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Fuel for Life, Not Rockets

The Complement Cocktail pairs well with pungent dishes.
The Complement Cocktail pairs well with pungent dishes. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I received a bottle of aquavit for my birthday a few weeks ago. This might seem a strange gift, but I was in Denmark, visiting Danish friends, and they know how much I've come to enjoy their traditional spirit. (They call it "snaps.") I acquired my taste for aquavit over several visits to Copenhagen, sipping it ice cold in small frozen shot glasses, accompanied by smorrebrod, the traditional open-faced, rye-bread sandwiches piled high with smoked salmon, pickled herring or smoked eel.

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When I returned home, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for aquavit with others. But I've been met with a response that frankly irritates me: "Isn't that stuff rocket fuel?" people ask.

What is it about strong foreign spirits, served in tiny glasses, that scares so many Americans? It feels a little xenophobic to me, and I get impatient with those who dismiss the world's great aqua vitae ("water of life") with the rocket-fuel label. I can honestly say that after years of traveling and sampling local firewaters, there are only three spirits I would file in that category: Icelandic brennivin (nicknamed "Black Death"); Central American aguardiente (literally "burning water"); and a backyard-distilled, 160-proof Serbian moonshine that still gives me night terrors.

Aquavit is like none of these. It is a lovely, complex spirit, and I have made it my latest mission to spread its gospel.

Though the styles vary throughout Scandinavia, aquavit is basically a vodka flavored with spices and herbs such as caraway, fennel, dill, coriander and anise. My two favorites, both available in the United States, are Aalborg Jubilaeums Akvavit from Denmark, a golden spirit with notable dill and coriander notes; and Linie from Norway, which has a more pronounced caraway flavor.

By tradition, Linie (which means "line" in Norwegian) is carried in oak casks aboard ships that cross the equator twice before it is sold; the voyage date and ship are listed on every label. The flavor is supposedly "mellowed by its voyage." I have asked every Scandinavian I know whether this makes any difference to the taste whatsoever. This question has been met with a shrug every time.

Since aquavit is distilled more times than most vodkas, it is much more rounded and approachable to sip straight. But though aquavit is served cold in small glasses, it's not meant to be a shot. It is traditionally meant to be sipped with food.

We've been hearing a lot about the "new Scandinavian cooking" over the past several years, led in the United States by chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit restaurant in New York. For years, Samuelsson has been serving tasting flights of house-made aquavits flavored with wild, nontraditional ingredients such as horseradish, lemongrass, coconut and citrus.

About a year and a half ago, the restaurant's owners launched a retail aquavit. The big difference is their new spirit, Aquavit New York, is flavored with fresh white cranberries, unlike the Scandinavian imports. "Traditional aquavit doesn't really fit the American palate," says brand ambassador Christian Gylche.

House Spirits, a craft distillery in Portland, Ore., has also recently launched Krogstad Aquavit, which is closer to traditional Scandinavian tastes. Christian Krogstad, the distiller, said that the initial demand came from local chefs who had tasted small batches he'd been experimenting with. "We approached it with very low expectations for sales," Krogstad said. "But people are coming out of the woodwork to buy it."

One reason is that aquavit is one of the few spirits in the world that pairs well with food.

"I like that it's savory," Krogstad says. "It pairs with some foods that nothing else will pair with." For instance, fishes with heavy oils, such as pickled herring, mackerel and salmon. I also like aquavit with cheeses such as havarti, sausage and sauerkraut, and, of course, rye bread.

Beyond the kitchen, bartenders have been experimenting with aquavit in cocktails, most often as a replacement to vodka. Aquavit's herbal profile seems to make sense in savory cocktails. Using it instead of vodka in Bloody Marys adds an interesting new layer of spice.

Glyche says that Aquavit New York's signature cocktail is made with aquavit, orange liqueur, white cranberry juice, simple syrup and lemon juice. And the very non-rocket-fuel name for this cocktail, designed with the "American palate" in mind? White Cosmopolitan.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.


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