Aquavit is Latin for “water of life.” The French eau de vie and the Gaelic uisge beatha (whiskey) mean exactly the same thing. Even Russian voda (and its diminutive vodka) refers to water, though not to life. The first known mention of aquavit is in the 1500s, when a letter refers to it as a “help for all sort of illness.” It probably wasn’t, then or now, but it’s worth a try.
Aquavit is distilled from grain or potatoes, and flavored with caraway, anise, orange or lemon peel, angelica and other spices or flavorings. As juniper is with gin, so caraway is with aquavit, the predominant flavor in most versions. There are aquavits for Christmas and other holidays, with special flavorings. Some is aged in wood.
It is generally 80 proof, though there are higher proof versions. Aquavit is traditionally served chilled in small glasses, and sipped or knocked back, often accompanied by a toast. Beer is also drunk, before or after the aquavit.
Despite being the national tipple of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and parts of Germany, it is still relatively unknown here in the USA. With the exception of states like Minnesota and Wisconsin (with large Scandinavian descent populations) and some small batch distillers in Washington, Illinois, California, Montana and Oregon, it’s not easy to find. What you do find is high quality and reasonably priced.
I first tried aquavit in the 1980s, when I lived in New York. It was Aalborg (reviewed below). I started asking for it at restaurant bars, with about a 50/50 success rate—and it was usually Aalborg.
I sampled four aquavits—from Iceland, Norway, Denmark and the USA. Two (Linie and Aalborg) can be found locally. The others you will have to order online or go where there are lots of people with Scandinavian surnames. I sipped a beer with each—Einstok of Iceland’s pale ale, white ale, and toasted porter.
Brennivin – Iceland
80 Proof, $39.99 for One Liter
Brennivin has something of a cult status, helped by the fact that it was unavailable in the USA for a time. It has a citrusy, orange peel scent. The mouthfeel is oily, and it tastes mainly of caraway and licorice. It’s fruity, mild and dries on the finish. There’s no burn, very easy to drink.
Linie – Norway
83 Proof, $27.99 for 750 ml
Linie is distinguished by its amber color (at least some of which comes from caramel coloring, which is permitted), and by the fact that it has been transported by sea in oak casks, from Norway to Australia and back, “twice across the Equator.” This is believed to add mellowness and character. This has a strong, bread like caraway scent, which carries through into the taste.
There’s also orange peel. This is one to sip and savor, especially if you started with a chilled glass. The fragrance strengthens as the spirit warms.
Krogstad – United States (Portland, Oregon)
80 Proof, $26.99 for 750 ml
This is made by House Spirits, the same folks who distill the popular Aviation Gin. For a change, I tried this one straight from the freezer, not the fridge. Cold often diminishes the scent of a spirit. Not Krogstad. The star anise hits you right between the nostrils—like ouzo or arak. There’s a fainter scent, not identifiable at first. The anise gives the impression of sweetness, and there’s a little burn, which doesn’t last and isn’t unwelcome.
Next comes grapefruit peel (including the bitter pith), and finally the caraway as the spirit comes to room temperature, balancing out that anise sweetness. If licorice is not your thing, you might want to pass by Krogstad. Otherwise, you’ll get maximum flavor for your money.
Aalborg “Taffel” – Denmark
90 Proof, $21.99 for 750 ml
My introduction to aquavit. Aalborg is all about balance. On the nose, there’s citrus (lemon peel) and fresh pear. Then caraway and plenty of it. It’s almost gin like, refreshing. Aquavit is often served with Scandinavian fare like smoked fish, and Aalborg is a perfect match for lox, gravlax, herring, or even sardines.
Aquavit is not famous as a cocktail mixer, but Aalborg makes a fantastic Bloody Mary. It’s an even better Martini, especially if you substitute a sprig of dill or a caper berry for the olive. I can personally vouch for this.
In the 1980s, I enjoyed two Aalborg martinis at the bar of the forever lost Windows on the World Restaurant, North Tower, World Trade Center. New Jersey never looked so picturesque. Skál!