Snaps Visa: Aquavit and food

Aquavit, Cocktails, and Nordic Snaps Culture by Lexi of the Old Ballard Liquor Co.

Photo courtesy of Old Ballard Liquor Co.   A citrus aquavit pairs well with seafood.

Photo courtesy of Old Ballard Liquor Co.
A citrus aquavit pairs well with seafood.

One of the lesser-known traditions around aquavit is how well it pairs with food and how increasing attention to food pairings is changing the Scandinavian dining scene. At high-end restaurants in major cities like Oslo or Copenhagen, it’s not uncommon to see a different bottle of aquavit paired up with each course of a meal, and sommeliers are expected to know their aquavits just as well as their wines and beers.

The idea of pairing food with aquavit is not a new one, but it is just now getting specific attention from chefs and distillers in Europe. What makes it special in Scandinavia is that aquavit is taken with the meal, instead of before or after it as is more common in mainland Europe. This can be a little confusing to a French or Italian visitor, accustomed to aperitifs or digestifs that bookend the meal instead of complementing it.

Aquavit has historically been a celebration drink and is usually found alongside a selection of foods and friends. There is a natural food pairing aspect that happens in these situations, and in the past ten years or so, that food pairing aspect has been promoted heavily by both distilleries and chefs—not only to sell products but also to encourage responsible drinking.

Arctic countries like Norway and Sweden wage a constant battle against alcoholism. Small, remote communities may have months of darkness with little entertainment in the winter, and the temptation to just sit home and drink the winter away is strong. Repositioning aquavit as a gourmet accompaniment and encouraging the social and culinary aspects of it is a brilliant way to get drinkers to think about aquavit differently.

Some aquavit distilleries have even started creating aquavits with specific food pairings in mind. For example, Løitens Fisk og Skalldyr Aquavit (Fish and Shellfish Aquavit) is made with notes of citrus and ginger and was designed specifically for seafood pairing. Prima in Sweden released a “grilling assortment” of mini bottles just for outdoor meals. Special seasonal releases can also be found in the stores at different times of the year for Easter, Midsummer, and Christmas dishes, always with flavors chosen to highlight and complement that particular dish.

In the United States, most communities have a small selection—if any at all—of aquavits to choose from. But if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a variety of aquavits, below is a quick guide to choosing flavor pairings for your next meal.

Vegetables: Drier aquavits, licorice flavors, and blended spice aquavits work well with vegetables, which don’t have as strong a flavor as most meats and need a lighter, less robust pairing. (Ex: Montgomery’s Skadi mixed spice aquavit, Missoula).

Steak & Beef: Any coriander-forward aquavit will balance a steak beautifully. Beef is actually a pretty mild flavor, so be cautious with heavy caraway-forward aquavits as they can easily overwhelm the flavor of the meat. (Ex: Gamle Ode’s Celebration mixed spice aquavit, Minneapolis).

Chicken: Sweet and herbal flavors pair well with chicken. (Ex: Hardware Distillery’s original aquavit, Hoodsport)
Outdoor Grilled Foods & Heavy Meats like Lamb: The smoky, charcoal flavor of grilled foods pairs well with heavier, caraway-forward or cumin-forward aquavits. (Ex: North Shore’s Cumin Aquavit, Chicago).

Seafood: Citrus and licorice flavors pair well with shellfish, while dill and citrus pair with fish. (Ex: Old Ballard Liquor Co.’s Citrus Aquavit, Seattle).


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 July 1, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.