As the season draws to a close, it’s time to pause and reflect on all the joy it’s brought….
What’s that you say? The holiday season still has far to go? Oh, you meant that holiday. I was talking about another celebration, one that we can all get behind: U.S. Aquavit Week. For the last several days, people all over the country have been enjoying that old American mainstay, aquavit. Or not so much. I mean, people have been enjoying it, but only in scattered pockets around the country, in between which calling for aquavit makes people think you’re asking for a new dish detergent.
It’s a shame aquavit isn’t more widely enjoyed in the States. I’ve been on quite a kick with it recently and it’s become one of my favorites. I don’t have exact statistics, but I’d wager that over the last couple of months I personally have constituted a disturbingly large percentage of total consumption of the stuff in the state of Louisiana. Statistically speaking, of course. Mom would be so proud.
If you’re not already familiar with it, you’re probably now asking yourself what is this “aquavit” of which he speaks? And where can I get some? Thanks to arcane state-by-state alcohol regulation, the second question might be tricky to answer. Always delighted to put off difficult work for a later date, I’m going to tackle the first question first. What is aquavit?
I like to think of aquavit as a flavored vodka, much like I like to think of gin as juniper-(-and-other-stuff-)-flavored vodka. In many ways, aquavit is a sort of analogue to gin that doesn’t make you taste like you’ve been punched in the nose by a rough gang of Christmas-trees-gone-bad. (Full disclaimer: I’m a huge gin fan, but I recognize it isn’t for every occasion. At least not in its full, untamed glory.) That doesn’t mean that you can use these two elixirs in the same way. The flavors are too different.
“So, what’s the flavor?” some of you are shouting at the screen at this point. “It’s an article about aquavit and you’ve told me more about gin so far!” Perhaps you’re even using a few curse words. If that’s you, I suggest you pause, go have a cocktail to calm down and find the peace of the season. I’ll wait.
Feeling better? Good. To begin again: Aquavit is a liquor of Scandinavian origin. It’s flavored with spices, notably caraway and/or dill along with various other botanicals that might include orange peel, cardamom, aniseed, fennel, cumin, and cardamom. (Think I could write for the encyclopedia?) It’s also variously spelled akvavit and aqvavit (which I think makes it a natural match for the similarly challenging Hanukah/Hanukkah /Chanukah celebrations, but check with your rabbi and personal religious conviction; I have no idea whether any of it is kosher). My favorite varieties are a bit like drinking a really good bread in liquid form. With booze.
Traditionally it’s served straight and chilled as a sort of shooter or sipper, ideally alongside a smorgasbord. Wearing horned Viking helmets is a matter of choice. (Just kidding, they didn’t actually wear those. Maybe serve everything on an Ikea table for guaranteed Nordic authenticity.) I highly recommend this method of getting yourself outside your beverage, particularly if practiced with the appropriate ritual and pomp. However, Americans being Americans, we can’t enjoy a delicious beverage without thinking how it could match up with another delicious beverage or four and suddenly we’re compounding arcane potions that would stymie medieval alchemists.
The bars that have participated in Aquavit Week churned out some fine examples. If you’re near one, maybe drop by and say that The Drinkist sent you. They’ll probably point out that he sent you just as Aquavit Week was coming to a close since he’s such a slacker. (It’s a fair rap – I live in New Orleans and I drink as a hobby. These are not qualities that promote punctuality.) Still, they might be willing to mix something up for you. At minimum, they might have an aquavit or two lying around that you could sample. And it’s worth sampling more than one if you can. Like gins, each aquavit is made to its own particular recipe and there can be significant variations, often along regional lines. The Danes tend to make theirs a bit caraway-forward, for example. I’m sure there’s a Hamlet-joke in there somewhere, but it will have to wait for next year’s Aquavit Week.
Trying several samples (or even one), though, may be tricky depending on where you live. Many aquavits aren’t imported to these shores, and those that are don’t necessarily make it into your state because of our aforementioned byzantine liquor distribution system. I imagine there’s at least one state that doesn’t have a single bottle on (legal) offer. If I were a more diligent researcher, I’d be able to tell you that, but to recap: live in New Orleans and drink for a hobby. Even those that have distribution in your state don’t necessarily make it outside of larger cities because of good, old-fashioned supply-and-demand dynamics. I’ve probably only had 3 or 4 different bottlings ever, and I regularly drink the two that by good grace are available at one of my local liquor stores. If you’re struggling to find a bottle, you may find it’s a good time to have friends. Remember my post about your Spirits Guides? This is a perfect example of when knowing a sympathetic liquor store owner can make a difference. If you (and preferably a few like-minded friends each) agreed to buy a couple of bottles, a store owner or manager might be willing to order up a case to see how it went over.
With great faith that where there’s a will there a swill, I’m offering below three potential concoctions for those bottles when you get your hands on them. In the interests of full disclosure, most of the time I used Aalborg (from Denmark), but I tried them with another and it still worked. That said, you may have to adjust proportions, etc., to suit your taste and the aquavit you’re working with. The first just inserts aquavit into a time-proven template. I flatter myself the creator of the other two, but that may again be just a matter of my research skills. Think I’ll have one now while not doing any work for the next post.
Aquavit Hot Toddy
In the season of one-horse open sleighs, I can think of no better choice of liquor for this classic warmer than one native to countries with actual reindeer. Enough of these and your nose will work just like Rudolph’s.
- 2 oz. aquavit
- 1 tbsp. dark sugar (I use turbinado, but take your pick.)
- 6 – 8 oz. hot (not yet boiling) water
- Orange slice
- 3 allspice berries
- 3 cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
In a shatterproof mug (or maybe one of these, though who knows what the thermodynamics are like), place the orange, allspice, cloves, cinnamon and sugar. Pour in the aquavit and muddle/stir a bit with the cinnamon stick to partially dissolve the sugar and beat up the orange a bit. (Use a spoon if you want to be extra sanitary, but hey we’re friends here, right?) Pour in the water (the microwave is perfect for getting your water hot) and stir (this time, you might use a spoon if the cinnamon’s not long enough to keep your fingers out of the mix).
Not quite a Hamlet joke, but the obligatory reference since I was using a Danish aquavit. Laertes was the son of the Lord Chamberlain of Denmark and a friend to Hamlet. When we first meet him, he (a good and upstanding Dane) is beseeching the new king to be allowed to return to France where’s he been spending some time, presumably getting outside of some French food and inside of some French maids. His name seemed a good choice for this marriage of French and Danish (and Italian, but no matter) flavors. And then there's the small matter of a poisoned cup at the end, so go easy on these. As a side note, I usually make this scaled up by 50%, but that is a bit larger than fashionable. Maybe better to stick to this size and have two. Remember water from the ice will add to your total volume. Depending on meltage, this will probably fit comfortably in a 6 oz. glass.
- 2 oz. aquavit
- 1 oz dry (French) vermouth
- ¾ oz maraschino liqueur (NOT the juice from one of those jars of red or green monstrosities. We’ll get into this later, but maraschino (pronounced mare-uh-SKEE-no, at least by me) is a cherry liqueur. It’s one of those classic ingredients that cocktail geeks start to think is passé but most of the rest of the world barely knows.)
- 3 – 4 dashes orange bitters (optional, but a nice touch)
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Serve with brandied cherries as garnish.
There’s a good chance you had everything you needed for the first drink (except the aquavit, bien sur) in your kitchen already. The second might have required a trip to the liquor store, but that should suffice. This one, though, is one of those annoying recipes that requires some planning and do-it-yourselfiness. I’ll leave it for you to decide if that’s a turn-off or a turn-on. It’s also one to underscore the importance of adjustments. The amount of sugar can vary a good bit based on the sweetness of the apples as well as your personal taste. I promise to talk about the “shrub” and its ilk in an upcoming post.
- 2 oz. aquavit
- 1 oz. apple-cinnamon shrub (see below)
- 1 oz. rich dark simple syrup (see below)
- Soda water
Pour first three ingredients into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with soda.
- 3 medium size apples (I use Honeycrisps when available, but any good eating apple should work, maybe with adjustments.)
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- ½ cup turbinado (or other dark) sugar
Shred the apples with a box shredder. No need to peel or core – I just use the core bits as the last part I’m gripping and throw out those parts. Be sure to remove the seeds as you get to them. This is likely to be a little messy, so use something to capture the juice with. You can use it in the blend. Put the apples and cinnamon into a non-reactive sealable container (think Mason jar) and pour the vinegar over. Close and shake. Shake every day for 2 – 3 days, then strain through a cheese cloth or (more time-consuming) a coffee filter into a bottle and add sugar. Shake, shake, shake to fully incorporate. Let it rest for a few days to blend. This is largely the formula suggested by Michael Dietsch in his great book Shrubs. Will store for weeks or more in the fridge.
Rich, Dark Simple Syrup
- 2 cups dark sugar like turbinado or demerara but whatever you can find
- 1 cup water
Place sugar and water into a small pot. Heat over medium, stirring to ensure sugar is dissolved and doesn’t burn. Just before boiling, take off heat and let cool. Decant into a bottle. Will keep for months in the fridge. Discard if cloudy objects begin to appear.