Craft Distillers Stage an Aquavit Revival

By David Mahoney

In Norway, Sweden and Denmark, aquavit is as essential to holiday celebrations as rye bread is to a smorgasbord. Scandinavia’s signature spicy liquor fuels the area’s toasting traditions; exclamations of “Skål!” would ring hollow without it. In the North, where Scandinavians outnumber loons by a factor of 150 to 1, you’d think aquavit would be as readily available as lefse or lutefisk. But had you gone looking for the spirit five years ago, you would’ve found maybe one brand on store shelves. Fortunately, several craft distillers across the region have stepped into the breach with creative interpretations.

Gamle Ode

Mike McCarron got the ball rolling in 2011, after a futile search for a dill-forward aquavit like the ones Danish friends introduced to him while he was coaching Nordic skiing in Iceland. “So I researched what I could then just put my head down and went for it,” he says. He brought a recipe that called for infusions of fresh dill, caraway and juniper to 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, Wisconsin. Fifteen months later, after much trial and error, McCarron introduced Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit to the Twin Cities market. Since then, he has debuted barrel-aged variations that bring other spices into play.

Vikre Distillery

Emily Vikre, a dual citizen of Norway and the United States (her mother is Norwegian), grew up drinking aquavit at Christmas. So it comes as no surprise that it was one of the first spirits she and husband Joel produced in 2014 after starting Vikre Distillery in her hometown of Duluth. Inspired by traditional limpa bread, they crafted a subtler version that tempers the caraway component with cardamom, peppercorn and orange peel. The duo followed that up in 2015 with an aquavit finished in cognac casks. (Why cognac? Because Norway consumes more of the brandy per capita than any other country.)

Tattersall Distilling

Northeast Minneapolis’s Tattersall Distilling threw its hat in the aquavit ring soon after firing up its stills in 2015. In keeping with its mad-scientist approach, the brand employs 16 botanicals to flavor its aquavit, with caraway and fennel leading the charge. The intent? To give bartenders something to play with in potables. “To me, it’s Scandinavian gin,” says cofounder Dan Oskey. “There’s a lot you can do with it.” In the Tattersall cocktail room, a riff on a Southside (called, naturally, the Northside) combines the distillery’s aquavit with mint, lime juice, simple syrup and a hint of habanero. There’s also a geography-blurring tiki drink with coconut-infused aquavit and pineapple shrub.

Skaalvenn Distillery

The newest Twin Cities–produced aquavit comes from tiny Skaalvenn Distillery of Brooklyn Park. Founder, distiller and chief bottle washer Tyson Schnitker got in touch with his Scandinavian roots when military service took him to Norway five years ago. “I think I was the first family member to step foot in Norway since my ancestors came over right before the Civil War,” he explains. After infusing his aquavit with caraway and fennel, Schnitker adds oak spirals to give it a bit of color as well as caramel and vanilla notes. He recently discovered how well it works in place of vodka in a Moscow Mule. “We call it the Fjord Horse, which is a very old breed of Norwegian horse,” he says. “My grandfather’s dream was always to own a fjord horse.”

An Aquavit Tasting Guide

Gamle Ode produces five different expressions of aquavit, all starting with Dill, a crystal-clear spirit with a pungent herbal aroma supported by a stiff spine of juniper and subtle caraway notes. Holiday, infused with mint, allspice and orange peels before being re-distilled and aged in red-wine barrels, has the deep-amber color of a well-aged whiskey and a complexity and mellowness to match. The limited-edition, higher-proof Holiday on Rye swaps out the wine barrels for ones that held rye whiskey, yielding a sharper profile. Celebration, with its second infusion of coriander, vanilla bean, star anise and citrus peels, is the spiciest of the lot. The newest release, Celebration on Rye, also gets the high-proof, rye-barrel treatment.

Vikre Distillery makes its aquavits from malted barley, and the earthy flavor comes through in both the unaged Øvrevann, where it melds nicely with the nuttiness of caraway, and in Voyageur, which layers on raisin-like richness from cognac casks.

Tattersall Distilling doesn’t pull any punches with its swaggering Viking of an aquavit. The full-throttle aromas of caraway and fennel explode out of the glass then play out on the palate against a rich tapestry of botanicals. The finish, with its lingering impression of coriander, goes on and on.

Skaalvenn Distillery crafts an aquavit that is relatively demure, despite being bottled at 100 proof. Starting with a nose of oaky vanilla, it follows up with a taste of sweet licorice.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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