It’s a weekday afternoon, and the wife and I are doing shots.
We’re enjoying thimble-sized glasses full of chilled liquor, accompanied by slices of smoked sausage, pickled herring, and bite-size chunks of bagel with lox spread. In between sips, I’m smacking my lips in savory delight. But we’re not drinking tequila, vodka, or even my beloved whiskey.
With that kind of spread and the spicy smell of caraway in the air, it can only be one thing we’re drinking: Aquavit.
No need to be embarrassed if you don’t know anything about aquavit. To be honest, before I started working on this piece, I didn’t know much about the Scandinavian spirit, either. The name comes directly from the Latin term for alcohol, aqua vitae, which means “water of life.” Aquavit is a throwback to the earliest distilling era, when rough, raw booze was spiced with a variety of herbs and seeds to make it more pleasing to drink. In this case, the main flavoring is caraway seeds. Seriously, caraway seeds.
“We always like to explain aquavit to folks as the Scandinavian cousin to gin,” says Jon O’Connor of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His aquavit won Best of Show at the American Craft Spirits Association competition last January. The big difference, of course, is that the dominant flavor of gin is juniper instead of caraway in aquavit.
And that’s where things get a bit interesting. According to the so-called U.S. Federal Standards of Identity, what makes a distilled spirit legally aquavit in America is caraway flavor.
But as Lexi, the mononymous founder of the Old Ballard Liquor Company in Seattle, put it, “there are hundreds of aquavits in Scandinavia, with vastly different flavors, styles, and applications. For straight shots, the aquavit should be lighter in flavor and well balanced. For food pairing and cocktailing, it should be more robust with an aggressive spice bill or wood to compliment the other ingredients.”
Talk about a perfect storm of opportunity for American distillers. Aquavit easily slots into gin or vodka cocktails that are already popular, like the Bloody Mary. “Why anyone would use any other spirit for that drink in particular is beyond me,” wonders Alan Bishop, the distiller at Spirits of French Lick in Indiana, who makes a pleasantly oily aquavit that does, indeed, taste great in a Bloody Mary.
Most importantly, though, aquavit is a spirit that most Americans know next to nothing about. “It’s a blank slate, a tabula rasa,” says Christian Krogstad, founder of House Spirits in Portland, Oregon, which produces Krogstad Festlig Aquavit. “You make a gin, and they may say, ‘I only drink Tanqueray.’ You make a brandy, and they only drink Hennessy. Aquavit... even if you look at the traditions, they’re so varied.”
Dean Browne, the one-man show at Rowhouse Spirits in Philadelphia, agrees. “It’s really a new thing,” he says. I’ve known Browne for years and he’s the only distiller making aquavit within a two-hour drive of my house. “It’s an exciting category for us. All you need is caraway,” he says. “The rest is up to you. Think of where you can go.” His Nordic Akvavit is made with caraway, dill, fennel seed, and orange peel.
I talked to a new aquavit maker, Robyn Cleveland, who is planning on producing his Norden Aquavit in Michigan early next year. He’s been drinking aquavit for about 14 years, got hooked on the unique flavors, and thinks it could be the next big thing. “We want aquavit to be seen in the same light that gin is currently,” he says. “It’s a spirit with a rich history that should be shared and revered the world over.”
Aquavit could be a big thing, if only people got to know it. It’s an almost uniquely food-friendly spirit, and savory in its own right, with a history and tradition that people can take or leave. The food traditions are particularly appealing with the Scandinavian hygge phenomenon enjoying a mild surge of popularity in America. Lexi is on top of that; Old Ballard isn’t just a distillery, it’s a Nordic deli, where they make their own butter, and cure their own gravlax.
If you’re going to try aquavit, you should probably start with a real Scandinavian one. The most familiar is Aalborg, and that’s what my wife and I were day-drinking: clean-tasting caraway-forward stuff that really did make pickled herring appealing. We had some Linie too, the Norwegian stuff that’s aged in sherry barrels, first in a warehouse and then shipped out to Australia and back to cross the equator (the Linie, the “line”) twice. It was smoother, a bit creamy, but still has a caraway hit.
“If someone has never had aquavit, it’s fun to introduce it to them,” says Krogstad. But “if they’ve never had aquavit, chances are they’ve never had pickled herring.” Krogstad grew up with both, and when he found the market temporarily bare of aquavit about 10 years ago (a perfect storm of importer re-sets and re-positioning took all the imports out at once), it seemed natural for him—a distiller by trade—to make some. How else are you going to enjoy your pickled herring?
“You shouldn’t eat pickled herring without aquavit,” Krogstad insists, straight-faced, as he pours some of his eponymous spirit.
In addition to cured fish, in Scandinavia there is actually a whole aquavit protocol. “The standard way is to pour a small glass and toast among friends,” instructs Jacob Grier, the U.S. ambassador for Aalborg and Linie. But there’s a twist, “there is no clinking of glasses. Instead, each person makes eye contact, says, ‘Skål!,’ drinks the aquavit, and makes eye contact again.” And then, presumably, they have a bit of herring.
Grier is also the founder of Aquavit Week, which runs from Dec. 3 through 9. There are events planned in Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, Chicago, and D.C. I know I’ll be drinking along with, of course, my smorgasbord spread.