This holiday season, there’s new reason to enjoy skåling—the Scandinavian drinking tradition of staring at your drinking partner, taking a shot, and looking them in the eye again—thanks to the rise of aquavit.
Though its roots are in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, aquavit—a caraway, dill and/or fennel-forward liquor—is steadily gaining popularity in the States because of a surprising bevy of American-based producers and cheerleaders.
In its native lands, aquavit, not eggnog, is the holiday drink, paired with traditional herring, meat, or hákarl (fermented shark popular in Iceland).
The laws regarding aquavit production vary from country to country, but in the U.S. there’s only one rule: Aquavit must contain caraway and/or dill.
For those unacquainted with aquavit, the foreign liquor is similar to gin, which also must contain its own essential ingredient, juniper. Like gin, there are aquavit variations, which present notes of coriander, orange, cardamom, and other herbs and spices used in the process.
If aquavit, which gets its name from the Latin phrase “water of life,” isn’t on your bar this Christmas, it should be—even if the aquavit is an American one, like House Spirits’ Oregon-made Krogstad with caraway and star anise or Sound Spirits’ Seattle Blekksprutt with caraway, dill, coriander, fennel, and anise.
If you are thirsty for some aquavit, an American-made brand may be the most accessible option.
According to Jacob Grier, the founder of the annual Aquavit Week festival—a series of educational events and workshops at various bars and restaurants—the majority of the aquavits available in the U.S. are, in fact, domestically produced.
One of the few imports available is one of the world’s most notable aquavits, Norway’s Linie (pronounced lin-yuh), but even this brand is relatively hard to find.
Linie emerged by accident in the 1800s during a round trip voyage to Australia with multiple stops.
Jørgen Lysholm’s family sent a batch of aquavit to Indonesia. What didn’t sell—which was everything, because natives there at the time were not interested in it—got shipped back to Trondheim. Upon the batch’s return, the family noticed it had a richer flavor.
The Lysholms began loading barrels of aquavit onto freighters that carried dried cod, a Norwegian specialty export, and retrieved them after a round-the-world trip. This method is still practiced today. The boat each bottle travels on is typed on the bottle’s inside label, and its journey can be tracked online.
But finding a bottle of Linie in the U.S. can still be almost as difficult as finding that ship in the middle of the ocean.
“Shame on us back home who did not want to make our product available for the U.S.,” says Hakan Swahn, owner of Aquavit restaurant in New York, which produces its own house-infused aquavits.
However, heritage aquavit producers are beginning to recognize a crucial opportunity to capitalize on an American public that is thirsty for new spirits and cocktails.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to increase the portfolio here,” says Christer Olsen, the U.S. manager for the Norway-based Arcus, which owns and produces 70 different aquavits in addition to other spirits. “We can prove to the rest of the management and the board that this works.”
Olsen estimates U.S. aquavit sales are 70,000 to 80,000 cases per year. Arcus is starting to make a serious aquavit commitment to the U.S., he says. The company hopes to eventually double aquavit imports, starting by bringing back the Danish Aalborg brand.
There’s certainly evidence of an increasing aquavit demand in the U.S.
Grier’s Aquavit Week began four years ago in Portland, Oregon, but has since expanded to Seattle, Montana, and Vancouver, with plans to go east soon.
“I’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm and creativity that bars are putting into this,” Grier says.
The new American interest in aquavit has gotten a bit of a push from the culinary world, too.
“It helps that Nordic cuisine is really taking off in the States,” explains Joe Spiegel, who began importing Iceland’s beloved “Black Death,” Brennivín aquavit, to the U.S. He launched Brennivín America to provide curious U.S. civilians and restaurants their fill of the drink.
“Patrons are becoming more adventurous and seeking out flavors,” Spiegel says. “It’s a herbal, savory taste not typically experienced by an American palate.”
Spiegel says he was motivated to spread the aquavit gospel for personal rather than material reasons. “In the form that we know it, this is not a brand engineered product. It’s an existing product that I happened to like,” he says.
Spiegel also admits that “it’s not for everybody.” Still, considering Americans’ thirst for exotic drinks and gin’s seeming ubiquity on the cocktail scene, aquavit may become a new bar mainstay in the U.S.
Olsen is certainly optimistic more Americans will get on board, if they give aquavit a shot (pun intended). “Whenever you use gin, try to use some aquavit and see what happens.”