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Aquavit: A new lease of life
Published:  22 August, 2018

Aquavit, ‘the water of life’ was all but dead in the water thanks to younger drinkers’ aversion to it. but now all that is changing, as Hamish Smith discovers

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UNTIL VERY recently, the centuries-old spirit aquavit was looking every bit its age. Its once-loyal Scandinavian consumers, traditionally enthusiastic meal-time gluggers of this botanical spirit, were dwindling. Aquavit was creaking under the weight of historical decline as producers sat and watched while generation after generation grew more distant and their product less relevant. At Christmas, Easter and national bank holidays, aquavit is still a fixture on the cold table, but for younger Scandinavians aquavit has increasingly been left there – to history and tradition, to be revisited with thirsty grandmothers two or three times a year.

“Being a traditional spirit, the older generation drink aquavit a lot, and while the younger cherish drinking aquavit on traditional occasions, their drinking frequency is much lower,” says Claus Toftkjær, marketing director of Arcus, the Norwegian company which is the largest aquavit producer in the world. “The most aquavit consumed is in Denmark, then Norway and Sweden,” says Toftkjær. “By volume Denmark is the biggest in the world but it’s declining.” Currently 9.9m litres are sold globally – down from 10.4m litres in 2010 – according to Arcus, which accounts for just over half of global volumes. Two thirds are sold in the Nordics.

This predicament – dwindling domestic sales, small export footprint – is where many regional spirits have found themselves as they contend with the inexorable march of global brands and the homogenisation of consumer behaviour. If your own people stop buying your spirit it can be a fatal blow. But antidotes exist to the slow-release poison of decline.

Like a couple of plump salmon leaping into aquavit’s lap, two recent trends have provided a welcome boon. The first is food. The New Nordic food movement, lead by René Redzepi’s Noma and contemporaries, put Nordic ingredients back on the table. It was never more than a minority that were rushing out to eat monkfish liver, moss and fermented peas, but some years on, Scandinavian ingredients and food culture are much more widely enjoyed – locally and globally. Aquavit’s suitability to Nordic cuisine has brought it back into the foodie’s thinking, but with traditional packaging and drinking practices (as a shot) the category still felt a little traditional next to the gastronomic innovation of the best restaurants of the world. Aquavit’s reputation remained one rooted in the past, but not for long, as something else was happening. The move towards crafted products, authenticity, localness and the rediscovery of distilling traditions around the world would also play into aquavit’s hands. The winds were changing, but one more gust was needed to create the perfect storm.

REGIONALITY AND DIVERSITY

Enter the bartenders: Scandinavia’s hipstery-hirsute trendsetters might have arrived a little late to the aquavit party but, slowly, they are now rediscovering their distilling heritage and starting to celebrate their spirit’s regionality and diversity. Now in top cocktail bars in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, aquavit is back on the back bar and getting back on track. The after-shift drink of a Nordic bartender is now commonly a beer and a shot of aquavit.