What's More American Than Aquavit?
Always and forever, I carry the torch for my beloved Scandinavian spirit. These domestic bottles will quench your Nordic thirst.
Even though I am from New Jersey, I am a northern person at heart. I’ve spent swaths of my life in Vermont and Iceland. If you follow me on Instagram, you may know that I am a slightly obsessed with Swedish islands. Namely, it is my deepest earthly desire to own an isolated island on a Swedish lake. Just a tiny, modest island. Hopefully with a little red cottage, connected to the mainland only by a rowboat. When you can no longer reach me, that’s where I will be. I will be drinking aquavit. And I will be so happy.
Why aquavit? Well, when it comes to beverages, sweet is easy to love. Sweet is simple, unthinking, unchallenging. Sweet never asks anything of you, never suggests that you meet it halfway. Fruity liqueurs and sugary mixers and syrupy concoctions never force you to question long-held beliefs as they tend to your needy sweet tooth. Sweet gives you a figurative shoulder rub even when you don’t deserve it.
Then there’s savory. Savory bites a little, smells of strange aromas, and tastes mysterious. Chewy, earthy, salty, spicy, bitter, and smoky can all be confounding to the person who loves sweet. But savory doesn’t need to impress you. Savory wants you to think for yourself, to embrace complexity. Savory is going to speak another language and expect you to keep up.
Savory, ever so slowly, has pushed its way into the modern bar. More and more drinkers are moving out of their sweet comfort zone and into the land of umami.
High atop the savory spirit list sits aquavit. Aquavit, literally “water of life,” is a distilled spirit (grain or potato) that’s flavored predominantly with caraway and/or dill. There are usually a bunch of other herbs and spices in the mix, but the caraway or dill must be the lead botanical. In essence, aquavit is like a gin that’s flavored with caraway or dill, rather than juniper. Or, for those poor souls still clinging to their vodka: Aquavit is like a vodka laced with savory herbs.
It’s difficult to understate how central aquavit is to the traditional tables of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. You’ll find aquavit at holidays, during formal business dinners, or at family lunches on Sunday, often accompanied by a beer back. Aquavit flows during the annual midsummer holiday in late June, when sunlight stretches into the wee hours. However, in recent years, aquavit had fallen out of favor with younger drinkers.
“Outside of holidays, it was seen as a old-man drink,” says Thomas Klem Andersen, a friend who wrote the Danish drinks blog Cocktails of Copenhagen. “For the younger generation, it was something you drank in shots straight from the freezer. But that’s changing. “ Aquavit began to emerge as an artisanal spirit in the late 2000s, around the same time that the cutting-edge New Nordic cuisine began to influence restaurants around the world.
Anyone who follows my work knows that I am a fierce, long-time advocate of aquavit. I am, perhaps, an aquavit zealot. I wrote a piece for the New York Times in 2018 entitled “Jump-Starting the Aquavit Renaissance.” (I am still awaiting this renaissance btw.)
In fact, aquavit is one of the few spirits in the world that traditionally pairs well with food. It’s always been sipped alongside pickled herring, smoked salmon, or boiled crayfish. “It pairs really well with fatty fish,” Andersen says. Which makes sense if you think of other pairings with caraway and dill.
While there a number of small, craft aquavit distillers popping up throughout Scandinavia, the three brands we’re most likely to find in the U.S. are Aalborg (from Denmark), Linie (from Norway), and O.P. Anderson from Sweden. Norwegian aquavit generally ages in sherry casks. With Linie (which means "line" in Norwegian) those casks are famously carried aboard ships that cross the equator twice before it is sold; the voyage date and ship are listed on every label. The flavor is supposedly “mellowed by its voyage.” Aalborg, particularly its taffel or table-style bottling, is a little more intense with more in-your-face carraway aromas and flavors. If you have the coin, O.P. Anderson’s “Björk” bottling is pretty awesome.
What’s even more exciting to me is the growing number of American distillers who turn out excellent aquavit. One of my favorite American spirits (one you will find me sipping on at home many evenings) is Norden Aquavit, produced in Michigan by Robyn Cleveland and Summer Ransom-Cleveland. I first tasted Norden in Copenhagen at an aquavit conference called Spirikum (as I said, I am an aquavit zealot). At Spirikum, Norden won awards over many top Scandinavian brands. (Find Norden here, usually for $35-40 or under)
Other aquavits that I love include Minnesota-based Gamle Ode—which makes a dill-forward aquavit, something incredibly rare to find in the U.S.—and House Spirits’ Krogstad Aquavit from Portland, Oregon.
Less traditional (more “American”) and mellow is a new aquavit called Batch 22 that’s launched with some hype. I would call Batch 22 an aquavit with training wheels (“common ingredients found in classic aquavit – anise, fennel and cumin— were overpowering and unappealing…they crafted a spirit that would be extra smooth, complex and approachable with every sip”). It may appeal to an aquavit newbie.
Though, of course, I would always encourage even a newbie to walk on the savory side.
A Trio of Aquavit Cocktails
In cocktails, aquavit can be tricky. Perhaps not surprisingly, it works well as flavorful, botanical substitute for vodka in a classic Bloody Mary. It also pairs really with spicy ginger beer or aromatic tonics. But that’s just the beginning.
This is a variation on the Salty Dog and the Greyhound created at Ruby, a cocktail bar in Copenhagen. The number, in fact, refers to a Danish long-distance bus called the Graahundbus, or “Greyhound bus.” The original called for a dill-based aquavit, and Gamle Ode in Minnesota makes a really good one. But this drinks also works well with more typical caraway-forward aquavit.
1 ounce aquavit
1 ounce grapefruit juice, fresh squeezed
1 ounce Campari
Sprig fresh dill
Rim an old-fashioned or rocks glass with salt, then fill it with ice. Combine the aquavit, grapefruit juice, and Campari in a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into the salt-rimmed glass. Garnish with the dill.
Cocktail historians believe the Red Snapper was the less-goopy precursor to the modern Bloody Mary. This Nordic twist calls for aquavit instead of vodka, for a much more herbal, spicy experience.
2 ounces aquavit
2 ounces tomato juice
1/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes celery bitters
Pinch fine sea salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice. Add the aquavit, tomato juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, celery bitters, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Shake well, then strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Garnish with the lemon peel twist.
Somewhere between a Bloody Mary and a Dark n’ Stormy, this drink, adapted from the cocktail bar Duck & Cover presents a challenge to one’s flavor preconceptions. “Consider that this must be one of the healthiest drinks you’ll bump into,” says Thomas Klem Andersen, editor of Cocktails of Copenhagen.
2 ounces aquavit
1 pinch celery salt
¾ ounce lemon juice
1 barspoon simple syrup
1 ounce ginger beer
1 ounce beet juice
Sprig fresh dill
Slice of ginger
Build in a highball glass, fill with ice, and stir. Garnish with a dill and a slice of ginger. Andersen also suggests “a thin slice of dehydrated beetroot” if you really want to channel New Nordic.