Aquavit Ascending: Meet the spirit of the north
Korean soju. Japanese sake. Kentucky bourbon. Every region has its spirit, and if your lineage comes by way of Scandinavia, aquavit is your official libation. Less ubiquitous than other kinds of clear booze, this mermaid is a neutral distilled spirit (like vodka) infused with botanicals and herbs (like gin). While the dominant flavor of gin is piney juniper, aquavit’s is piquant caraway with background notes of dill, cumin, coriander and fennel, finishing with a light citrus.
No longer just for fjord-fancying Norsephiles, the northern spirit is now popping up in cocktails and bottle shops closer to home. Many domestic distillers, like Portland’s House Spirits and Chicago’s North Shore Distillery, have started to produce and distribute North American versions of the increasingly popular food-friendly liquor.
First arriving on the scene in the 15th century, aquavit means “water of life” and was long thought to be a cure-all for most any ailment including, ironically, alcoholism. (FYI: It’s not.) Recipes vary from Norway to Denmark to Sweden, but wherever you find yourself in Scandinavia, the toast is the same. To imbibe properly, you must first hold your glass at chest level. Look your drinking buddy directly in the eye, throw back the drink, then return your glass to chest level and resume eye contact. Skål!
If you want to give this Scandi spirit a go, aquavit enthusiast Matt Osmoe of Blood & Sand said to pick up a bottle of Linie Aquavit. “It’s great by itself and stands up well in cocktails,” Osmoe said. “The flavor profile is very true to tradition.” Linie is Norwegian for line – referring, in this case, to the equator. The brand is ocean-aged: distilled, barreled in sherry casks and put on a ship that sails to and from Australia, crossing the equator twice. Both romantic tradition and effectual process for mellowing a straight-from-the-still product, the result is a spicy caraway start with a dry finish. Try a glass straight up, or mix an aquavit Negroni and pair with smoked salmon, potatoes and dill or, if you’re feeling particularly Nordic, pickled herring.
If you’d like to dip your toe before diving into the water of life, try aquavit in a cocktail when you’re out on the town. Osmoe has a triumvirate of aquavit-based cocktails available at Blood & Sand, or look for Ted Kilgore’s aquavit bloody mary, the Bloody Well Right, at Planter’s House and Jeffrey Moll’s Collins-like Madam I’m Adam at Randolfi’s.
If you only try one, get Richard Vagnino’s The North Wind at Reeds American Table: a shaken, purposefully ungarnished mix of North Shore aquavit, lime juice and house-made black pepper and caraway syrup. With a slightly sweet nose, a bright spiciness, and a light and dry finish with underlying warmth, it’s a great way to say hej, hallå and hallo to aquavit.
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