Jump-Starting the Aquavit Renaissance

Since it opened in Grand Central Terminal in 2016, Claus Meyer’s Great Northern Food Hall has introduced throngs of commuters to such Danish delights as smorrebrod topped with pickled herring, drinks and desserts spiked with sea buckthorn, and cinnamon rolls called kanelsnurrer.

But over at the bar, one Nordic staple remains largely undiscovered: aquavit, the traditional Scandinavian spirit flavored with caraway or dill. There is only one aquavit cocktail on the menu, and only two at Agern, Mr. Meyer’s upscale New Nordic restaurant next to the food hall. Though aquavits are available neat at both places, they are mostly an afterthought.

At Agern, a bartender seemed genuinely surprised when I ordered several Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic aquavits from the back bar. She had to check with the manager about the price of one, since no one else had ever ordered it from her.

“For Americans, traditional aquavit can be a little too heavy on the caraway,” said Jonas Andersen, the food hall’s beverage manager, referring to the seed that typically gives the drink its signature spicy bite. “But mezcal was an acquired taste, too. Now we love mezcal, and it’s one of our friends.”

The relative lack of interest in aquavit in the United States is not surprising. In Scandinavia, the spirit has struggled to find popularity among a younger generation that has embraced American-style cocktails.

But the same spreading curiosity that has brought attention to traditional spirits like mezcal and gin is giving aquavit a new life — starting with craft distillers, both here and in the Nordic countries, who are making fresh expressions of the liquor.

“Younger bartenders and connoisseurs are rediscovering aquavit,” said Thomas Klem Andersen, whose blog Cocktails of Copenhagen covers the city’s bar scene. “After years of hype about whiskey, rum and gin, many of us are exploring what’s in our own backyard.”

Aquavit, or akvavit (literally “water of life”), is produced from a distilled grain or potato spirit and must be flavored predominantly with caraway or dill. There are usually other ingredients in the mix — like anise, fennel seed, cumin, cardamom and citrus peels — but the caraway or dill must be the lead botanical. (Aquavit is often referred to casually as “snaps,” but not all snaps can legally be aquavit; snaps is a more general term that includes spirits with flavors like berries, nuts, peppers or horseradish.)

Aquavit is one of the few spirits in the world that’s traditionally paired with food. In Denmark, Aalborg’s red-label taffel (or “table”) bottling is classically served at lunch, chilled and neat alongside smorrebrod and pickled herring, backed by a Tuborg or Carlsberg beer. In Norway, there are special bottlings to pair with specific dishes such as herring, lutefisk and the epically stinky rakefisk.

In essence, aquavit is like a gin flavored with caraway or dill rather than juniper. Given the current popularity of craft gins, it’s surprising that aquavit has not quite found a wider audience. In Denmark, a number of smaller, craft distillers are experimenting with aquavits that ratchet up the juniper flavor, while keeping the necessary caraway character.

Even the New Nordic culinary movement, led by chefs like René Redzepi of Noma and restaurateurs like Mr. Meyer, hasn’t given aquavit its modern reinterpretation or experimental spin the way they did with so many other traditional Nordic ingredients.

Still, aquavit is the best-selling spirit in Denmark and Norway, by a long stretch. In Norway, where the domestic market is robust, aquavits are a premium liquor, traditionally aged in sherry casks and enjoyed after dinner like a Cognac or Scotch.

Arcus, a Norwegian company that is the largest aquavit producer in the world with more than 60 percent of the market, produces the best-known brand, Linie. Available in the United States, its casks are famously carried aboard ships that cross the Equator twice before it is sold, to mellow the spirit. The voyage date and ship are listed on every label.

Linie is just one of more than 40 aquavits available in Norway. Arcus expects to introduce one of its top labels, Opland, aged two years, to the United States in the near future.

But in Denmark, many fear that as an older generation passes on, their love of aquavit will not be inherited by the next.

“We have this stigmatized relationship with aquavit, from when we all drank so many shots at Christmas lunch and then threw up,” said Rasmus Poulsgaard, a Copenhagen drinks consultant and co-author of “Akvavit — Rediscovering a Nordic Spirit.” “Most older drinkers are super users. You’d need to recruit 18 new young drinkers when you lose one super user.”

Some of aquavit’s stagnation can be blamed on corporate neglect. From 1999 to 2008, Aalborg — Denmark’s best-selling aquavit — was owned by V&S, the Swedish state-owned monopoly, which was then bought by Pernod Ricard, ostensibly to acquire Absolut vodka. The aquavit brand languished under Pernod Ricard’s watch. Arcus bought the brand in 2013.

As a result, Aalborg aquavit largely sat out the cocktail renaissance that began a decade ago, when bartenders and drinkers discovered all sorts of new spirits. Because of this missed opportunity, aquavit innovation was first driven by small craft producers in Denmark.

“We need to save aquavit from itself,” said Sune Risum-Urth, a brand ambassador at Copenhagen Distillery, and Mr. Poulsgaard’s co-author. The craft distillery has added ingredients to its aquavits such as Indonesian hot peppers, smoked bacon and even the jawbone from an Angus oxen. Others are experimenting with aging in whiskey or rum barrels.

In the United States — aside from Aalborg, Linie and the Swedish brand O.P. Anderson — the most widely available aquavits are Krogstad, produced by House Spirits in Portland, Ore., and Gamle Ode, from Minnesota, the best example of a dill-forward aquavit one can find in the United States. Krogstad makes both aged and unaged styles, with an American twist of adding star anise to mingle with the caraway.

Arcus, as the biggest player, has embraced craft aquavit. The company now promotes its dill aquavit, Dild, which is popular among Copenhagen bartenders. In Norway, at its Atlungstad distillery, Arcus has a young team distilling small batches of juniper-forward aquavit and one infused with butter.

In August, Arcus sponsored Spirikum, a snaps and aquavit festival where two dozen craft producers from Nordic countries, and a few from the United States, gathered at Copenhagen Distillery. This type of cooperation between large and small companies rarely happens with spirits like whiskey or vodka. “We have to have an open-door policy with the smaller producers,” said Lars Kragelund, Arcus’s technical brand director for Aalborg. “We have to unite our forces.”

In the United States, interest in aquavit may take a while to grow.

“It’s very tempting for aquavit producers to jump on the New York train right way,” said Jonas Andersen, of the food hall in Grand Central. “We need a young generation in Scandinavia to get excited about aquavit before it gets popular in New York.”

Aquavit is harder to find in the United States than in Nordic countries, but here are five varieties that are more widely available. (All bottles are 750 milliliters.) JASON WILSON

Lysholm Linie 41.5 percent $30

Savory caraway and juniper notes are balanced by oaky and smoky notes. (Sazerac Company, Metairie, La.)

Aalborg Taffel 45 percent $22

A clear, unaged “table” aquavit with intense herbs and spice flavors. (Sazerac)

Aalborg Jubilaeums 40 percent $25

Golden in color, softer than the Taffel, with warm citrus notes to accompany the caraway, dill and anise. (Sazerac)

Krogstad Festlig 40 percent $27

Rich, unctuous aquavit with pronounced notes of star anise. (House Spirits, Portland, Ore.)

Gamle Ode Dill 42 percent $28

Fresh, bright and green, like an herb garden in springtime. (Gamle Ode, Minneapolis)

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