Spirits: Norway's prized aquavit
There is nothing I enjoy more in this job than getting schooled by an obscure spirit I previously knew little about. Or better yet, getting proved wrong by some spirit that I thought I knew well, but that offers up a surprise.
Case in point: aquavit. I've sipped my share over the years, mostly in Denmark, where it's usually a clear spirit consumed ice-cold out of the freezer. I've even tried to spread the aquavit gospel here, and I generally keep a bottle next to the ice cubes, ready for action.
Last summer I was in Oslo and visited a large aquavit distillery named Arcus, which until the early 2000s was Norway's state-run liquor monopoly. I spent a morning with Frithjof Nicolaysen, Arcus's vice president for corporate affairs, who was dressed in a white lab coat and was described to me as "one of Norway's leading experts on food, wine and spirits."
Arcus's most famous aquavit is Linie, the one widely available in the United States. Linie means "line" in Norwegian: The aquavit is carried in sherry casks aboard ships that cross the equator (the line) twice before it is sold; the voyage date and ship are listed on every label. The flavor supposedly is "mellowed by its voyage." (Yes, I know. There is no end to romantic spirits tales.)
When I mentioned to Nicolaysen that I had a bottle of Linie in my freezer at home, he nearly fainted. I told him that's how my Danish friends always drank it. "Ah," he said, "that's because the Danes and Swedes don't have this tradition of aging in casks like we do. For them, aquavit is a white spirit." Unlike the Danish and Swedish versions, Norwegian aquavit must mature in sherry oak casks, and Arcus has thousands of casks aging.
Never put Norwegian aquavit in the freezer, Nicolaysen admonished me. "It goes all the way to Australia and back to age, and then you put it in the freezer! Good God, that's a sacrilege for those of us who make it!"
He took me to the company's spice room, which with its wooden shelves of spice jars and big manual scales looked like an old apothecary shop. Norwegian aquavit traditionally is made with potato-based spirits and infused with herbs and spices that must include a predominant profile of caraway. Why caraway? "It was the local remedy for indigestion," Nicolaysen said. "It's a Northern European flavor, and it was always plentiful." But caraway is only the beginning, and the spice room was full of pungent containers. Dill is also a major ingredient, as are mustard blossom, fennel, coriander, guinea pepper, clove, cardamom and star anise. "What would life be without spices?" Nicolaysen asked. "Many of the spices have their basis in medicine. It was much easier to drink these herbs than to chew them. Star anise, you know, becomes Tamiflu. To fight the pig flu."
After visiting the spice room, we tasted about 15 of Arcus's 50 bottlings of aquavit, from a young, clear Taffel (or "table" aquavit, aged in older casks that don't impart color) to a 12-year-old bottling that tasted like a cognac. Some versions have a blast of caraway and dill on the nose; others have fruitier notes; the more aged versions have hints of vanilla or caramel. Aquavit, presented in all of its variations, is a strange, complex spirit.
Above all, aquavit is made to pair with the traditional Scandinavian winter fare of pungent fish, sharp cheeses and heavy meat dishes. "The food is always deciding the character of the aquavit," Nicolaysen said. "We don't make wine here. So this has been adapted to the Nordic kitchen." For example, there are special holiday bottlings to pair with bacalao (salt cod) or rakfisk (fermented fish). In fact, the label of the rakfisk bottling, aged for three years, bears an illustration of a fish with a wavy line emanating: the international symbol for smelly. "This aquavit has to match a very stinky fish," he said.
Here in the United States, we don't have nearly that kind of selection and specificity. Basically, we have a handful of Scandinavian brands available: Aalborg from Denmark, O.P. Anderson from Sweden and another Swedish one, Aquavit New York, created in partnership with Marcus Samuelsson's Aquavit restaurant. Then there are a couple of American brands: North Shore Aquavit from the Chicago area and Krogstad Aquavit from Portland, Ore. Krogstad is particularly good and complex, with more star anise in the profile than most Scandinavian brands.
But what to do with aquavit besides drink it straight? Well, that is certainly a challenge. "Aside from being a kind gesture to visiting Danes, and so on, it is practically uncalled-for in mixing," wrote the globetrotting bon vivant Charles H. Baker Jr. in his 1939 classic, "The Gentleman's Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book."
I think Baker overstated his case. While it's true that aquavit isn't the most flexible spirit, it has some interesting uses. Lately I've been using it instead of vodka in a bloody mary. I've also been substituting it for gin in a Negroni variation (equals parts aquavit, Campari and Cynar). The Trident, included here, is a further variation on a Negroni. Why not? Gin and aquavit, after all, are just vodkas that have been infused with spices and botanicals.
Just remember, though: If it's Norwegian, please don't put it in the freezer.