Once upon a time in Austin, Texas, my bar manager/partner in crime and I spent the better part of a night laying out plans for our future aquavit-inspired caviar bar. Years later, I’d almost forgotten about our scheme when Spirit of the North (teNeues; $35) arrived at Wine & Spirits. Written by Selma Slabiak, a Danish-born drinks connoisseur whose résumé includes a stint at the Nordic-inspired Aska and Edda Bar in NYC, the book presents 30 ways to enjoy aquavit and other Scandinavian ingredients in creative drinks. Lavish photography sets a snowy scene for the cocktails, each recipe accompanied by a short story that conjures images of Scandinavia’s past and present—from Norse battles to modern-day Danish families foraging for nagoonberries. And the drinks are delicious. The book immediately rekindled my interest in aquavit, and inspired a closer look at the bottles available in the US. While the EU defines this spirit as a caraway-flavored distillate, the variations available are much richer in nuance: Every country and brand puts their own spin on it, and a number of US distilleries now offer their own takes. Here are a few of our favorites.
One of the first companies to export aquavit to the US, Aalborg has been distilling the spirit since 1846. It produces a range of variations, two of which make it to the US. The red-labeled Taffel is traditional, with a wheat base, flavored with only caraway. Its peppery tones are a contrast to the yellow-labeled and golden-hued Jubilaeums, which is scented with dill and coriander and finishes with flavors of lemon oil. A touch of oak aging gives this one a rounder texture-making for an interesting twist on a tiki cocktail, while the Taffel is perfect as a chilled shot.
Imported by Sazerac Co., Metairie, LA; 41.5% abv, $22–$25/750ml
Iceland calls aquavit brennivín
, or “burning wine,” and uses potatoes for the distillate. Olgerdin puts out the most popular bottling, readily identifiable by its stark black-and-white label. Clear, unsweetened and distilled with caraway as its sole botanical, it makes for a spicy sipper or shooter. In Slabiak’s book, she suggests using it in small doses in mixed drinks, as she does in her Edda cocktail, a variation on a gin Martini.
Imported by Brennivin America, Jackson, WY; 40% abv, $40/1L
Norway puts its own spin on aquavit by taking it across the equator in casks. Linie, distilled from potatoes and flavored with caraway and star anise, is aged in Oloroso Sherry casks in the holds of private shipping vessels that sail to Australia and back. During its four-month journey, the spirit develops notes of aniseed, vanilla and mint that make it an intriguing alternative to whisky, sipped on its own with a large ice cube or mixed into an Old-Fashioned.
Imported by Sazerac Co., Metairie, LA; 45% abv, $30/750ml
In the last decade, distillers across the US have gotten in on the aquavit game. House Spirits in Portland, Oregon, was one of the first, introducing Krogstad, in 2007. Minnesota has spawned several versions, including Vikre, flavored with local botanicals. The most exciting variation we’ve seen so far is also the newest: Norden, distilled in Detroit from Midwest-grown corn and flavored with ten botanicals, is one of the smoothest, most complex aquavits around. With notes of clementine and cumin, it’s a terrific option to gin in any drink.
Norden, Detroit, MI; 45% abv; $30/750ml
O.P. Anderson is the most recent Nordic aquavit to hit the US market, though it’s been around Sweden since 1891. Flavored with caraway, fennel and aniseed and then aged for eight months, it’s powerfully vegetal and spicy. Chase a shot with a cold pilsner to take the edge off, or do as Slabiak does and make a Radler, blending it with beer (she adds Lillet Blanc and fresh pea shoots, too). Then sing your traditional Swedish drinking song.
Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, NY; 40% abv, $35/750ml
This feature appears in the print edition of February 2019.
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