The Rise of Aquavit: Everything You Need to Know About the Nordic Spirit

The Rise of Aquavit: Everything You Need to Know About the Nordic Spirit

There’s a new trending spirit in town that’s starting to demand space of its own: aquavit. Thanks to its deep herbal profile, usability in cocktails, and ease of production, aquavit has been popping up on drink menus around the world. At Stilla, inside the Four Seasons Milan, the bar keeps an aquavit negroni on tap. Halftone Distillery, one of Brooklyn’s craft distillers, bottles its own and offers it up as part of a flight or in a grapefruit long drink. And at Los Angeles’ Here’s Looking At You, bartender Kent Thompson loves it for its “beautiful savory and dry quality,” and because it “adds structure to a cocktail.”

A Primer on Aquavit

“I consider aquavit to be gin’s Nordic cousin,” says Andrew Thomas, distiller and owner of Halftone Spirits in Brooklyn, NY. Unlike vodka, which is a neutral spirit, gin and aquavit both feature juniper, coriander, and a citrus element in their botanical bill. But where juniper is the driving force in gin, it’s far more subtle in aquavit. Instead, dill or caraway seed take center stage. It all depends on the country or origin. Some are even sweetened post-distillation.

Aquavit (“aqua vitae” in Latin, meaning “water of life”) like many spirits—alcoholic, paranormal, or holy—traces its origin back to the Roman Catholic Church. The first known reference came from a package sent to the last Archbishop of Norway, Olav Engelbrektsson, which apparently contained a liquid called “Aqua Vite” and a note saying the drink helps cure illnesses “both internally and externally.”

Today, the spirit—distilled from grain or fermented potatoes—is still popularly believed to aid in digestion and is usually consumed as small shots with traditional appetizers (think cured fish) to help the “fish swim down to the stomach.”

Aquavit: Spirit on the Rise

As the national spirit of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, aquavit was once relegated solely to production in the bitter cold of Scandinavia. But in the 2000s, North America’s craft spirits market—in areas with larger concentrations of Nordic heritage—grabbed hold of the alcohol variety, increasing the quality of the spirt and giving it fresh legs.

Though global aquavit category volumes are expected to decline by 0.5 percent between 2022 and 2026, per IWSR—due to a drop in consumption in Scandinavia and the aging consumer base there—the North America-dominated Craft Spirits Market is projected to register growth of 23 percent over the next five years, according to Mordor Intelligence.

Like mezcal in years past, the sudden uptick in aquavit popularity comes from outside the traditional Scandinavian market. It’s said to be caused by the recent resurgence and refinement by U.S. craft distillers, like Batch 22 and Viking Spirits. Thanks to that and some changes in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Distilled Spirits Beverage Alcohol Manual. 

New regulations have loosened requirements, allowing American aquavit to be “a caraway and/or dill flavored distilled spirits product”—rather than just a caraway-flavored liquor as it had been previously. There are now over 60 different aquavits available in the United States, according to Aquavit Week.

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Aquavit Offers New Flavors

Thomas sees aquavit continuing to trend upward in popularity because the current consumer is more adventurous in their drink selection.

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He adds: “When I lead a tour, I always offer a sample of Halftone Aquavit, and the reaction is often one of amazement. Ours leans into the caraway, and when people make the connection to rye bread, they absolutely love it. It’s often a flavor they’ve never tasted in a spirit, and it leaves a lasting impression.”

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Concocting New Cocktails With Aquavit

Even in aquavit’s native Scandinavia, there’s been a noticeable uptick. Erk Potur, owner of Himkok—tapped as one of the world’s 50 best bars, which makes its own variety—has witnessed the change. “Around the time of our opening in 2015, Norwegians were not used to ordering aquavit-based cocktails.”

First they had to make an aquavit that was well-suited to cocktails, but that also had a foothold in the Norwegian tradition. Then they had to convince guests to try said aquavit cocktails, which ironically was much easier with international visitors.

“That’s understandable because the products on the market were mostly used for traditional food pairings,” Potur explains.

But aquavit has been through a mini revolution in the last 10 years with Norwegian craft distilleries constantly pushing the envelope.

“Simply looking at the sales from our bar shows the interest in aquavit is big and increasing, likely because guests have more options now than before,” Potur adds.

Aquavit, spirit experts believe, has the potential to be the next mezcal—but in a different sense. While mezcal’s smoky backbone tends to dominate in a cocktail, aquavit has more subtle nuance. Thompson is partial to pairing it with gin, but adds that it works beautifully with Cognac or even rye. “It would make one hell of a brown derby with rye, a paloma riff, or anything with grapefruit,” he says.

For cocktail aficionados, he recommends using a split base with your choice of spirit and some sort of fruit component, like lemon or grapefruit for citrus, as well as apples, cherries, or pears.

Bottle of aquavit with a black and white label.
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How to Add Aquavit to Your Next Sipping Session

In good news for all, the amount of good aquavit available continues to increase. Even better news—some of the best are now made in the U.S. Tattersall Distilling in Minnesota creates a caraway-forward, Danish-style offering made from 100 percent certified organic corn. Notes of fennel, mustard seed, orange, and coriander give it added complexity. Halftone Spirits’ Aquavit offers a balanced mix of spicy caraway and savory dill with bright notes provided by orange and lemon peels that pairs perfectly with grapefruit juice or even in an herbal G&T. In California, Swedish transplant Martin Geijer spent eight years deriving his California Aqua Vitae. This true New World version of the spirit mixes traditional botanicals (caraway, dill, and fennel) with California-inspired ingredients like grapefruit peel, sage, clove, and cardamom.

While it’s clear that aquavit’s popularity among cocktail and spirits professionals continues to grow, the question of whether its operations will ever reach the level of the current mezcal overlords remains up to the masses.

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