My liquor cabinet is starting to resemble a liquid United Nations, with almost every region and culture accounted for. Until recently, however, Scandinavia was sorely missing from the General Assembly. Then a bartender in L.A. served me a spritzer that had a savory rye-bread kind of flavor to it that I couldn't quite place. I figured she had gotten creative with a syrup. But when I asked how she got that flavor, she whipped out a bottle of aquavit. I quickly got to work experimenting with making my own.
Aquavit (sometimes called akvavit) is a traditional Scandinavian spirit that dates back to the 1500s. Much like gin, it's a neutral spirit flavored with botanicals. Caraway seed is the primary flavor, though fennel, dill, and anise are also common. The custom is to drink it straight—often alongside pickled or smoked fish—but aquavit can also really add oomph to a cocktail.
For most people, aquavit is an acquired taste, since it doesn't fit into the flavor profiles of the infusions, spirits, and liqueurs we're used to here in the States. Yet if you set aside your expectations and give it a shot, you just might expand your cocktail repertoire in new and exciting ways.
What's Available to Buy?
Tracking down aquavit falls somewhere in the middle of the difficulty scale. It's not something your average liquor store stocks, but I've seen Linie aquavit for around $30 at BevMo and specialty shops. Linie is aged in sherry barrels as it takes an ocean voyage from Norway to Australia and then back again. The resulting spirit has a very bold caraway seed flavor with touches of licorice.
I haven't gotten my hands on the other imported aquavit brands—there's Aalborg from Denmark and OP Anderson from Sweden—but I hear Aalborg is spicy with a focus on the anise flavor, while OP Anderson has a little sweetness to it. America has some aquavit-makers, too. North Shore Distillery's aquavit isn't as intense as Linie, though it has plenty of spiciness and hints of citrus. Krogstad, from House Spirits Distillery in Oregon, has a strong anise flavor and less of a caraway-seed focus.
Everyone has their own unique tastes, but that seems to be especially true when it comes to aquavit. For some people, bitter and bolder is better, while other people may want to dial down the caraway seed and licorice for a more subtle flavor.
"That makes it the perfect DIY project—you can decide which flavors to emphasize"
Your ideal aquavit may be something you drink straight along with some fish or simply a new way to spice up a Bloody Mary. The fun thing about aquavit is that there really isn't one "right" mix of ingredients. That makes it the perfect DIY project—you can decide which flavors to emphasize and which ones to skip without feeling like you're straying too far from tradition. I like a little bit of citrus as part of a medium-bodied infusion, but for something wilder, you could add some dill, infuse for a longer period, or even add a little ginger or cinnamon.
Unless you use fancy vodka, you can make a batch of aquavit for around five bucks. Even if aquavit were more common, most of us would rather spend the $30 on, say, a whiskey or gin. I'm a lot more inclined to experiment using aquavit in cocktails if I'm using affordable aquavit that I've made myself.
You should try your homemade aquavit straight up—one tradition is to serve it alongside a beer. But don't be afraid to mix with this stuff. Try it in place of vodka, gin, or tequila in a recipe for a savory twist. My favorite way to use homemade aquavit is in a fresh Bloody Mary. I also like to mix it with club soda, lemon, and cranberry syrup for an aquavit spritzer.
If you are a fan of the Negroni, then the Trident is a fun twist on the classic bitter cocktail.
For another creative option, the Cucumber Yum Yum uses just a hint of aquavit to give a gin cocktail a unique boost. I'm still experimenting with the cocktail possibilities of DIY aquavit, so if you have a favorite, I'd love to hear it.