Spirit flavored with caraway, herbs and spices is little known outside Scandinavia
U.S. bartenders have found that swapping aquavit for vodka or gin can add complexity or depth to cocktails that skew savory (because caraway doesn't go well with sweet), like a Moscow Mule or a bloody mary. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Like gin, aquavit is made by distilling grains or potatoes, then infusing that spirit with a range of herbs and spices. While caraway is typically aquavit's dominant flavor, the spirit is also often flavored with dill, coriander, citrus and cinnamon.
But while any liquor store worth its while has scores of gins — made by craft distillers in the United States, as well as those produced abroad — you probably won't find much of a selection of aquavit. In Chicago, for instance, you're lucky if you find more than a couple. More likely you'll find one, maybe two or three on the shelf, including North Shore Distillery's take on the spirit.
That's because even though aquavit is common in Scandinavia, it's obscure throughout the rest of the world. "Most people don't know what it is," says Sonja Kassebaum, co-founder of North Shore Distillery. "Almost everyone hasn't encountered it, so to get them to try it is often an education process."
That process typically involves a cocktail, even though that's far from the way it is often consumed in Scandinavia. Swedes and Danes traditionally keep their aquavit (which is almost always unaged) in the freezer so that it can be poured cold into a shot glass. Norwegians' aquavit, which is typically aged in oak casks, is often drunk at room temperature where they can appreciate the depth of flavor while sipping it from tulip-shaped glasses.
But U.S. bartenders have found that swapping aquavit for vodka or gin can add complexity or depth to cocktails that skew savory (because caraway doesn't go well with sweet), like a Moscow Mule or a bloody mary. "It gives a cocktail something that vodka can't provide," says Kassebaum. "It makes for a more interesting drink."
Three to try
Aalborg Akvavit: Clear and unaged, it smells and tastes a bit like seeded rye bread, which isn't surprising because of the caraway. But it also has a hint of anise in the finish.
Linie Aquavit: Golden, thanks to its storage in used sherry casks that spend five months traveling on a ship from Norway to Australia and back. The voyage is more than gimmick, it gives the spirit a smooth, rich flavor with notes of oak, sherry and caraway seeds.
North Shore Distillery Aquavit: Straw-colored with a spicy nose hinting at coriander and caraway. The taste is spicy and light, with notes of caraway, cumin and coriander.