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If there is one question we receive from a visitor to our distillery, it is nearly always, “What is aquavit?”
The question comes so often and so predictably, we joke about making our staff wear buttons that say, “Ask me what aquavit is.” (They would probably all quit if we did that though.)
Though some in-the-know bars have integrated aquavit into their cocktail programs, aquavit remains solidly planted in the “obscure liquor” category for people outside of the northernmost reaches of Europe. So, let us take a moment to answer our favorite question: What is aquavit?
Aquavit is a traditional Scandinavian spirit. Just as gin has to have a dominant flavor of juniper berries, aquavit has to have a dominant flavor that is either caraway seeds or dill seeds (or both!) to earn its name. Aquavit, also spelled akevitt or akvavit, and sometimes just called snapps, comes from the Latin aqua vitae, or water of life. Interestingly, this is the same meaning as the French word for brandy, eau-de-vie, and the Celtic origins of the word whisky, usquebaugh.
Aquavit is the national drink of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, though being Norwegian, I know the most about the traditions in Norway, where aquavit has existed since at least the 1500s. As with many spirits, it was originally believed to be a cure for virtually anything that ailed you. At the very least, it kept lumbermen and farmers warm as they worked, and its popularity became so widespread that it became a cultural centerpiece.
Aquavit must be infused with caraway and/or dill, but it can also feature a cast of other supporting spices such as citrus, fennel, anise, star anise, grains of paradise, and juniper. The aquavit we make, for example, includes caraway, cardamom, fennel, cloves, ginger, pink peppercorn, and citrus peels.
Aquavit may be un-aged, a style often referred to as taffel aquavit, or aged in oak casks. Norwegians have most notably evolved an affinity for aquavit that is aged in used sherry casks for anywhere from a year to nearly two decades, which gives these aquavits a distinct sweetness and nutty and raisiny notes that bolster the caraway.
A particular style of Norwegian aquavit, called Linie aquavit (linie is Norwegian for line, and the old word for equator), is aged on ships that travel to Australia and back. The companies that use this technique assert that the rocking of the ships, combined with the changes in temperature and humidity along the voyage, creates completely unique aging effects. I know first hand that the U.S. government is not, at present, particularly open to letting small American distilleries try similar techniques. Indeed, according to U.S. regulations you can’t even call an aquavit aged. We make an aquavit that is aged in cognac casks, but we have to say it is “matured.”
These days aquavit is most often part of celebratory meals on holidays: Easter, Constitution Day, Midsummer, and most especially Christmas. Special aquavit varieties are made to pair with different feasting dishes: shellfish, pinnekjøtt (a Christmas lamb dish), lutefisk, fjellmatt (“mountain food”), and so on.
And aquavit is an absolute must for the julebord (“Christmas table"), which are the epic Christmas feasts that Norwegian companies throw for all their employees. A good Christmas meal is likely to start with aquavit-spiked gløgg and then proceed with sips of ice-cold aquavit interspersed amongst rich, meat-heavy dishes.
Aquavit is not the most easy-going spirit to work with in cocktails. The caraway gives it a savory bent that tends to be assertive. But, even so, the results of a nicely balanced aquavit cocktail make it worth any effort it took to get there. I like aquavit best in simple cocktails.
Some notable examples:
- A friend of ours who has a bitters company makes an aquavit negroni with our cognac cask-aged aquavit.
- Our friends at a distillery called Tattersall make a concoction they call the North Side (a spin on the Southside, which is a gin cocktail) with aquavit, lime, and mint.
- One of my favorite cocktails ever is a gimlet made with aquavit and homemade lime cordial.
- And our friends at Marvel Bar in the Twin Cities gained note for their Tomas Collins, a bracing but balanced, Nordic-inflected twist on a classic Tom Collins.