After the Summer of White Claw, Can This Be the Autumn of Aquavit?
I get that this is a little tedious. Hear me out
A professional drinks critic tells himself stories in order to live.
A tulip-shaped glass is better than a brandy snifter for tasting Cognac. A bulbous whiskey cairn is preferable to a rocks glass for nosing bourbon. A long thin stemmed flute is superior to a shot glass for sipping tequila. When we describe a 30-year-old Armagnac as being “the color of dark topaz that keeps unfolding in the glass,” we are not kidding. When we write that its aromas are “bright and youthful, full of candied ginger and orange zest, then turning savory and complex, with notes of cardamom, fallen leaves, campfire, and even a hint of cannabis,” it is sincere and earnest. When we conclude that the “finish is long and almost emotional, evoking youthfulness gently gilding past, toward decaying autumn leaves, suggesting the last bonfire of the year,” we mean all of it. Every word. That’s why we rated it 99 points.
We steel ourselves with the certainty of our own palates. We tell ourselves that all of this matters a great deal.
Or at least we did until the Summer of White Claw, when Americans all over were suddenly rejecting the sort of “artisan” (or “craft” or “super-premium”) wine and spirits I write about. What they were drinking instead was so-called hard seltzer — fizzy water with a bit of fruit flavoring, sold in slim cans and pitched as low-calorie and low-carb. So much White Claw had been sold that, in September, the company announced a nationwide shortage.
The White Claw boom was a plot twist I was completely unprepared for. I’d spent a good part of my summer tasting Scandinavian aquavit from — yes, I’m not lying — glasses designed specifically for aquavit. Meaning that I observed the sudden ubiquity of White Claw as I sipped aquavit from a bougie aquavit glass designed by Riedel. I was adamant that this was all just a passing fad. I found myself tweeting out middling tasting notes on White Claw. Ruby grapefruit White Claw: The immediate impression is something between flat Fanta and vodka-spiked Sunny-D. Mango White Claw: Sort of like when we made Hawaiian Punch as a kid but didn’t use enough powder. Natural lime White Claw: There’s notes reminiscent of the first sip of Corona after the lime has first been squeezed in.
Near summer’s end, cultural critic Amanda Mull wrote a short essay for The Atlantic about White Claw that suggested large cohorts of people had grown exhausted from learning “the ins and outs of booze culture,” and we now stood at the end of a 10- to 15-year cycle of “interest in laborious traditional methods” like the ones I’d advocated for and chronicled for years. Now, she said, people were more interested in a “quick-and-easy” drink that “doesn’t taste like much” — thus, hard seltzer, positioned as almost healthy, in straightforward flavors like black cherry, ruby grapefruit, natural lime, mango, and “pure” (meant to resemble a vodka and soda).
It became clear that the joke was on people like me, the fancy booze writers with obscure tastes and esoteric glasses. In reality, it didn’t matter what I had to say about it at all. Mull was clearly onto something profound. We live in exhausting times. That we’ve also possibly reached a point of exhaustion with taste and tasting is not surprising.
All of this hand-wringing, of course, creates a specious comparison between White Claw on one side and, on the other, a little-known foreign spirit with a challenging taste profile, traditionally consumed straight without ice: the aforementioned aquavit. There’s obviously a vast span of drinks that lie in between. Certainly, spirits like rye whiskey and mezcal are also an acquired taste and have still managed to become wildly trendy over the past decade. Everyone in the booze business, in particular, seems to chase the “next mezcal.” In fact, I have been guilty of calling aquavit the “next mezcal” in several venues.
For years, in articles and books, I’ve been trying to spark an interest in this spirit — to “jump-start the aquavit renaissance” as it were. I love the crisp, caraway-and-dill bite of unaged aquavit, and I love the Danes’ ritual of drinking it neat, at a traditional lunch, along with a beer back, as they eat pickled herring and smorrebrød. Skål!
I actually see aquavit as having some potential with the American drinker, especially since trendy artisan gin is still blowing up. Aquavit can reasonably be described to newbies as “gin’s cousin,” with its predominant botanical being caraway or dill rather than juniper. There have been some signs of life that aquavit has a future. Absolut Vodka introduced an aquavit brand called Åhus last year to compete with big Scandinavian brands such as Aalborg from Denmark and Linie from Norway. But the real aquavit energy has come from American brands such as Gamle Ode from Minnesota, Krogstad from Portland, and Norden from Michigan.
Recently, I chatted with Robyn Cleveland, a bartender from Ann Arbor who created Norden with his wife, Summer. Norden is a beautiful aquavit, and for me, one of the most exciting craft spirit launches in recent years. It’s so well-balanced that it can be at the table and sipped along with foods like shellfish, very much like in Denmark. I was hoping that maybe this the tipping. I excitedly asked Cleveland: Was aquavit finally having its authentic moment?
“Well…no,” he said. “It’s just not ingrained into our culture to drink aquavit the way they do in Denmark.”
Norden was having most of its success the same way that most spirits do — as a cocktail ingredient. That’s a difficult proposition with a spirit like aquavit, which doesn’t necessarily have a go-to cocktail like a martini, Manhattan, or margarita as its vehicle. Aquavit is at the whim of inventive bartenders to create a brand-new cocktail.
“Cocktails are great. I love cocktails,” Cleveland said. “But I do want people to drink it the way it’s traditionally consumed, too. But the biggest problem is people just don’t know what it is. I don’t know. Maybe some brand will eventually put a kitschy Viking on the label, but we just didn’t want to do it that way.” Norden recently gained nationwide distribution, but it still will only make about 3,500 cases in the coming year.
I thought about Norden Aquavit a lot during the Summer of White Claw. It was exactly the kind of spirit, made with “laborious traditional methods,” that people may have been rejecting. But maybe the problem isn’t the beverage itself. Maybe the problem is people like me, people who fetishize what is authentic. People who insist on drinking aquavit neat from a proper aquavit glass.
In this age of exhaustion, maybe I need a new approach. Therefore, I would simply like to suggest that you give a spirit like aquavit or genever a try. And I recommend that you sip it in whatever goblet, beaker, tumbler, mug, or plastic cup that you please. Beyond that, do not learn any more of the beverage’s ins and outs. Ignore all the history, rituals, or discussions of production methods. Do not learn about its complex blend of botanicals or the minute differences of style. Instead of doing the traditional, authentic Scandinavian pairing with beer, why not just crack open a White Claw — maybe grapefruit or mango — and it chase down with that? It’s actually not bad. Maybe you’ll like it after all.