Share the spirit of aquavit
Detroit’s Norden Aquavit is perfect for sipping, cocktails, and celebrations
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
Aquavit, which is spelled as akevitt in Norwegian or akvavit in Danish and Swedish, is a fixture of Nordic drinking culture and one of the world’s oldest spirits, going back at least 500 years. It is a neutral spirit made from grain or potatoes and distilled with botanicals, with the leading flavor as caraway or dill. Its name draws from Latin “aqua vitae” (water of life), and it was considered to be a powerful medicinal.
Aquavit is still highly regarded today for its ability to aid in the digestion of rich foods, and it holds an important place in traditional Scandinavian lunches or holiday gatherings.
I was recently introduced to Norden Aquavit, based in Detroit, Mich., a new label that is making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2019, it won Double Gold and Best Aquavit at the renowned San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and it was praised as “one of the smoothest, most complex aquavits around” by Wine & Spirits magazine.
I was delighted to speak by phone with co-founder and distiller Robyn Cleveland to learn more about Norden Aquavit’s modern approach to this traditional spirit.
“Aquavit is special, because it is one of the few spirits that can be served with the meal, rather than in drinks before or after dinner,” said Cleveland.
Cleveland was first introduced to aquavit when he visited Copenhagen in 2003 for three weeks to stay with a friend.
Cleveland worked as a bartender for more than 15 years in New York, making his own liquors and infusions and visiting distilleries all over the world. Aquavit was not that popular in the New York bar scene, but it came back on his radar when he moved to Michigan with his wife, Summer Ransom-Cleveland, and got into more creative bartending.
“We were thinking about opening our own bar and had a menu planned around Nordic spirits and Scandinavian food. We started to compile information and planned a research trip to Denmark. Before we went, we found out about this aquavit festival in Copenhagen that would have 35-40 distillers that specialize in aquavit. I brought a sample blend of our aquavit, and had a master distiller sample it. It was the very best market research we could have ever done,” said Cleveland.
When they got back to Michigan, they jumped into crafting their own aquavit brand. That was in 2017. They nailed down their recipe and officially launched Norden Aquavit in July 2018.
The name Norden is an homage to Scandinavia, their location in Michigan, and also a nod to Summer’s grandparents, who emigrated from Sigtuna, Sweden.
Norden Aquavit is inspired by the classic caraway-based Danish tafel style. It’s made with 100% organic Midwest-grown grain, pure Michigan water, and botanicals sourced locally and globally. It is carefully distilled in small batches in a copper pot still.
Norden Aquavit uses 10 botanicals: caraway seed, clementine peel, coriander, dill seed, angelica, orris root, Clary sage, staghorn sumac, juniper, and anise seed.
“We make our aquavit with one-shot distillation: You put in all the botanicals to capture the flavors. It makes for a softer spirit, which means we don’t have to add sugar to cut off the edges. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth it to us,” said Cleveland.
“The sumac is special, as it is native to the northeastern United States. It brings a tart, citrusy flavor profile, like orange and pear,” he added.
In addition to their original aquavit, Norden Aquavit recently launched an amber-hued Cask Matured Aquavit to their lineup and a limited edition “Pink” made with fresh Michigan-grown strawberries and rhubarb. This variety is available only in the fall, and Norden Aquavit donates $4 of each bottle of “Pink” sold to The Pink Fund to support breast cancer patients in active treatment.
When I asked about his favorite ways to serve aquavit, Cleveland had some great ideas.
“I like it best in its traditional sense, lightly chilled. You lose some of the nuances when you freeze it. Because of my background as a bartender, I also like it in simple cocktail recipes with high quality ingredients: Aquavit and tonic, a gimlet with fresh limejuice and simple syrup. Any recipe that calls for gin can be swapped for aquavit,” he said. Their website offers several cocktail recipes to showcase the versatility of their aquavit.
Norden Aquavit is available in bars and retail locations in Michigan, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, with more states on the way. Shipping liquor laws depend on each state, so check the online retailers at woodswholesalewine.com or saratogawine.com for direct-shipping options.
“We are true fans of aquavit, and we want to see it more appreciated worldwide. We want to elevate the category so it’s a spirit that everyone knows,” said Cleveland.
We couldn’t agree more. Skål to Norden Aquavit for sharing the spirit of aquavit!
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.