The improbable rise of aquavit in the United States

Aquavit has been on the rise for a couple of years in the US, but still his best days are ahead, says Jacob Grier. Especially the American style is worth a second glance. A „botanical“ story how the Scandinavian classic might become the new Mezcal, the new bartenders’ darling.

It was in the far north of Isafjordur, Iceland, that American ski coach Mike McCarron first fell in love with aquavit. A Danish friend had brought along a bottle of Aalborg Dill and introduced Mike to enjoying life the Danish way. Years later, that experience inspired him to take on the arguably crazy endeavor of starting a spirits company in the United States that, rather than focusing on commercial products like vodka or gin, would make only aquavit.

If you can’t buy it, do it by yourself

Contracting with the 45th Parallel Distillery in Wisconsin, McCarron created his Gamle Ode aquavit out of necessity. The selection of aquavits available to drinkers in the United States was, until recently, pretty dismal. If liquor stores carried aquavit at all, they likely had just a few dusty bottles oddly shelved among the sweet liqueurs. Imports from Scandinavia had tapered off until only a few brands remained. McCarron couldn’t buy the aquavits he wanted, so he decided to make them himself.

Under American regulations, aquavit must be flavored with caraway, much like gin must be flavored with juniper (European laws allow caraway or dill.) Beyond that requirement, the range of possibilities for making aquavit is incredibly broad. Yet only a sliver of what is available in the Nordic countries was represented in the United States. “There was no dill, no jubilieaums, no holiday, just caraway and anise,” says McCarron. “In a nutshell, that is what pushed me into production — those missing spirit flavors.”

From niche to growth: Aquavit emerges at the bar

Today, that’s all changing. Well over thirty different aquavits are available in the United States, most of them from domestic distillers who have carved out a niche for the product. The spirit’s rebirth began not in the usual cocktail-trendsetting cities such as New York and San Francisco, but in parts of the country with large Scandinavian populations, including the Pacific Northwest and Midwest.

Tracing the revival leads to Portland, Oregon, where House Spirits (best known for their Aviation gin) began making aquavit as an experimental project. Co-owner Christian Krogstad, whose family immigrated from Norway two generations prior, says their aquavit was not originally intended to be a commercial product. But bartenders visiting the distillery kept saying they’d like to buy it, so they introduced bottles of their anise-forward Krogstad aquavit toward the end of 2006.

“We don’t do a single thing to market it,” says Krogstad, “but sales are growing 30-40% a year.” He thinks that’s part of the appeal. The growth has been spurred by bartenders eager to work with an unknown, underappreciated spirit.

Portland and the greater Seattle area have become hubs for aquavit in the United States. Portland boasts three distilleries making the spirit: House Spirits, Bull Run (co-owned by former House Spirits partner Lee Medoff), and the new Rolling River, which makes aquavits with intimidatingly Scandinavian names such as Ole Bjørkevoll. Oregon is topped only by Washington, which has four distilleries making aquavit: Sound Spirits, Hardware Distillery, Bluewater Distilling, and Old Ballard Liquor Co., the last of which makes more seasonal varieties of aquavit than anyone in the US.

The other early adopters of aquavit are in the Midwest, particularly in Chicago and Minnesota.  Chicago’s North Shore Distillery’s Private Reserve aquavit was one of the earliest in the country, and they’ve been recently joined in the city by CH Distillery. Also in the region are Vikre, Tattersall, and Gamle Ode in Minnesota, and Long Road Distillers in Michigan.

A Scandinavian Spirit from Texas?

Other small distillers have taken to making aquavit throughout the western half of the US, including Montana, California, Colorado, and even Houston, Texas. Houstonian Michael Griffin was inspired to create his Valhalla aquavit after taking a liking to the spirit at parties where Norwegian friends broke out bottles late at night. (Houston reportedly has the largest population of Norwegians outside of Norway, thanks to linkages in the oil and gas business.) “I started making my own at home,” says Griffin. “Over time I refined it and started to barrel it to round out the flavor profile. One day I had a chance meeting with a distributor… They were intrigued. In fact, they asked that I start producing it for them and with more enthusiasm than forethought, I started building out the brand.”

This interest in aquavit has been noticed in Scandinavia, too. Arcus, the world’s largest producer of the spirit, is putting renewed focus on the American market [Disclosure: Arcus was a sponsor of Aquavit Week in 2015, an event I host each December]. They recently partnered with Sazerac Co. to increase the reach of their products, beginning with Lysholm Linie, one of the few imports that has consistently remained on the market. They’ll also soon be re-introducing Scandinavian stalwarts Aalborg Taffel and Aalborg Jubilaeum.

“It is the rise of mixology initiatives that has led us to now add products to the range and choose a new partner for future growth in the USA,” says Christer Olsen, business area manager for Arcus. “Only Germany is bigger outside the Nordic region. That’s because they have a long tradition for drinking digestives after dinner. From a mixology point of view the US is by far the most exciting market.”

Aquavit: A bunch of mixological possibilities and modern classics

Aquavit played only a small role in the canon of classic cocktails, but contemporary bartenders are finding creative ways to use it. Some of aquavit’s most common applications on cocktail menus are in Bloody Marys, where its savory notes are a natural match, or in Negroni variations such as Robert Hess’ Trident, where its botanicals make it a good substitute for gin. In addition to its embrace by Portland bartenders, Christian Krogstad credits Jim Meehan of PDT in New York as being among the early bartenders to explore the spirit’s mixological potential. New York bar Death & Co. is another enthusiastic adopter, occasionally giving aquavit its own section on the menu. “We love the complex spice flavors aquavit can add, whether as a base spirit or as a modifier,” write Alex Day, Dave Kaplan, and Nick Fauchald in their recent Death & Co. Cocktail Book. “As a result, we probably use more aquavit than most cocktail bars.”

This adventurousness is extending to distillers, too. American aquavits have a tendency to be more brashly botanical than imports, the better for standing out in cocktails. And they are starting to break from tradition in other ways. The first three aquavits from Gamle Ode — Dill, Celebration, and Holiday — were modeled on Scandinavian recipes. Their newest addition, „Holiday on Rye“, takes a new direction with ageing in rye whiskey casks, putting a uniquely American spin on the spirit. “Similarly, my future recipes will diverge, not out of any intention to run away from the past or present aquavit world, but out of practicality of needing to develop the brand unique to the marketplace,” says McCarron.

Sipping on a glass of his Holiday on Rye – a complex, oaky aquavit that seems the perfect emissary to whiskey lovers – one can’t help thinking that the most interesting days for aquavit are still ahead.


Foto: Bottle via Shutterstock.