Aquavit: A Scandinavian Original Invades America

Image: Aquavit Week / Jacob Grier

New brands and a growing annual event promoting the herbal white spirit may signal a new must-have cocktail ingredient.

 

The contemporary spirit revolution appears to be on the verge of finally getting around to spotlighting the ancient, botanical Nordic spirit aquavit.

The news that the organic Swedish aquavit, O.P. Anderson, is about to become part of the Frederick Wildman & Sons Importers portfolio here may not be earth-shattering news, but the internationally revered spirit arrives just in time for the annual Aquavit Week (December 3 through 9), a celebration of the signature Nordic spirit held in multiple cities.

According to Jacob Grier, known by many as the creator of the bone luge shot, only a handful of aquavits were available in the United States when the annual celebration began in 2012. Now, thanks in large part to many small American distillers, more than 50 are available.

“Bartenders are always on the lookout for exciting new spirits to play with, and right now aquavit is enjoying a lot of interest,” says Grier. “Imports from the Nordic countries are finally coming back to the United States after years of being hard to find, and craft distillers are also trying their hand at making the spirit. The botanicals in aquavit give it a different character than any other spirit on the shelf, and there's a wide variation in the flavor profiles among brands, so the mixing possibilities are endless. As I travel around the country, I see it on menus more and more.”

This year’s Aquavit Week will be the biggest yet, expanding beyond the Pacific Northwest to include events in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington, DC, as well as to a new European Aquavit Week organized in Germany. Two major brands – Norwegian Linie and Danish Aalborg – are supporting the push, which includes a website with a comprehensive guide to brands available in the United States, many of which will be featured at Aquavit Week events, as well as event listings and participating bars across the country.

Portland is still the week’s headquarters, with three events there as well as a week-long Snaps & Taps beer pairing adventure. In Minneapolis, there’s an Aquavit Distillers’ Happy Hour, with producers behind local brands of aquavit as well as those from Norway and Denmark appearing in the hometown of Scandinavian America. In Chicago, it’s Nordic Cocktail Night at Sportsman’s Club with a menu takeover, and in Washington, DC, Chantal Tseng’s weekly series of literary cocktails features a menu inspired by the works of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.

Grier says he founded the event after becoming a fan of using aquavit in cocktails since tasting Krogstad Aquavit when he moved to Portland in 2008.

“Aquavit Week started in 2012 at just one bar with the goal of featuring a cocktail with every aquavit we could get our hands on, which at the time was just six different bottles. Today there are more than 50 aquavits available in the United States and around 70 bars around the country taking part in the event.”

Grier noted some interesting cocktail uses for aquavit, beyond the iced shot and the Bloody Mary variant, like the one featured at Esker Grove in Minneapolis, the Verde Bloody (aquavit, tomatillo, cucumber, wheatgrass and spices). At Olympia Provisions Northwest in Portland there’s Behind the Times (Linie Aquavit, mezcal, apricot liqueur, pineapple syrup and celery bitters), while Grand Duchess in DC features House in the Woods (Linie, bourbon, orange blossom water, and walnut bitters).

As savory cocktails start to make an impact, aquavits are perfectly poised to join the standard spirit list, especially in places where cocktails are meant to highlight and pair with food. And now that more brands are available beyond the small distillers’ backyards, perhaps it’s time to think about adding one or two aquavit cocktails to your winter menu.