Decode aquavit by focussing on the infused flavours
Probably the best cocktail I’ve ever had was in New York, at a tiny little bar called Amor y Amargo that specializes in bitterness.
I like a bitter drink as much as the next person, but that night, I chose the Scandi Gibson, a simple little Martini-esque drink that’s made with aquavit instead of gin. In the comfort of my own home bar, I tried to recreate its greatness, but with no luck. Eventually, I realized the problem — the Scandi Gibson is made with Solståndet, a crisp Dutch malted aquavit that’s actually a cross between genever and Danish aquavit. The bottle in my liquor cabinet bore no resemblance whatsoever to Solståndet.
“Aquavit is not aquavit,” says Jacob Grier, a bartender, drinks writer and aquavit specialist at a Scandinavian spirits seminar held at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference in January. “So it’s really important to follow a cocktail recipe precisely and use the aquavit that it calls for.”
The good news is that Grier says we don’t have to pay too much attention to the base grain as we would with, say, a whiskey’s mash bill. Grier advises that we approach the category the same way we would with gin and focus, instead, on the infused flavours — typically caraway, dill, juniper, fennel, liquorice and coriander. Danish aquavit tends to be heavier on the dill, but unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules, since variations are determined by the individual distilleries themselves.
And it’s only about to get more confusing with the surge in aquavit production outside of Scandinavia. Small-batch aquavit is now being made at craft distilleries all across North America, in states as disparate as Wisconsin, North Dakota and Texas, but especially in the Pacific Northwest, where there are at least seven aquavit brands in Washington and Oregon alone. Canada’s in the game, too, with three being produced in British Columbia.
For straight-sipping, most people serve unaged aquavit ice-cold, a move Grier suggests is best achieved by keeping the bottle in the freezer, since it develops a rich viscosity when it’s properly chilled. It is, of course, the perfect foil to gravlax, pickled herring and sausage, since it was designed to accompany these savoury dishes. Aquavit is almost always served with food in Scandinavia.
When it comes to cocktails, brave people who like to experiment should start by swapping aquavit for vodka or gin — it’s hard to go wrong with an aquavit Caesar. The next step should be playing around with aquavit in Collins or Negroni recipes.
Or, for the really ambitious, give Thor Paulson’s Den Kloster cocktail a shot. Paulson, who recently retired from the bar industry to pursue medical school, designed this when he was managing the bar at Vancouver’s The Diamond. He uses locally crafted, award-winning Långbord Akvavit, made at Long Table Distillery.
1 1/2 oz Long Table Långbord Akvavit (aquavit)
2/3 oz yellow Chartreuse
3/4 oz freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1/6 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz honey water*
Mix ingredients in cocktail shaker. Shake with ice and fine-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express grapefruit oils over drink and discard.
*Honey water can be made by mixing equal parts honey and hot water and allowing to cool.