And why it’s the one spirit you need to try this holiday season
Considering there are more Scandinavian Americans living in Minnesota—nearly 1.6 million people, or around 32 percent of its entire population—than any other state, you'd think aquavit would be an easy sell in major cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul. After all, it's the one drink that unites descendants of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The only problem is aquavit's reputation as something your grandpa savors by the fire, or a seasonal that sits in a freezer most of the year collecting frost.
"I've met a lot of people who feel affection for aquavit as a tradition, but hate how it tastes," says Emily Vikre, a Northern Minnesota native who honors her mother's Norwegian heritage as one half of Duluth's award-winning Vikre Distillery. "Caraway and dill can be polarizing flavors. And until recently, you could only buy [imported] aquavit with very strong, distinct characters. I never liked them myself, actually."
Vikre's rejection of gnarly top notes, and pursuit of a more refined flavor profile, are two of the many reasons Tova Brandt curated Skål!: Scandinavian Spirits at the Museum of Danish America a couple years ago. Much like the macro beer and mainstream spirits that were brushed aside by the craft resurgence, aquavit is currently enjoying a second life of its own.
"I see the renewed interest in aquavit as part of the larger [trends] in local products and craft brewing," says Brandt. "I'm really glad to see regional preferences taking shape in the U.S., too. You can try a wide variety of flavors just within Minnesota, which is one of the hallmarks of the aquavit tradition."
With Skål's touring exhibition set to open at Minneapolis' American Swedish Institute this Saturday, we thought we'd highlight five of the region's best aquavit producers. If this doesn't make you pick up a pickled herring habit, nothing will.
When Mike McCarron launched Gamle Ode five years ago, he made sure to get his early batches into the hands of the cocktail scene's true trendsetters: bartenders. Their eagerness to experiment with complex flavors has fueled Gamle Ode's growth and reinforced McCarron's decision to make nothing but aquavit, from a flagship blend of juniper berries, caraway seeds, and locally grown dill to a couple limited bottles that are aged in rye whiskey barrels.
"We thought 'what could be more American than that?'" explains McCarron. "'This is what a craft spirit should be: something that hasn't been done before.' Maybe some rules have been broken—they've certainly been bent—but we mean no disrespect. We tried to be true to them and us."
And what could be more genuine than basing your entire company's bottom line on a spirit that's still in its early stages here in the States?
"We can say we're 'bold Viking explorers'," says McCarron, "but when sales slow and you are stuffing money into the holes in the aquavit ship, you have to wonder if you're never going to reach the new world. Commitment was one of the first lessons I had to take to heart—that I somehow had to outlast all the doubters. For a couple years I'd say that 'if I had to do it over, knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I'd do it.' But now that the brand has turned the corner, I feel it was finally the right thing to do."
If you've ever seen an entire season of Boardwalk Empire, then you have a pretty good idea of how one night went down at Norseman's Minneapolis distillery last winter. Having caught wind of the "non-food grade tanned leather" that's dipped into its Leathered Aquavit during the distillation process, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture told the company to destroy its entire run onsite.
"In a scene straight out of Prohibition," says founder Scott Ervin, "they watched us dump barrels down the drain while they took pictures."
While the experience may have cost the small company a considerable amount of money and time, it also earned them a round of applause and free publicity among anyone who enjoys getting punched in the palate by choice botanicals.
"Aquavit is very complicated," says Ervin. "There are many different varietals, and not-so-subtle differences in every one of them. We think it fits into the same category as Scotch, shochu, and gin, but lack of education has caused people to be write the category off entirely. That’s so sad; they all have really beautiful flavors to offer."
Mary and Tyson Schnitker may love the many left-field styles of aquavit now, but the married couple behind Brooklyn Park's Skaalvenn distillery hated it at first.
"I was first introduced to aquavit when I was in Norway on an army troop exchange in 2011," says Tyson. "After a week of training on a mountain, we came back to the barracks and basically had a week-long 'celebration' involving a lot of aquavit.
He continues, "I thought it was completely disgusting at the time, but I brought a bottle back home to show my wife 'the crap they drink over there' and she didn’t like it either. After about a year of occasionally taking a sip, I started to like it more and more—much like having your first taste of beer or coffee. When the idea to start the distillery happened in 2013, I knew that I had to make the spirits of my forefathers."
A few things set Skaalvenn apart from its competitors. For starters, they're a "frugal operation" based in the suburbs, which means they can take risks without worrying about cocktail room sales or rent hikes. A lower cost of living also gives Skaalvenn the time it needs to develop its 100-proof "viking-strength recipe" at a reasonable pace.
"We don't need to be the state's number one distillery and sell, sell, sell," says Tyson. "We're pretty happy being second, third, or fourth in terms of sales, but number one in quality, because if we aren't, someone else will be."
Dan Oskey got his start behind the bar, developing the progressive drink programs at Hola Arepa and the since-shuttered Strip Club Meat and Fish. So when childhood friend Jon Kreidler asked the critically acclaimed cocktail whisper about opening Tattersall Distilling, he leapt at the opportunity. Getting customers to appreciate the herbal and vegetal aspects of aquavit is a lot harder than selling rum-spiked horchata or a seasonal sangria, however.
"Aquavit's rise in popularity is extremely noticeable, especially here in Minnesota," says Oskey. "At the same time, I’d be lying if I said we weren't explaining on a daily basis what the heck aquavit is. Oftentimes when I’m giving tours, a guest will crinkle their nose and tell me that they remember their grandfather drinking the wretched stuff or that they had some overseas that tasted like gasoline. To me, that's an opportunity to challenge their reservations. I'll have them taste it on its own and then explain how we mix it in our cocktail room. There's something very rewarding about presenting a guest with a flavor combination that they've never experienced and watch their expression go from doubtful to charmed."
In other words, Tattersall is driven by more than just making its caraway-heavy aquavit "the Scandinavian rival to our gin"; it's also concerned with educating consumers, a mission that'll line right up with a mobile app later this year.
"There will be hundreds of recipes for cocktails and syrups," explains Oskey, "as well as tutorial videos, a glossary, and an interactive search engine that suggests drinks based on different occasions, levels of difficulty, preference of sweetness, and so on…. We're always trying to push our own creative limits while also taking into consideration that cocktails have to be approachable."
Emily and Joel Vikre didn't plan on opening a distillery until one fateful winter night when the couple was visiting Emily's parents in Duluth.
"The conversation turned to whiskey," she explains, "and how the ingredients to make it were really just good water and grain. We were like, 'Wait! Duluth has the best water in the world! And plenty of grain grows in Minnesota! We should try this out.'"
Emily is quick to call Lake Superior a "a blank canvas" for building a bold portfolio of spirits with locally foraged ingredients like sumac, rhubarb, and spruce tips. On the aquavit side of things, that means a clear shot of caraway, softened by the familiar Swedish flavors of sweet rye bread (a.k.a. lympa), including cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, and citrus zest.
Things get really interesting with Vikre's aged Voyageur variety, though. "Instead of using sherry barrels," says Emily, "I decided to make a little private joke. You see, cognac is a very popular after dinner drink in Norway; many members of my family would have a nip almost every night. On the other hand, they almost never had aquavit, except at Christmas. So I thought it would be interesting to give aquavit some character by aging it in Cognac barrels. It's a convoluted thought process—I'm probably the only person in the world who actually thinks it's funny!—but it's tasty and completely unique."