Mastering Aquavit, the Versatile Scandinavian Spirit

The Duchess cocktail at Dottir. Image: Jordan Hughes

Aquavit may be the national spirit of Scandinavia, but it’s little known on American shores. But as the world shrinks and palates expand, more bars are starting to add it to their lineups.

When Agern opened in Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 2016, it served several aquavits from Denmark. Since then, a producer has sprung up in New York—Svöl—and another in Portland, OR—Krogstad—so head bartender Richard Walshe added these “to support local craft distillers…because it matched so well with our philosophy,” he says.

At this Nordic restaurant, there are two rotating cocktails containing aquavit. Stockholm on Seneca features McKenzie Bourbon, Svöl Swedish aquavit, and spruce; and the GG contains Svöl Danish aquavit, Matthiasson wine, and Cinque aperitif (both $19).

GG aquavit cocktail at Agern
GG aquavit cocktail. Image credit: Agern

The two aquavits are very different, Walshe says, with the Swedish one being more caraway-driven, while the Danish version highlights fennel and star anise “so their flavor profiles work for different cocktails.” Cocktail food costs are around $3.

The Swedish aquavit also works well in Negronis and the Danish in Bloody Marys, he adds.

The cocktails change seasonally. For the holidays, Walshe ran a Glogg, a traditional Danish spiced holiday drink containing apple cider, rum, aquavit, white wine, blood orange vermouth, cardamom and cinnamon served in a glass with a spoon. Another popular one, which will return this spring, was the No. 7, a beautifully colored beet-infused aquavit with egg white, white birch liqueur (an Icelandic spirit called Bjork) and lemon juice, shaken like a sour.

Aquavit is a very versatile spirit, Walshe says, and can stand in for gin in many cocktails since both have a botanical taste. “They’re fairly interchangeable,” he points out.

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Walshe also infuses the aquavits with ingredients like rowanberry, arctic thyme, angelica, coriander, pear, and peppercorns. Some, like peppercorns, infuse in hours, whereas others, like angelica, infuse for weeks.

Replace Vodka with Aquavit

Lydia McLeun is the bar manager at Dottir in Portland, OR, and is a particular fan of aquavit, which she sometimes uses in place of vodka. She uses domestic and Nordic aquavits and offers a flight of three “to really show off the variety.” This costs $15 and the current offering features Brennivin aquavit (caraway flavor); Aalborg Jubilaeums (served at room temperature, with a dill flavor); and Linie aquavit from Norway (cask matured). Guests often order the flight to share between a group.

For “less daring” customers, she has cocktails, which are the most popular way to consume aquavit, she says. Her favorite right now is The Duchess, which she describes as a “subtle martini. It’s spirit-forward, lovely, elegant, but not too much of something.” This drink is cold, crisp and garnished with an orange twist, served in a Nick & Nora glass. The cocktail’s ingredients are Brennivin aquavit, Carpano Bianco vermouth, and Lustau fino sherry.

The Swan Dress aquavit cocktail at Dottir
The Swan Dress. Image credit: Jordan Hughes

The Swan Dress, she says, is like an egg white sour, featuring Aalborg Taffel aquavit, Clear Creek pear brandy, lemon and egg white. It’s sweetened with ginger and honey and served in a coupe glass with a bitters design (Angostura bitters decorating the frothy egg white) on top. “It’s bright, elegant and refreshing, and a very accessible way to lean into aquavit,” McLeun says.

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The cocktails cost $12 with food costs of 20 percent to 25 percent. McLeun does regular aquavit tastings with her staff and also brings in liquor reps. “The more I can teach the staff about what we’re selling, the more confident they feel guiding guests on their journey.”

Sometimes You Have to Do it Yourself

Krogstad in Portland started making aquavit in 2006. “All the existing aquavits were all out of stock or no longer in the market coming up to the holidays, and it’s just not festive without aquavit,” says Christian Krogstad, so he made some.

The company’s sales are mostly on-premise, except in Oregon because of its large Scandinavian population.

What’s really driving the growth in recognition and awareness of aquavit “is that bartenders across the country and around the world have discovered how superb it is in a dizzying array of cocktails,” he says. Aquavit, he points out, is excellent as a base spirit but is also finding its way as the "it' spirit as a modifier.

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“It's a great opportunity for bartenders to lead their guests on a tasty new flavor experience. Specifically, Krogstad Aquavit imbues a complex, sweet and savory quality to drinks, and it behaves like no other spirit. It’s pushing the boundaries a bit.”

Krogstad has two aquavits: Krogstad Aquavit Festlig is unaged and Krogstad Aquavit Gamle is aged.

Resources

Agern website

Dottir inside KEX Hostel

Svöl Aquavit

Krogstad Aquavit

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