The Many Ways to Drink Aquavit

This Nordic spirit is having its crossover moment.

photo by Devon Trevathan

photo by Devon Trevathan

At times called “aquavite”, “akvavit”, “aquavitae” or “snaps”, aquavit is a spirit of many monikers and even more abundant flavors. It comes to us from the Scandinavian countries of Europe—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—though an increasing number of American distilleries have begun producing the aromatic spirit.

Aquavit production begins with the distillation of a potato or grain mash into a veritably neutral spirit, similar to vodka. The addition of caraway and/or dill transforms this neutral base into aquavit, and from there, distillers may choose to contribute cumin, fennel, citrus or a myriad of other botanicals into their spirit. The dry, sometimes spicy, and invariably buxom flavor of aquavit distinguishes it from most other botanical spirits, such as gin or flavored vodkas. Regional specialties abound and stylistic differences are common between different countries of origin, as are legal obligations.

Sweden, the most prolific producer of aquavit, has two styles they are best-known for: the sweet, fruit-forward flavors of the South, which are reflective of its warm climate, and the spicy, often barrel-aged Northern varieties. Sweden has no legal restriction on the base material for their aquavit, though they must contain caraway. Conversely, Norwegian aquavit is required to be made from potatoes and aged in oak, and Danish aquavit is often flavored with either caraway or dill primarily.

Start your beverage with a hearty “Skål!” and finish it off with a song if you’re feeling festive

Perhaps the most interesting part of aquavit is the many ways in which it is enjoyed. Aquavit is above all else a social spirit meant to bring people together over a literal smorgasbord of food, often around the holidays. For a feast of that proportion, which customarily includes bread, cheese, butter, and cold fish dishes like herring and salmon, shots of aquavit are served chilled in tulip-shaped glassware as a stabilizing element of the meal. To offset those rich flavors, you need a sharp beverage, like O.P. Anderson, a traditional Swedish aquavit from the North. In Iceland, food and aquavit go such hand-in-hand that producer Brennivín recently released a Rúgbraud Edition, now also available in the states, which infuses the regional and highly aromatic rye bread delicacy right into the spirit, resulting in a rounded, bold and satisfying variation of what is typically a more delicate spirit.

Danish aquavit imbibers like to have a shot alongside their lunchtime meals, sometimes with a beer chaser. This is a good way for the uninitiated to become familiar with aquavit and benefits from a lighter variety, such as Malmö Akvavit agreeably flavored with citrus. For those interested in Norwegian aquavit, look for Urtekildens Aquavit, which is clean and flavored with dill, anise, and citrus.  

Aquavit in the US

Rúgbraud at Stay Gold NYC, photo by Amanda Schuster

Rúgbraud at Stay Gold NYC, photo by Amanda Schuster

Knowledge of aquavit was brought to the United States by Scandinavian immigrants who arrived here in the years before the First World War, and the drink has been experiencing a remarkable resurgence both in popularity and domestic production in the last couple decades. West Baden Springs, Indiana is home to Spirits of French Lick, which blends ten different botanicals into their unaged aquavit.

Though aquavit is popping up in all corners of the country (such as Oregon with the popular House Spirits Krogstad Aquavit and California’s Geijer Spirits Aquavitae), production is concentrated in the Upper Midwest, especially cities like Minneapolis, which has a healthy appreciation for the Scandinavian spirit. Tattersall Distillery, a local favorite, produces oak-aged aquavit flavored with caraway that they feature in their on-site cocktails. Michigan’s Long Road Distilling also produces a popular barrel aged variation for their Old Aquavit. These formats have given aquavit a new life stateside. Bartenders are finding it an unexpectedly desirable addition to cocktails, introducing an element that few spirits are able to provide and that plays off other flavors.

Some bars and restaurants have even gone a step further—not only do they serve aquavit, but they also make it in-house. The Two-Michelin starred Aska, a Nordic-inspired restaurant in Williamsburg, infuses a base spirit with foraged ingredients that celebrate New York, including black walnut, douglas fir, honey, lingonberry, fennel blossom, white truffle, and langoustine, to make their in-house variations. Aquavit is rarely served mixed at Aska; instead, expect it presented to you straight up in a frosted glass. Hunt + Alpine in Portland Maine also makes its own aquavit, and the recipe can be found in the excellent book Northern Hospitality by co-owners Briana and Andrew Volk.

The opportunities and ways in which the adventurous drinker can enjoy this Scandinavian spirit only seem to grow over time, as evidenced in another worthy read, Spirit of the North, by Selma Slabiak. Contrary to what was once popular opinion, this is a spirit category that has a lot of variation and can appeal to a wide audience, so don’t hesitate to go out and buy a bottle of your very own.