The tense, age-old stalemate between vodka and gin drinkers persists. I see them at the bar where I work all the time, both sides unwilling to budge from their positions, unwilling to say anything nice about the other. The former deride gin as being simply another flavored vodka, though one that happens to be flavored with juniper, which makes them retch. I’ve likewise heard gin aficionados retort that vodka is nothing more than unflavored gin. Recently, however, my Danish friend Henrik led me to imagine a possible compromise by pouring me a shot of something comparable to both spirits, yet different and delicious. So in the interest of party unity, I propose a third rail, a spirit to bring together these two camps: aquavit.
A specialty of Scandinavia, aquavit is a neutral spirit made from potato or grain. Like gin, aquavit is infused with flavor, though not with juniper but with other offbeat (to the American palate) savories like dill, fennel, anise, coriander, and, predominantly, caraway.
The word aquavit (sometimes spelled akvavit or akevitt) comes, obviously, from that popular medieval formulation “water of life” (meanwhile, whisky is a derivative of the same phrase in Gaelic, uisge beatha). Its origins, like those of most classic spirits, are in the medicinal world. But one man’s medicine is another man’s … well, medicine, if you know what I mean. And aquavit makes a joyously good tonic.
The shot of Aalborg, a Danish aquavit that Henrik pulled from his freezer, went down as cleanly as a shot of good vodka, and left the same high-proof tingle on the tip of my tongue and lips. “It’s good, right?” Henrik asked, getting right up in my face before I’d even swallowed. Instead of being rather numbing like vodka, though, the tingle rang with a complex resonance of dill and coriander.
The key to enjoying aquavit is first opening the mind. With all the caraway, the smell might turn some off. The palate can be similarly evocative: dry and grainlike, lifted by the complementary flavors of fennel and dill. Not surprisingly, aquavit pairs well with Northern and Eastern European treats, for example cured fish like gravlax or smoked mackerel. While good aquavits are complex and delicious, I confess that the signature flavors also mingle very well between sips of a good, malty beer. The experience is sort of like having a tasty liquid sandwich made with fresh pumpernickel or rye.
Many enthusiasts like Henrik keep a bottle of aquavit in their freezer, but in Norway it is typically drunk unchilled. Norway also produces the greatest aquavit: Linie (pronounced “leen-yay”). You may have heard the unusual story behind Linie: It’s aged in barrels on a boat that travels from Norway to Australia and back, twice crossing the equator. The method results from a serendipitous accident in 1805, when a shipment of aquavit sent to Indonesia wasn’t sold and several barrels were returned to Oslo more than a year later. Tasters noted that this well-traveled spirit was mellower and more complex than it was when it set off. The story is enthusiastically told on Linie’s website.
While there doesn’t seem to be a new mania for aquavit, a couple of domestic distilleries have started producing their own versions. Chicago’s North Shore Distillery makes one that I haven’t tried, and Portland’s House Spirits makes one that I have. It’s delicious, refreshing, infinitely sippable, and even good in cocktails, such as the Pepper Delicious #2 (there’s a recipe for it on the House Spirits website). These are also the characteristics of a good gin or vodka, so maybe we will see peace in our lifetimes.