Where better to look for a tasty winter drink than a place that’s covered in snow and darkness for most of the season? No, I don’t mean Canada (though it’s a good booze choice, too); I’m talking about Scandinavia.
Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland—and distilleries inspired by them here at home—all make their own variations on aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit you should know about. Think of it as a cousin of gin: Where gin has to be flavored with juniper, aquavit has to be flavored with caraway seed. You probably know it from rye bread and pickles, but the earthy and slightly licorice-y spice makes a deliciously savory spirit with a surprisingly wide set of uses.
“Most people drink aquavit straight or with beer in Scandinavia, but when you actually mix it in a cocktail, it unlocks aquavit’s complexity. It’s very cool,” says Matt Piacentini, who’s among the first American bartenders to serve aquavit, pairing it with pickled herring on the menu when he opened Portland (Ore.)’s Clyde Common way back in 2007. (He first discovered the stuff in the late ‘90s while studying in London when he spent the holidays in Stockholm with some Swedish friends.)
At his latest bar, The Up & Up in New York, Piacentini and head bartender Chaim Dauermann have embraced aquavit, including it in a wide variety of drinks, including the Aquastiegl, a Boilermaker-style drink with Stiegl Radler, and the Copenhagen Special, a Martini-like mix of vodka, aquavit and dry vermouth garnished with a raw almond. Piacentini compares aquavit’s mixological characteristics to gin’s, though he says aquavit’s flavor comes out more on the finish than the front of the palate: “It’s soft, lingering and ethereal where gin is a more precise hit of sharp flavor.” He recommends the spirit with anything orange-flavored, from curaçao to orange bitters.
Another of aquavit’s biggest proponents in the U.S. is Jacob Grier. The Portland-based bartender and writer started Aquavit Week in 2012, and the annual celebration now brings aquavit events and specials to bars in Oregon, Washington, Texas, Montana and British Columbia. (The 2016 dates haven’t been announced yet, but they’ll be in December.) Grier is a bit more traditional, preferring to store unaged aquavit in the freezer and sip it by itself, though he also enjoys the spirit in a Negroni and says “the savory notes also make it a great spirit for a Bloody Mary.”
Here are some of Piacentini’s, Grier’s and my picks for aquavits to try:
This Norwegian spirit is probably the easiest aquavit to find in the US, but it also has a pretty unique aging technique: The standard bottling is aged in sherry casks aboard ships that criss-cross the ocean. (You can even look up your bottle’s specific journey on the brand’s website.) Grier has high praise for a Linie aged in Madeira casks that he tasted recently, but it’s not imported yet.
“Brennivin” is Icelandic for aquavit, and this is the only version of the spirit that’s imported into the US. It’s quite gentle compared to other aquavits, with a hint of sweetness and soft mouthfeel. Piacentini enjoys the standard black-labeled bottling, but if you can find it, he highly recommends the red-labeled winter edition, which ages for six months each in sherry and bourbon barrels.
Consistently among Grier’s favorite brands, this Wisconsin-distilled aquavit is always impressive. Its Dill bottling is crisp, clean and savory, balancing dill, caraway and juniper, and a new rye whiskey barrel-aged version called Holiday on Rye is, Grier says “a whiskey-lover’s aquavit.”
As master distiller for Portland’s House Spirits, Christian Krogstad is responsible for the excellent Aviation Gin and Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whiskey, and his Krogstad Aquavits are an homage to his own Norwegian heritage. The unaged Festlig is intense with caraway and great for sipping out of the freezer, while the French oak-aged Gamle is great in a Bloody Mary.
KARLSSON’S GOLD VODKA
OK, this one’s not an aquavit, but it does have the same kind of earthy, savory flavor. It’s a Swedish potato-based vodka launched by the guy who created Absolut, and it’s distilled only once from a special type of new potatoes. The resulting spirit really does taste a lot like potato. You could infuse some caraway seed in it to make your own aquavit, or just use it to add a complex note to any cocktail.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS