Swill: All About Aquavit
Swill is our bi-monthly column dedicated to liquor, wine, beer, and every other delicious dram that falls under the broader umbrella of booze. But it’s more than just tasting notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin — Swill is about getting outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring the big, wide world of libations. One week you might catch us halfway through a bottle of single-malt scotch, and the week after that we might be buzzing on some Ugandan moonshine made from bananas. This column is just one big boozy adventure, so grab yourself a glass and join us for another round.
With the autumnal equinox looming in the distance, fall will soon be upon us, and when the weather turns from sun-soaked afternoons to dreary grayish perma-dusk, you’ll want a nice stiff drink nearby to keep you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. My recommendation? Grab yourself some aquavit. It’s Scandinavian in origin — and you know those dudes know how to keep warm.
Aquavit (also known as Akvavit) is a traditional Scandinavian spirit flavored with various herbs and botanicals. Though the styles vary from region to region and distiller to distiller, aquavit is essentially a vodka flavored with spices and herbs such like caraway seed, fennel, dill, coriander and anise. I like to tell people that it’s pretty much like gin, but the dominant herb is caraway (a close relative of parsley and cilantro) instead of juniper. Admittedly, it’s one of the weirder spirits that exists in the big wide world of booze.
Based on the reactions i’ve seen from friends who’ve been brave enough to try it, I can say with a fair measure of confidence that there’s a good chance you’re not going to like it at first — at least not straight-up. Caraway is one of those odd flavors that, unless you happen to be Scandinavian, you probably aren’t accustomed to — especially when it’s accompanied by the harsh kick of distilled alcohol.
Don’t be afraid though. If for no other reason, you should pick up a bottle and give it a try just to experience something from another culture, and add a dash of adventure to your life. This stuff has been around since the 15th century, it has a rich cultural history, and it’s almost certainly sitting on the shelf at your local liquor store. Even if you end up hating it, at least you’ll be able to say you’ve sampled from the banquet that has been spread before you on this rich, round planet, rather than recoiling from it like a toothless bunny. Get out there and try something new.
Tracking down a bottle should be easy enough, but what you’ll find at the liquor store is likely to vary widely depending on your location. If you’ve got one of those booze emporiums like BevMo or Total Wine in your town, you’ll probably be able to find a wider selection than those of us stuck with simple mom & pop liquor shops. In any case, here are a few brands to look for:
Linie: This stuff is everywhere, and it’s a pretty good starting point if you’ve never tried aquavit before. The story goes that when the Norwegians brought barrels of it down to Indonesia in the early 1800s, the Indonesian’s didn’t like it, so they were forced to sail back home. Upon their arrival, they broke open a only to discover that the flavor of the aquavit had drastically improved from being stored in old sherry oak casks. The rolling sea and transition from warm equatorial waters to frigid Norwegian territory caused the barrels to expand and contract, giving the aquavit more complex flavors than it would’ve otherwise gotten. They tried to reproduce the flavor by barrel aging the spirit on shore, but it didn’t work out. So now, casks of Linie still travel halfway around the world for for and a half months before being bottled, which gives them a mellower, more toasty flavor with hints of vanillin.
Gamle Ode: This one is also fairly common, but has more of a pronounced dill flavor than Linie. Personally, i’m not a huge fan of it straight up, but if you use it as a substitute for vodka in your next bloody mary, you’ll be singing it’s praises in no time. It works great as a mixer for non-fruity
Krogstad: Made by the same booze magicians that make Aviation Gin, Krogstad is an adventurous take on the classic aquavit. Caraway is strong here, but anise is arguably its equal, so it’s got more of that “black liquorice” type of flavor going on. If you’re a fan of Jagermeister, you’ll probably dig this stuff. I find this one to be more agreeable taken neat, but it works well as a mixer in certain cocktails. Just put it in your bar and start experimenting.
Sound Spirits Aquavit: Seattle’s Sound Spirits Distillery has a pretty good take on the recipe. It’s clean, clear, and boasts a wonderful array of different flavors. It might be hard to track down outside the Pacific Northwest, but if you do encounter it, definitely buy yourself a bottle. You won’t be disappointed.