in cocktails remains largely unexplored. Pick up a bottle to chill in the freezer or mix in a cocktail, and give this Scandinavian spirit a try.

reference-image, l