Questionable Tastes TM_BZ_AQUAV_FI_001

I acquired my taste for aquavit over numerous visits to Copenhagen, sipping it ice cold in small frozen shot glasses, accompanied by smorrebrod, the traditional open-faced, rye-bread sandwiches piled high with smoked salmon, pickled herring or smoked eel. When I returned home, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for aquavit with others. But I’ve been met with a response that frankly irritates me: “Isn’t that stuff rocket fuel?” people ask.

What is it about strong foreign spirits, served in tiny glasses, that scares so many Americans? It feels a little xenophobic to me, and I get impatient with those who dismiss the world’s great aqua vitae (“water of life”) with the rocket-fuel label. Aquavit is a lovely, complex spirit, and I have made it my mission as a spirits writer to spread its gospel.

Though the styles vary throughout Scandinavia, aquavit is essentially a vodka flavored with spices and herbs such as caraway, fennel, dill, coriander and anise. I like to tell people that it’s pretty much like gin, but the dominant herb is caraway rather than juniper. My two favorites, both available in the United States, are Aalborg Jubilaeums Akvavit from Denmark, a golden spirit with notable dill and coriander notes; and Linie from Norway, which has a more pronounced caraway flavor. By tradition, Linie (which means “line” in Norwegian) is carried in oak casks aboard ships that cross the equator twice before it is sold; the voyage date and ship are listed on every label. The flavor is supposedly “mellowed by its voyage.”

Aquavit is much more rounded and approachable to sip straight than vodka. Though aquavit is served cold in small glasses, it’s not meant to be a shot. It is traditionally sipped with food. In fact, like my Danish friends, I usually consume it straight out of the freezer, where I generally keep a bottle next to the ice cubes, ready for action.

A few summers ago, I was in Oslo and visited a large aquavit distillery named Arcus, which until the early 2000s was Norway’s state-run liquor monopoly. I spent a morning with Frithjof Nicolaysen, Arcus’s vice president for corporate affairs, who was dressed in a white lab coat and was described to me as “one of Norway’s leading experts on food, wine and spirits.”

Arcus’s most famous aquavit is Linie. When I mentioned to Nicolaysen that I had a bottle of Linie in my freezer at home, he nearly fainted. I told him that’s how my Danish friends always drank it. “Ah,” he said, “that’s because the Danes and Swedes don’t have this tradition of aging in casks like we do. For them, aquavit is a white spirit.” Unlike the Danish and Swedish versions, Norwegian aquavit must mature in sherry oak casks, and Arcus has thousands of casks aging.

Never put Norwegian aquavit in the freezer, Nicolaysen admonished me. “It goes all the way to Australia and back to age, and then you put it in the freezer! Good God, that’s a sacrilege for those of us who make it!”

He took me to the company’s spice room, which with its wooden shelves of spice jars and big manual scales looked like an old apothecary shop. Norwegian aquavit traditionally is made with potato-based spirits and infused with herbs and spices that must include a predominant profile of caraway.

Why caraway? “It was the local remedy for indigestion,” Nicolaysen said. But caraway is only the beginning, and the spice room was full of pungent containers. Dill is also a major ingredient, as are mustard blossom, fennel, coriander, guinea pepper, clove, cardamom and star anise.

After visiting the spice room, we tasted about 15 of Arcus’s 50 bottlings of aquavit, from a young, clear Taffel (or “table” aquavit, aged in older casks that don’t impart color) to a 12-year-old bottling that tasted like a cognac. Some versions have a blast of caraway and dill on the nose; others have fruitier notes; the more aged versions have hints of vanilla or caramel. Aquavit, presented in all of its variations, is a strange, complex spirit.

“It goes all the way to Australia and back to age, and then you put it in the freezer! Good God, that’s a sacrilege for those of us who make it!”

Above all, aquavit is made to pair with the traditional Scandinavian winter fare of pungent fish, sharp cheeses and heavy meat dishes. “The food is always deciding the character of the aquavit,” Nicolaysen said. “We don’t make wine here. So this has been adapted to the Nordic kitchen.” For example, there are special holiday bottlings to pair with bacalao (salt cod) or rakfisk (fermented fish). In fact, the label of the rakfisk bottling, aged for three years, bears an illustration of a fish with a wavy line emanating: the international symbol for smelly. “This aquavit has to match a very stinky fish,” he said.

Here in the United States, we don’t have nearly that kind of selection and specificity. Basically, we have a handful of Scandinavian brands available: Beside Linie and Aalborg, there is Sweden’s O.P. Anderson and another Swedish one, Aquavit New York, created in partnership with Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit restaurant. Then there are a couple of American brands: most notably Krogstad Aquavit from Portland, Ore., lively and complex, with more star anise in the profile than most Scandinavian brands.

But what to do with aquavit besides drink it straight? Well, that is certainly a challenge. “Aside from being a kind gesture to visiting Danes, and so on, it is practically uncalled-for in mixing,” wrote the globetrotting bon vivant Charles H. Baker Jr. in his 1939 classic, The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book.

I think Baker overstated his case. While it’s true that aquavit isn’t the most flexible spirit, it has some interesting uses, as the cocktails below show.

The 866

This is a variation on the Salty Dog and the Greyhound created at Ruby, a cutting-edge cocktail bar in Copenhagen. The name, in fact, refers to a Danish long-distance bus called the Graahundbus, or “Greyhound bus.” The original calls for a dill-based aquavit from a local micro-distiller rather than the usual caraway-based aquavits you find in the United States. However, widely available brands such as Linie, Aalborg or Krogstad work well.

Ingredients:

Ice
Salt, to garnish the glass
1 ounce aquavit
1 ounce freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, preferably ruby red
1 ounce Campari
Sprig fresh dill, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Rim an old-fashioned or rocks glass with salt, then fill it with ice.

Combine the aquavit, grapefruit juice and Campari. Stir vigorously, then strain into the salt-rimmed glass.

Garnish with the dill, if desired.

Makes 1 serving

Complement Cocktail

This surprisingly complex cocktail gets its name from the way the savory, herbal tastes of the aquavit, the botanicals of the gin and the touch of sweet in the maraschino liqueur complement one another. It is adapted from a recipe by Hardeep Rehal, bartender at Bar Rouge in Copenhagen. He calls for Aalborg Jubilaeums aquavit, but feel free to use any high-quality aquavit. Use Plymouth instead of a more juniper-forward London dry gin. As always, do not confuse or replace the unique maraschino liqueur with the juice from maraschino cherries or with other cherry spirits.

Ingredients:

Ice
1½ ounces Plymouth gin
¾ ounce aquavit
2 dashes maraschino liqueur
1 sprig dill

Directions:

Fill a cocktail shaker two-thirds full with ice. Add the gin, aquavit and liqueur; shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass, garnish with dill and serve.

Makes 1 serving

Swedish 60

This is a Scandinavian version of the classic French 75, calling for aquavit and lime instead of gin and lemon. I recommend using a Norwegian-style aged aquavit, such as Linie. For the sparkling wine, Spanish cava or French Crémant work well.

Ingredients:

Ice
1½ ounces aquavit
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon simple syrup (see NOTE)
3 ounces sparkling wine
Lime peel twist, for garnish

Directions:

Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the aquavit, lime juice and simple syrup. Shake well, then strain into a champagne flute.

Top with the sparkling wine. Garnish with the twist of lime peel.

NOTE: To make simple syrup, combine ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a slow rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool to room temperature. Cool completely before using or storing in a glass jar in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to 4 weeks.

Makes 1 serving

Recipe Source: Adapted from The Seasonal Cocktail Companion, by Maggie Savarino (Sasquatch Books, 2011).

Trident Cocktail

A variation on the classic Negroni, created by Robert Hess of DrinkBoy.com, who says it’s a Negroni with “just slightly obscure ingredients.” Besides aquavit, it calls for Cynar, an artichoke-based Italian amaro, and peach bitters, neither of which is really that obscure in this Golden Age of Mixology of ours. For peach bitters, look for Fee Brothers brand.

Ingredients:

Ice
1 ounce aquavit
1 ounce Cynar
1 ounce dry sherry
2 dashes peach bitters
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish

Directions:

Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice; then add the aquavit, Cynar, sherry and peach bitters and stir vigorously. Strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass and garnish with the lemon peel twist.

Makes 1 serving

Nordic Snapper

With equal parts vodka and tomato juice and a squeeze of lemon juice, the Red Snapper is a superior expression that actually predates the bloody mary. It’s nothing like the usual goopy tomato-gravy disasters. This “Nordic” rendition calls for aquavit instead of vodka.

Ingredients:

Ice
2 ounces aquavit
2 ounces tomato juice
¼ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes celery bitters
Pinch fine sea salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish

Directions:

Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the aquavit, tomato juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, celery bitters, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Shake well for at least 30 seconds, then strain into an ice-filled highball glass.

Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.

Makes 1 serving

From Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, by Jason Wilson (Ten Speed Press, 2010).

Comments

  1. Glad to see your reportage on the Norweigian way to enjoy Aquavit, i.e., room temperature. (I, too, first drank it from the freezer, but was put right by Norwegians.) Now, if only I could find something other than Linie or Aalborg in Philly-South Jersey stores. I crave the many different versions I enjoyed during my trips to Norway, include Gilde. Should you make it back to Oslo, visit Fryet Mat & Drikke (Lighthouse Food and Drink) at Youngstorget. Proprietor Gunnar Moreite (a jazz drummer) boasts nearly 100 different aquavits. In Trondheim the place for aquavit is Norsk Aquavit No. 1 Bar. As info, you can’t get Linie as of last week, because the distributor for most NJ stores, Fedway, was still flooded out from Sandy.

  2. Mindtron says:

    It’s only available in MN right now but check out Gamle Ode dill aquavit if you can. Great fresh bright flavor that is a nice complement to the other aquavits available in the US.

    Also North Shore has an aquavit that has nice cumin flavor to complement the caraway. Another gem.

  3. North Shore is very nice, too. I brought back a bottle from a Midwest trip last spring. Haven’t been to MN so Gamle Ode will have go wait…

  4. Campisto says:

    I never would have thought to pair aquavit with Campari — fantastic! Thanks for this :)

  5. I so do love the scandinavian spirits… So powerful, jet so smooth

  6. Keith says:

    The 866 is one of my all time favorite cocktails. I’m looking forward to trying these other recipes.

  7. Dar says:

    Why do you want us to shake the Complement Cocktail? This seems like one that should be stirred since it has a clear ingredients.

  8. Mark says:

    You forgot the Occidental:
    2 oz Linie
    3/4 oz grand marnier (Cointreau works as well)
    1/2 oz Amaro Nonino (amaro Cio Ciaro in a pinch is ok)
    Rinse glass with fernet branca
    Garnish with orange twist.

  9. Mary says:

    Thank you for putting this list together. My sister in law just married a Dane and we are hosting a dinner with his parents who are flying in from the homeland. I can’t wait to try these and select the perfect Danish touch to my evening. :-)

  10. Aaron says:

    Mmmm… Having the 866 right now. Very yummy. Thanks for sharing this.

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