Underused Ingredients: Aquavit

My first introduction to aquavit came a couple of years ago at House Spirits Distillery in Portland. And while it was their Aviation gin that inspired the visit, it was their caraway-flavored spirit with the heavy notes of anise that really caught my attention. Of course, I went home with a bottle. At the time, I didn't have a lot of experience with aquavit, and it sat in my liquor cabinet for quite some time untouched. But thankfully all that has changed, and aquavit, with its complicated flavors, is one of my favorite things.

Aquavit, like gin, gives distillers the freedom to express their creativity and thus formulate a signature flavor. Fortunately, the boundaries are only limited by each distiller's imagination. Caraway is usually the dominant flavor, but other flavors like fennel, coriander, citrus peels and anise commonly round out the blend. Strangely, many of these ingredients are also used in gin recipes. But the presence of the caraway, as well as other more savory ingredients like cumin, dill or even amber (tree resin is used in the production of Aalborg), give aquavit a flavor profile all its own.

The only unfortunate thing about aquavit is its availability. Considering that more and more bartenders are becoming interested in experimenting with its notoriously savory flavors, historically only three brands have been imported: Aalborg (Denmark), Linie (Norway), and O.P. Andersson (Sweden). This is just a tiny fraction of the aquavit produced worldwide. The arrival of a new aquavit on the scene, Aquavit New York (Sweden, only imported to New York), may represent a much needed shift.

On the flip side, a few American craft distillers have recently become infatuated with the challenges and intricacies of aquavit. Who can blame them? These American aquavits have helped bolster the popularity of the spirit, making it a more common sight on back bars. Like many craft-distilled gins, American craft aquavits can often be characterized by their big, bold flavors. Krogstad Aquavit, from House Spirits, is unlike Scandinavian aquavits in that it has a whopping dose of anise in addition to the caraway. These bold flavors make a dram of this spirit a wonderfully intense experience. These powerful flavors make Krogstad especially well-suited for cocktails, because it can stand up to other bold flavors.

While aquavit's presence on cocktail menus has certainly grown, there is still plenty of room for improvement. But the caraway flavor can provide quite a challenge. Use too little, and you don't know it's there, too much and the results can be overly medicinal, at best. And like gin, even picking the best aquavit for a cocktail can prove problematic. American aquavits can easily overpower other delicate ingredients, and the Scandinavian aquavits can play the wallflower. All of these issues together have kept aquavit from receiving its moment in the sun. Hopefully this is about to change. Here are some of my more recent aquavit cocktail discoveries.  

Nordic Reviver (created by Evan Martin, Ba Bar)

3/4 ounce aquavit
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce Swedish punsch

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass rinsed with absinthe.

Notes on Ingredients: I halved the aquavit between Krogstad and Linie and used homemade Swedish punsch.

Because of its herbal characteristics, aquavit can often often be substituted for gin, especially when the cocktail also includes fresh juices. In fact, like gin, aquavit can be easily be inserted in most vodka drinks to embolden the flavors.

This is one of my favorite Ccrpse revivers variations, though to be perfectly correct it is a variation of the Corpse Reviver 2a. In the original cocktail, Evan used Aalborg. I decided to blend a Norwegian aquavit, Linie, with an American one Krogstad, to bump up the flavors just a bit. The Linie differs from most of the other available aquavits as it has been mellowed for four and a half months in used Oloroso sherry casks. In the Nordic Reviver, the anise notes of the absinthe work exceptionally well with the caraway of the Linie, and the Swedish punsch adds a nice tannic, spice layer. I would think that the Krogstad would work equally well in this cocktail, though the absinthe rinse may not be needed.

[Unnamed Work in Progress] (created by Ben Philip Perri, Zig Zag Cafe)

1 1/2 ounces aquavit
1/2 ounce rye
1/2 ounce Punt e Mes
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
1 dash mescal

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Linie aquavit, Rittenhouse bonded rye, and Maraska maraschino. I chose the del Maguey Minero for the mescal.

Aquavit also pairs exceptionally well with rye. The Old Bay Ridge, David Wondrich's aquavit-rye old fashioned, showcases just how well this works in the simplest terms; it is a traditional old fashioned but with the spirit allotment split in half between the rye and aquavit. In cocktails with herbal vermouths, aquavit's affinity for rye becomes incredibly important--just a bit of rye mellows out the aquavit's herbaceousness and makes blending two very different herbal ingredients that much easier. While this cocktail is a loose variation on the Red Hook, it highlights what can happen when caraway intersects with rye. I find that the dash of mescal provides that extra level of oomph that really pushes this drink for good to great. Substituting a peaty scotch for the mescal would probably work as well, though it would still be quite different.

From Norway to Sicily

1 ounce aquavit
3/4 ounce Averna
1/2 ounce rye
1/8 ounce (bar spoon) Benedictine
2 dashes aromatic bitters

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Linie aquavit, Sazerac rye, and Angostura bitters.

Lately I have been kind of obsessed with adding amari to almost everything. So when I started thinking about aquavit, I thought, why not? Initially I was inspired to use Averna with its mild bitterness to match up with the mild Linie. Sweet vermouth was an option that I passed on. I really wanted to explore the intersection of the aquavit and the amaro. Using vermouth would have added a different feel, though it would have made the entire endeavour easier. Suffice it to say, the early attempts were ugly. Marley Tomic Beard of Sexton gave me some advice that led me to a perfect solution. Like in the above cocktail, the addition of rye really fixed this drink. Then the rest just fell into place. I am sure that further experimentation with aquavit and different amari would also yield really some really memorable drinks.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I'm by no means a mixologist, but I've been drinking gin for quite some time now and decided to see what I could do with a bottle of Linie. To my taste, two ounces of Linie, an entire ounce (I know) of Benedictine, and liberal dashes of Peychaud's produces a perfect wintertime herbfest. But we live in the Great Lakes region, where winter demands such sturdiness in cocktails (although a similar attempt with less Chartreuse in place of so much Benedictine proved a waste of Chartreuse). Anyway, it was nice to see another experiment so close to my own, and I've bookmarked you for further research. Thanks again!