Aquavit, as the people of Norway, Denmark and Sweden know it, is not just spirit but a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation, often in a shot glass. While many countries have a spirit whose name translates to “water of life,” Scandinavian Aquavit is different . . . and can be intimidating until you get to know it.
So why are some enterprising bartenders seeking out this once-obscure but now increasingly popular spirit? Its flavor profile is one big reason. Whether served as a shot or as part of a cocktail, aquavit packs a mighty but complex punch, with a blend of herbs, spices and flavors widely associated with the holidays and winter.
“You can take any classic cocktail and swap it out with a clear unaged or aged aquavit depending on the recipe and it is going to work,” states Chris Grøtvedt, Bar Manager at The Thief (Oslo’s hottest boutique hotel). “If you’re looking to update a Negroni, take away the gin and use aquavit. Unaged aquavit has fennel and anise notes while the aged aquavit has vanilla and crème brûlée notes, which makes it a good alternative for a drink taking a bourbon or an aged rum.”
Aquavit, in fact, is catching on so much in the U.S. that several American-made craft aquavits are winning raves. Many of those distilleries are located in places known for their cold winters! The Chicago area is home to CH Aquavit and North Shore Private Reserve. Gamle Ode Celebration, Gamle Ode Holiday and Gamle Ode Dill are distilled in Wisconsin for 45th Parallel in Minneapolis. Montgomery Distillery Skadi comes out of Missoula, Montana, while Sound Spirits’ version is produced in Seattle.
Lysholm Linie, meanwhile, is perhaps the best-known brand of Norwegian aquavit on the U.S. market for its mellow flavor, derived from maturation in sherry oak casks. During aging, the potato-based Linie Aquavit’s newest release gains notes of caraway, aniseed, sherry and vanilla, which create a rich, herbaceous flavor and a warming sensation that’s as welcoming as a crackling fire. Linie, which gets its name from the Norwegian word for “line” (for being aged on a ship that crosses the equator twice, aged like this since its inception in 1805) also includes aged and unaged expressions that end up being nice foundations for a variety of cocktails.
Chris Grøtvedt, Bar Manager at The Thief (Oslo’s hottest boutique hotel).
So what’s a good way to introduce your bartenders and customers to aquavit? You can take cues from U.K.-born Jacques Langston, who is beverage manager at the Losby Gods resort near Oslo. Though Langston admits aquavit wasn’t his favorite when he set roots down in Norway, today he relishes teaching his guests about the strong and stalwart spirit. While he is particularly keen on staging wine and whiskey tastings, he finds himself fielding many requests for aquavit tastings. In fact, “the spirit of Norway” has been ordered so often at Losby Gods’ bar that the hotel now offers its own house label of aquavit.
According to Langston, drinking traditions differ between countries. In Sweden, drinking it is a summer tradition, while in Norway it is served in shots at Christmas time or at young man’s (or young woman’s) coming-of-age celebration. Danish and Norwegian aquavit are distilled from potato while Swedish aquavit is made from grain
. The 40% alcohol-by-volume spirit’s distinctive flavor derives from spices and herbs, with caraway or dill dominating the palate. Other prevalent notes include cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel and citrus peel.
Langston points out there are many theories on how aquavit came into existence in Norway, and recalls one about how a Danish lord presented the spirit to a Norwegian archbishop in 1531. He then explains many trace the start of aquavit production to the late 15th or early 16th century. “It could have been around for longer, but from that point on, the focus evolved into how to make it better,” he explains.
While a young generation of mixologists, such as The Theif’s Grøtvedt finding clever ways of spinning the heady spirit into approachable cocktails, Langston feels one should try and compare different expressions of aquavit the way one would with cognac.
“When you taste and nose it, taste the anise seed and herbs and look for nuances. Nose it, breathe it, get the flavors, roll it around the tongue, then sip and swallow it,” Langston says. “Although some people shoot it or sip it with ice, it should be served at room temperature if you are tasting it.”
The Nordic Ninja
by Chris Grøtvedt, Bar Manager, The Thief Hotel, Oslo
1½ oz. Gammel Opland Aquavit
¾ oz. Yuzu (citrus)-infused Sake
¼ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. green tea infused simple syrup
1 cucumber slice
1 egg white
Spray of absinthe
Combine aquavit, sake, lemon juice and simple syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain and pour into masu (sake) cup. Garnish with thyme, dehydrated lemon and star anise, which can be torched with a hand-torch.
Fjellbekk (Mountain Spring)
Traditional recipe, as prepared by
Jacques Langston at
the Losby Gods Hotel
Regular or diet lemon-lime soda.
Mix everything in a glass with ice. Pour in a tall glass with ice. Makes a nice, sparkling alternative to a champagne cocktail.
Maki Martini (Aquavit & Elderflower Martini)
by Fredrik Jonas Sjøberg, Hotel
2 oz. Morsa Aquavit
2 oz. Grey Goose Vodka
1 oz. Joseph Cartron Elderflower Liquer
1 Maraschino cherry
Shake all the ingredients in a shaker with ice. Serve it neat in a chilled Martini glass.