In Food + Drink

The Scandinavian Spirit Converting Gin Lovers

While juniper is the botanical hero in gin, for aquavit it’s caraway and dill.

Never heard of aquavit? You’re not alone. As the world-wide craft spirit movement continues its surge, many bartenders have been quick to embrace diversity in bottles behind their bars. Creative bartenders often turn to lesser-known spirits to rift on a classic. Think pisco into place of gin for negroni.

One classic spirit currently enjoying its own resurgence is aquavit (or often, akvavit) which though it primarily hails from Scandinavia, is becoming increasingly prominent in other parts of the world. The growing acceptance of aquavit as a standout cocktail ingredient shouldn’t be too surprising; the spirit’s name does stem from the Latin, aqua vitae meaning “water of life”.

Aquavit is a spirit often compared to gin, a comparison that likely does it no favours, particularly when aquavits take many forms. While juniper is the botanical hero in gin, for aquavit it’s caraway and dill. Beyond that, freedom reigns for the distiller with anise, cardamom, fennel and citrus all often associated with the spirit.

It’s a spirit which comes both aged and un-aged with the young white spirit being a drink which should never be far from the freezer at a time of celebration. In Scandinavia, drinkers shout Skål (effectively, Viking for cheers) as they make a toast in long-stemmed shot glasses.

aquavit spirit cocktail

Aquavit cocktails Photo: Aquavit/Facebook

It’s the darker, barrel-aged aquavits which may be best known world-over, in part thanks to Norway’s Linie. Linie aquavit is placed in sherry barrels before being stored on ships to cross the equator – twice. The journey to Australia and back creates regular changes in temperature and humidity which is considered beneficial to the Linie’s flavour profile.

Jacob Grier is a Portland-based bartender and writer who has long championed the style. In 2012, Grier founded Portland’s Aquavit Week to encourage bartenders and drinkers to the embrace both American and international aquavits.

When it comes to bars, breweries and distilleries, Portland, Oregon is a global trailblazer and Grier’s time working with cocktails in the city connected him with the spirit.

“Portland was one of the very few cities where one could find a locally made aquavit,” Grier says. “As such, bartenders here were particularly receptive to using it in cocktails.”

Soon Grier discovered great American versions of the sprit like the those made by Illinois’ North Shore Distillery, as well as Minnesota’s Gamle Ode. When he then started enjoying Scandinavian imports like Linie and Aalborg Taffel he soon realised how underused aquavit was by bartenders.

“That’s when I realized it was a very underexplored category and launched Aquavit Week as a means of bringing more interest in how aquavit could be used in cocktails,” Grier says.

aquavit spirit cocktail

Oyster-aquavit shooters from Aquavit Week Photo: Facebook

Following Aquavit Week’s sixth year in December 2017, Grier talks on how more drinkers than ever are embracing the spirit.

“Bartenders are discovering its potential in cocktails and consumers are increasingly open to trying the spirit,” he says.

“Both imports from Nordic countries and new brands from domestic distillers are on the rise in the US.”

As a bartender, Grier enjoys aquavit’s unique flavour profile and its versatility as a cocktail ingredient.

“The category offers a broader range of botanicals to play with compared to gin, as well as differences between unaged and barrel-aged expressions,” he says.

“All aquavits feature either caraway or dill, but beyond that distillers have a lot of freedom to make unique spirits.”

Alissa Gabriel is the bar manager at Sydney’s Mjølner which is built in the image of the Norse god Thor. Like Grier, Gabriel is also a big fan of aquavit’s breadth as a cocktail ingredient.

Alissa Gabriel Photo: Facebook

“I think in Australia it’s overlooked by bartenders, but this is purely because it’s not as accessible as other spirits and the education on it is still not widely known,” says Gabriel.

At Mjølner, aquavit is infused with dried apricots and toasted wood and served as an amuse-bouche before a meal. Gabriel enjoys being able to play on aquavit’s complex array of flavours, while also enjoying the spirit’s diversity.

“It offers such an unusual flavour,” she says. “It has an oaky element that appeals to dark spirit lovers, where the lighter production method offers citrus and spice notes that usually appeal to people who enjoy vodkas and gins.”

Gabriel has also been involved with the development of Mjølner Melbourne’s drinks list where further plans are afoot to showcase the spirit when that bar opens in late February.

For those who hope to experiment at home, the expert opinion is to remember aquavit is a spirit for celebration and don’t take it too seriously.

“Have fun with it, after all it all comes down to your personal taste,” Gabriel says. “The best thing is there are so many different styles, you can explore tasting them all and share them with your friends and family as intended.”

In Portland, Grier says it’s wise to always keep unaged aquavit in the freezer for ice-cold snaps. For cocktails, he suggests an aquavit Bloody Mary is “almost foolproof” and to always remember to embrace the botanicals.

“Making Negronis with aquavit in place of gin is almost always a good idea,” says Grier. “Lately I’ve also been drinking a lot of white Negronis, with unaged aquavit, dry vermouth, and a gentian liqueur such as Avèze, Suze, or Salers.”


(Lead image: Aquavit cocktails Photo: Aquavit/Facebook)

Published 12 January, 2018