Aquavit is an obscure spirit across most of the United States, but it’s practically commonplace in Minnesota nowadays, from small town liquor stores to cocktail menus in urban speakeasies.
What exactly is it? “It’s not familiar,” says Mike McCarron, founder of Gamle Ode. “I can’t say It’s like rum, but sweeter, or It’s like whiskey.” The Minneapolis-based company brought Minnesota’s—and according to McCarron, probably North America’s—first dill aquavit to market in 2012.
Aquavit is a clear spirit distilled from grain or potatoes and flavored with caraway and often dill, and it’s long been a mainstay in Scandinavia and northern Germany. Think of it as a northern European cousin to gin.
That Scandinavian connection is likely why Minnesotans—over 20% of whom claim Scandinavian heritage—are so enamored with aquavit. “A lot of people identify with that background,” says Emily Vikre, co-founder and CEO of Duluth’s Vikre Distillery, who is herself a dual citizen of Norway and the United States.
“Minnesota is now an aquavit destination,” McCarron says. “I have a little spreadsheet keeping track of my friendly competitors. In January, I added up to something like eighteen different aquavits that had popped up in Minnesota alone.”
One of those is Loon Liquor Company in Northfield, which recently launched a wheat-and-barley-based dill and caraway aquavit. “Minnesota distilleries are trying to create our own character and identity,” says CFO and co-founder Mark Schiller. “We’re looking for ways to produce a spirit not really being done in the U.S., and showcase it.”
Minnesota’s aquavits have always been distinct from their Scandinavian counterparts, going back to Gamle Ode’s first bottling. “We Americanized it,” says McCarron. “We copied [Scandinavian aquavits] to a point, but the point wasn’t to produce the same thing they did… We kind of bent some of the traditions.”
“Eight or so years ago, U.S. distillers started doing more citrusy gins, more American-style gins,” Vikre says. “I feel like we’re doing the same thing with aquavit. There’s a caraway component, but we’ve bolstered other notes. [Our aquavit has] a lot more citrus and baking spices. It’s really smooth.”
“We wanted more complexity, not just a caraway bomb,” Schiller says. “We wanted to make an aquavit that plays well in gimlets and traditional gin drinks.”
That might be the biggest difference between Minnesotan and Scandinavian aquavits: While Europeans typically drink the spirit neat, Americans have incorporated it into a vibrant craft cocktail culture.
“I realized the Scandinavian-American market was somewhat limited,” McCarron says. “[People] would say ‘We buy a bottle, share it with the family, and put it in the fridge until the next holiday’… I realized craft bartenders want something unique like this. They haven’t had a dill flavor in a base spirit before. You can make a martini with dill aquavit—it won’t taste like a gin or vodka martini, but it tastes great.”
Schiller can rattle off a long list of aquavit cocktails, from an easy-drinking lingonberry spritz to an aquavit Bloody Mary. At Vikre Distillery’s on-site cocktail room, the challenge isn’t developing recipes that use aquavit, Vikre says—it’s making room for drinks that don’t. “Our aquavit is a friendly base spirit,” she says. “Caraway rides between savory and sweet. You can use it in a wide variety of drinks.”
And she’s optimistic about the future. “I think aquavit has become more popular, but it’s still such a small portion of what people think of when they think of spirits. It deserves more growth and attention. It’s really a beautiful spirit.”
Makes 1 drink
From Loon Liquors, Northfield, Minnesota
2 oz. aquavit, such as Loonman
1 oz. lingonberry preserves
½ oz. lemon juice
4 oz. soda water
Lemon twist and raspberries, to garnish (optional)
Combine aquavit, preserves, and lemon juice in an empty collins glass. Stir until mixed. Fill glass with ice. Top with soda water. Stir gently to mix, taking care not to release the carbonation. Garnish with a lemon twist and 2 raspberries on a pick, if desired.