Since Copenhagen's Noma was crowned 'the world's best restaurant', Scandinavian food has garnered the column inches. But mention Scandi hooch and only the natives seem to know what you're talking about. But aquavit - the herby, subtly spiced Nordic firewater - has been around for centuries, first mentioned in a 1531 note from a Danish lord sending a pick-me-up bottle to a sickly Norwegian archbishop.
As juniper marks out gin, so caraway and dill underpin aquavit – along with other botanicals like cardamon, cumin, anise, fennel and coriander. Rarer appearances are made by lemon or orange peel, plus the African spice “grains of paradise” beloved of some gins. Leading Danish producer Aalborg's botanical USP is amber. In terms of base spirit, grain is preferred by the Swedes and Danes, while the Norwegians swear spuds produce something purer. They also look askance at their Nordic neighbours for allowing caramel for colour – in Norway, that comes strictly from ageing in oak casks for up to 15 years.
The Norwegians also make the unique Linie aquavits. In 1805, when some barrels of aquavit shipped to Indonesia failed to find a buyer they ended up dumped back on the Trondheim quayside in 1807 – and found to be transformed: the caraway gently subdued, sherry and vanilla notes seductively to the fore. Two centuries later, Linie aquavits continue the tradition, bunged in sherry casks then sailed to Australia and back across the 'Line' (Linie) of the equator. Doubters scoff, but when scientists tried to reproduce the effects of the voyage (rocking, temperature changes, time) the results were dismal.
Bars like Oslo's Fyret (fyretmatogdrikke.no) are shrines to aquavit - a cosy warren decorated with quirky nautical memorabilia and offering nearly 150 varieties. Fyret's bar queen Trine Ostby explains how they help the punters by offering an aquavit “planka” - four different glasses chosen with the help of expert staff.
New aquavits are keeping things fresh for both servers and drinkers. For much of the last century, all Norwegian aquavit was made by one distillery, Arcus, under a curious arrangement that saw it not only produce its own aquavit selection but also tasked with hunting out recipes from defunct distilleries to recreate them right down to the old labels – a process driven passionately by veteran master distiller Halvor Heuch. Set to retire later in 2012 after 30 years at the helm, Heuch is still creating new aquavits, most recently an extra smooth version blended specifically to go with shellfish.
Across Scandinavia, aquavit is linked to food – Arcus make over 25 different aquavits tailored for specific dishes. In Sweden, meanwhile, savvy gourmets should beat a path to the 19th century dining room at Skanörs Gästgifvaregård (skanorsgastis.se) in the pretty west coast village of Skanör where you can wash down six delicious takes on herring with six different aquavits.
Back by the harbour in Oslo, Cafe Sorgenfri (cafesorgenfri.no) is another foodie shrine to the local spirit. “Our goal is to sell every aquavit in Norway,” my waitress tells me proudly, “and persuade people to dine with aquavit rather than wine.” Aquavit here comes in the food as well as with it. The pale herby lightness of Simers (oak-aged for just 6 months) augments a glaze for pickled halibut, while the spicier Steinvikholm marries beautifully with duck breast and apple marmalade. Various aquavit gels wobble temptingly on plates both savoury and sweet.
“Aquavit is part of our culture again – we drink it with pride,” says Stine Borgersen, who runs increasingly popular aquavit tours all around Norway through her company Akevittruten (akevittruten.no). As well as a simple growing appreciation of local hooch, she explains how Norway's current aquavit renaissance was further boosted in 2005 when the production monopoly was removed from Arcus.
The first distiller to step onto the newly-opened field was Ole Puntervold, a well-established purveyor of fine apple cider and brandy who now oversees an aquavit range running to around forty spirits. In the last couple of years, other small distillers have sallied forth, mainly focusing on small batch aquavits. Single cask aquavits, aged up to 15 years, are also finding a growing legion of admirers, though you need deep pockets for some - a rare small batch single cask Lysholm Linie Trompet 200 comes in north of £60 for a 4cl glass...
Over in Sweden, summer 2012 sees the opening of a swish new Historical Museum of Spirits (vinosprithistoriska.se), bringing a cultural appreciation of aquavit to Stockholm’s hip Djurgården neighbourhood. And last year the first Nordic aquavit cocktail competition saw Halvor Digernes from superfly Oslo speakeasy Fuglen (fuglen.no) walk off with the Linie Award for his Dandy Lion shaken creation - Linie aquavit, dandelion root and pollen syrup, lemon, egg-white and a few drops of dandelion & burdock bitter. “Light, floral and perfectly balanced towards the Linie,” says Halvor. So don't let the chefs hog the Nordic limelight - get mixing.
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He sees a comparison with another infused neutral spirit when he describes aquavit as “a Scandinavian kind of gin”. As well as a novel base hooch, Skarlen sees aquavit's unique flavours working as an intriguing stand-in for other cocktail elements. “I've used aquavit to replace both the vermouth and bitters in a Martinez.”
ECC has featured aquavit right from its opening in late 2010, with its Drunken Viking making the bar's top 5 list on every appearance. Described by Skarlen as “a Fizz-related drink with a twist of lemon and celery bitters to add saltiness”, I ask why aquavit is listed second to Ketel One vodka despite making up 4/5 of the spirit base? “Everyone knows and accepts vodka,” explains Alex. “so we take that recognition and then use aquavit to challenge people's palates and give them something new.”
If the punters need gentle leading, the mixologists are keen to tempt them. ECC's Scandinavian creations include that Nordic twist on the Martinez, plus an Aquavit Old Fashioned, while Alex whips me up his latest potential newbie. “It's a twist on the Smash - big slug of aquavit, plenty of dill, fresh lemon juice, bit of syrup to balance the sourness, sugar, Adam Seeger's Swedish Bar Code organic bitters, pinch of salt.”
Though he'll use Danish aquavits in citrus-based cocktails and Swedish offerings in some stirred drinks, Norway's Linie is Skarlen's aquavit of choice. “Its smoother and fuller than others, so easier to work with,” he says. Any downsides? “Supply,” says Alex simply. “Sometimes we have to wait 2 weeks for delivery.” But it's worth the wait.
FIVE TO TRY
OP ANDERSON (Swe) – Pale gold sweetly spiced beauty offering fennel, dill, aniseed and coriander, ABV 40% (Totally Swedish, 020 7224 9300, totallyswedish.com, £24.95 for 70cl)
LOITENS SINGLE CASK 6125 (Nor) – Intriguingly dry, hints of citrus, well-balanced caramel, vanilla and coffee, ABV 41.5 % (Vinmonopolet, 00 47 22 33 45 60, vinmonopolet.no, £90 for 70cl)
MARTNASAQUAVIT NO. 6 (Nor) - An Ole Puntervold star marked by mint and anise, with lovely rich mouth feel, ABV 40% (Vinmonopolet as above, £37 for 50cl) Another Puntervolds
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