Mythbusting aquavit: That stuff is awful! Or is it?
Snaps Visa: Aquavit, Cocktails, and Nordic Snaps Culture by Lexi of the Old Ballard Liquor Co.
“Aquavit? That stuff is STRONG and it tastes terrible!” If I had a nickel for every time I heard or read this, I wouldn’t need a paying job. It definitely ranks in the top three most persistent misconceptions about aquavit, but in all fairness, not without reason. If you’re in the aquavit haters’ clubhouse, bear with me here and we’ll see if you can be convinced to give it another shot (so to speak).
First off, keep in mind that aquavit is just a spiced vodka. It’s made just like gin but uses caraway instead of juniper. It’s got no crazy mystical powers to make it more or less potent than any other liquor except the alcohol content, which can vary. Now, if you don’t like caraway (the dominant spice in rye bread), then there may be no help for you, and if you live in a Scandinavian community, I suggest you keep that information to yourself or you could be facing an angry mob.
Folks’ memories of aquavit can be blurrily colored by an evening of drinking to excess—commonly with a group of Norwegian Sailors who knock back cheap rotgut like it’s Kool-Aid. If you drink any cheap liquor to excess—aquavit or otherwise—under the cruel light of day you’re probably not ever going to even want to look at a label again, much less consider putting it into your body. It’s not necessarily that aquavit is bad, but perhaps someone’s judgement may have been tempered a little by the circumstances…?
Sometimes Americans’ unfamiliarity with traditional aquavit sets up a “situation.” Scandinavian aquavits are often higher in alcohol content than American liquors, commonly clocking in at a whopping 90-95 proof (that’s 45-47.5% alcohol!). Compare that to the typical 80 proof (40% alcohol) of American versions and you’ve got a recipe for a bad memory if you don’t approach with caution. American drinkers unfamiliar with the higher proof can find that the extra 5-8% sneaks up on them pretty fast. The spicing is also much more restrained and the flavors are lighter because Scandinavian aquavits are typically taken as straight shots, whereas Americans tend to mix aquavits into cocktails and look for a richer, more robust flavor profile. This means that the alcohol flavor is more present unless the shot is frozen, which mellows the burn of a high proof spirit.
Occasionally though, you just encounter bad aquavit. Homemade versions have been popular for hundreds of years and without professional equipment or oversight, it’s not surprising to find that Sven’s Home Brewed Snaps leaves you with a taste of glue and gasoline in your mouth and a killer methanol hangover the next day. The same goes for homemade infused products made with the cheapest bottom-shelf vodka available—because no Scandinavians are frugal and buy the cheap stuff, right?
At the end of the day, remember: garbage in, garbage out. We all know there is a difference between good tequila and bad tequila; aquavit is no exception. It’s not stronger, or less tasty, or of less quality than any other liquor because it’s aquavit, but it could be any of those things because it’s cheap aquavit.
Today’s domestic U.S. aquavits come in a wide range of flavors and styles, and the small distilleries producing them are using quality, all-natural ingredients unlike many major Scandinavian brands, which are often chemically colored or flavored. Typically bottled at 80 proof, these aquavits are comparable to gin or vodka but with more character and flavor. If you’re unsure about aquavit and would like to give it another chance, here are three easy-drinking, approachable domestic brands that I recommend for folks who may not be sure if they like aquavit.
• Älskar Citron Aquavit, Old Ballard Liquor Co, Seattle. Easy drinking lemon and spice, slightly sweet.
• Dill Aquavit, Gamle Ode, Minneapolis. Like a field of fresh green dill in a glass.
• North Shore Aquavit, North Shore Distillery, Chicago. Cumin—like in tacos—very American!
Lexi is the owner and founder of the Old Ballard Liquor Co. in Seattle, which produces more varieties of aquavit than any distillery in the U.S. After growing up with the Scandinavian-American farming culture of the Skagit Valley and a three-year residency in Sweden, she settled back into Seattle life where she now operates the Old Ballard distillery and a Nordic café and fine dining Scandinavian restaurant called Tumble Swede, and travels the U.S. teaching classes on contemporary Scandinavian food and drink.
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.