Snaps Visa: Introduction

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

Photo: Old Ballard Liquor Co. You’ll learn all about drinking like a Viking in this new regular column.

Photo: Old Ballard Liquor Co.
You’ll learn all about drinking like a Viking in this new regular column.

Akvavit. Aquavit. Akevitt. Akvaviitti. No matter how you spell it, this savory caraway spirit is as much a touchstone of Scandinavian culture as Vikings, Lefse, and Torske Klubben. Whether raising a glass on Christmas, enjoying with a sing-along over a summertime crayfish party, or sipping from that “special” bottle, few things belong quite so specifically to Scandinavian Culture as aquavit.

A century and a half ago, Scandinavian immigrants brought their aquavit culture and traditions across the oceans to the Americas, where the booming demand was met with home brews and imports of all brands and flavors. Fruity Swedish aquavits, rich Norwegian aquavits, and dry Danish taffels were all available in a rainbow of flavors and colors. But as immigration dwindled and the population grew older, demand for aquavit declined and one by one, the imports stopped. By 2012, only one lonely import (Lysholm Linie) remained on liquor store shelves, as a new generation of Americans grew up without it.

In 2008, loosening craft distillery laws across the country gave rise to a whole new generation of American distillers and products that previously had only been available from large, corporate producers were now being created regionally, on a smaller scale. With an estimated 11 million descendants of Scandinavian immigrants in the country, it was inevitable that some distiller somewhere would eventually turn their sights to aquavit, and so it was saved from the brink of extinction.

In the intervening years, this spirit has been slowly but steadily gaining in popularity. At the time of this writing, 18 domestic distilleries are making over 35 different aquavits, and for the first time in memory a discontinued import (Aalborg) is being reintroduced to the American market.

This new generation of distillers generally has little or no experience with traditional aquavit, due to the lack of imports and varieties available to try. This has given rise to a broad swath of interpretations about what aquavit is and should be, and distinct U.S. regional styles are developing already. Without Scandinavian language skills or available educational materials, enthusiastic distillers often learn from each other, copying and modifying domestic brands to match their own tastes and imaginations. Although a purist may raise an eyebrow at some of the unfamiliar interpretations coming out of U.S. distilleries, it is, in the end, a thoroughly American way to go about it, and brand new flavor profiles are becoming available for the first time ever.

Through this column, we will explore aquavit in its various forms, reviewing import and domestic brands, discussing the politics and history of aquavit, and looking at how it’s changing in a modern age. We will talk about cocktails and food pairings, discuss flavorings and styles, and hopefully have the opportunity to share some new information with established enthusiasts and curious newcomers alike. So join us twice monthly for another adventure with aquavit!

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 Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

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