Everything You Need to Know About Aquavit

Michigan distillers get hygge with a new trend’s distinct Scandinavian accent
Norden Aquavit with Tonic // Photograph Courtesy of Norden Spirits

“Just making sure you’re hygge.”

That’s not a typo. It’s a Danish word that doesn’t have a perfect translation into English. Spend enough time on Pinterest or design blogs and you have probably crossed paths with it. It’s the embodiment of feeling cozy or content with your surroundings.

It’s also the perfect word to describe one of the trendiest spirits that’s been making inroads into the U.S.: Aquavit.

To be fair, aquavit has been on our country’s soil as long as we’ve had Scandinavian immigrants. But more and more bartenders are embracing its spicy, floral flavor for use in craft cocktails.

Like gin, aquavit is a flavored, unsweetened, neutral spirit. The dominant flavor must be caraway or dill, but can be complemented with almost any other herb, spice, or fruit. Citrus peel is often added as it pairs well with many botanicals.

“What I gather from talking to producers and bartenders is that the gin craze has led to a growing interest in other flavored spirits,” says Sune Risum-Urth author of AKVAVIT: Rediscovering a Nordic Spirit. “There is a large group of Americans who consider themselves Scandinavian by heritage. For them, it is natural to seek out the ‘old ways.’ ”

Risum-Urth notes that Americans are supplementing the limited exports from overseas with their own unique products. “Right now, they are filling a void, but at the same time they are building a new tradition, a new ‘terroir’ for aquavit. Just like we speak of Norwegian or Danish aquavit we can also begin to speak of American.”

Michigan’s growing craft distillery scene currently has two producers that will be helping train our palettes to “speak” aquavit: Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, and Norden Aquavit in Ann Arbor.

Kyle Van Strein, co-owner/founder of Long Road Distillers has been making aquavit since shortly after they opened in May 2015.

“We had tasted a few aquavits before and really enjoyed them,” Van Strein recalls. “We’d also tasted a couple of American attempts at aquavit and felt like they really weren’t hitting the mark and weren’t very traditional.”

Their team has since perfected their craft making both barrel-aged style and an unaged variety. These spirits have received national and international acclaim. Long Road Distillers makes a number of products from gin and bourbon to vodka, but aquavit stands out as something unique. “One of our original ideas behind Long Road was to make old-world spirits with local ingredients wherever possible,” Van Strein adds.

Van Strein attended the first ever Spirkum (a festival of aquavit) in 2017 in Denmark with 46 other producers. He made a lot of connections and also learned how strong his product was with the traditional distillers.

Robyn Cleveland also attended Spirkum. He’s the co-founder of the soon-to-launch-spirits Norden Aquavit company with his wife, Summer Cleveland.

Summer’s grandparents are Swedish and aquavit is obviously a strong part of their culture. However, she didn’t really remember it until bartender Robyn reintroduced it to her.

“It was really Summer that pushed the idea forward,” Robyn says. Norden Aquavit is slated to debut in the Michigan market later this fall.

Gin seems to be the gateway to cementing aquavit in the U.S. imbibing culture. “We are taking a new approach to it and making it something we feel can be relatable to gin drinkers,” Robyn adds. “We have some botanicals in common with gin with a citrus-forward flavor profile.”

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