The vodka swillers, adepts at pre-bottled sangria and Jack and Cokes, will try aquavit and shudder with revulsion as if they had just stepped on a slug barefoot. An equivalent and long-term feeling of disgust for aquavit will follow them back to the bar for a lemon drop to wipe away any memory of the assault.
However, the sophisticated tippler will sip. Then sip again to better marvel at the chewy, umami-boasting taste of caraway seed and near-cutting sweetness of star anise. So unlike the bursting bouquets of gin or the layers butterscotch in some whiskeys, aquavit rings clearly and opens new doors to the world of distilled spirits.
If you grew up in one of America’s many Scandinavian communities – such as those in Oregon, Wisconsin, Washington or Colorado – then you’ve likely curled your toes with a blasting shot of the precocious brew. Others may have encountered it on the occasional bar menu where it’s confusingly shunted to the vodka, gin or liqueur section when it doesn’t quite fit.
Aquavit is a unique specimen altogether and to classify it as gin or vodka would be spirited sacrilege to any distiller. Think of it as akin to placing a cider on a beer list; yes, they have some similarities but, all and all, they’re different.
Native to Scandinavia, aquavit (or akavit) translates from the Latin aqua vitae meaning “water of life,” a title also enjoyed by clear fruit brandies known as eau de vie. In fact, the moniker was given to many spirits since they were often safer to drink than water during the times they were first distilled. These liquids were then infused with botanicals for medicinal purposes as well as for flavor.
Aquavit begins with a neutral spirit usually made from potato or grain that is then infused with botanicals. The botanical recipes differ among producers, but caraway or dill are the primary flavors. Star anise, guinea pepper, orange peel and cardamom may be used in conjunction.
The aquavit then may be aged in barrels. Norwegian aquavits, in particular, are primarily caraway-forward and spend from 19 months to 20 years in sherry oak casks that can impart flavors of fruit and vanilla. Color ranges from clear to dark amber depending on the methods used.
Aquavit’s savory profile lends it towards boisterous pairings. Think dark breads, oily fish, pickles, fried foods of all kinds, fatty sausages, strong cheeses and other powerfully flavored foods. The spirit is designed to reflect the flavors of Scandinavian cuisine (e.g., like the dill used in pickles and salads, or the caraway in breads and sausages).
Yet for all aquavit’s popularity in Europe it remains relatively obscure in North America. Most small liquor stores or supermarkets may not even carry it. “It’s a budding genre of spirits in the United States,” notes Andrew Calisterio, a representative of Krogstad Aquavit. He’s noticed that most bar menus still list aquavits under gin or vodka if they even stock it at all.
But opinions are changing, and that’s due mostly to the tenacious work of distillers and bartenders. Portland now hosts an annual Aquavit Week in December and sees scores of spirit connoisseurs and novices eager to learn. In 2016, more than 30 distillers came from around the United States and Europe to participate.
Lee Medoff, head distiller and owner of Bull Run Distilling Co., notes that American aquavits are becoming popular in Europe. “We aren’t bound by tradition and we can do what we want with our aquavits,” explains Medoff, whose Pinot Noir barrel-aged aquavit has captivated the palates of Nords and North Americans alike.
In addition, bartenders are particularly thankful for the growing selection of aquavits on the market. One of them is Baron Stelling, a popular Sacramento bartender, who says that whereas gin offers flowery or juniper-forward flavors, aquavit has a different profile.
“Aquavit’s savory punch allows it to balance out sour or sweet flavors,” notes Stelling. In essence, aquavit can fill a support role often relegated to bitter or salty elements.
Savory cocktails themselves are an emerging trend in the cocktail scene, branching far from the familiarity of the stalwart Bloody Mary. (Not to knock the classic, however. A Bloody Mary made with aquavit is certainly a drink worth experiencing.)
“Savory is only now just being utilized in the cocktail world and aquavit allows that umami flavor to step forward either as the star or as a support,” remarks bartender Karina Martinez, who recommends interested people play with aquavit in citrus-prominent drinks.
With aquavit opening up a whole new world of cocktail possibilities, many Sacramento bars such as Bottle and Barlow and Paragary's have already begun introducing cocktails with aquavit, and more home bartenders are seeking it out for their personal liquor cabinets.
In your quest to find the aquavit right for you, be sure to remember the most important and historical aspect about aquavit: It’s a social spirit meant to be enjoyed with others. So go along with the Norwegian tradition of raising a shot of aquavit with friends and family and shouting the traditional Swedish toast of “Skål!” Hopefully, with it, you’ll convert a few vodka swillers to sophisticated tipplers much like yourself.
Lysholm Linie: By far the most easily found aquavit and certainly a classic example. Linie starts strong with caraway and finishes hard with an undaunted bite of star anise. This Norwegian favorite spends times in sherry casks at sea crossing the equatorial line twice in its journey, hence its name.
Krogstad: Distilled by House Spirits out of Portland, Ore., it’s named after the distillery co-founder, Christian Krogstad. Expect a punchy, clean sweetness of star anise and caraway. Ideal for cocktails or sipping neat. Easily sourced from most larger liquor stores.
Blinking Owl: Macerated using locally grown durum wheat and malted barley, its distinct flavor is due to Santa Ana hibiscus flowers added to the maceration – an embodiment of California distilling culture.
Temperance Regnig Dag: Distilled by owner Lee Medoff at Bull Run distillery in Portland, this darker aquavit has a soft balance of spice and a slight fruitiness due to it being aged in French oak pinot noir barrels. Excellent served over ice. The name translates to “rainy day” from Swedish. A prime example of contemporary American aquavit.
Gamle Ode: This Minnesota company crafts a number of aquavits, but their Dill Aquavit is one worth noting for its fresh dill forwardness. In addition, they produce two styles of aged aquavit that use rye whiskey barrels, making it a wonderful introductory aquavit for scotch connoisseurs.
Brennivín: Imported from Borgarnes, Iceland, this aquavit brazenly slaps you on the tongue with caraway. Lovely over ice or used in place of vodka for a Bloody Mary.
The Staple Diet
Baron Stelling (of Paragary’s and Shady Lady) loves the simplicity and flavorplay of pairing aquavit with rye whiskey.
1 ounce aquavit
1/2 ounce rye whiskey
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Place the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
A rendition on the classic 20th Century cocktail, it’s been described by Andrew Calisterio as a “birthday cake shot.”
1 1/2 ounces Krogstad Aquavit
3/4 ounce creme de cacao
ounce lemon juice
1 teaspoon simple syrup
Place in a shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass.
Aquavit & tonic
A riff on the classic.
1 1/2 ounces aquavit
3 ounces tonic water
Lime wheel for garnish
Pour the liquids into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime wheel and serve.