Aquavit: A new lease of life

Norwegian bartender Monica Berg, widely considered one of the category’s leading advocates, says pockets of international interest in aquavit were also a factor in changing minds at home. “I would say international interest was a big contributor to the recent popularity of aquavit in the Nordics. Ten to 15 years ago, almost no one in the Nordics (including the producers) would ever think of using aquavit in cocktails. Yet, the likes of Robert Hess, Dave Wondrich and Toby Checcini were all mixing with it.”

That was the first wave but, along with Berg, industry leaders in the UK and the US now regularly use the spirit. “Bartenders such as Leo Robitschek of the Nomad, Micah Melton of Aviary and Ryan Chetiyawardana of Dandelyan are all proof that you can make some of the most delicious aquavit cocktails without having the cultural connection – they have been drawn to the category for the sake of its flavour. For bartenders without the burden of traditions, I think aquavit is even more fascinating, as it has the botanical heart of a gin but with the warmth and length of brown spirits. I have the cultural connection, so this makes me extremely happy, as aquavit truly is one of my great loves.”

So, by the sum of many factors, aquavit is becoming relevant again. It’s not likely to be competing with whisky and vodka in mainstream bars and supermarkets in export markets any time soon, but it’s growing from a tiny export base to something more significant. All we need now is for someone to call aquavit the next big thing.

“It is the next big thing,” says Jon Anders Borchgrevink Fjeldsrud who looks after Amathus’s Nordic portfolio in the UK, presumably high off-sales growth that has now reached triple digits in the UK. But Fjeldsrud knows a trend when he sees one – agave spirits are his other department at Amathus and look how that blew up. “It’s all down to the flavour-curious bartender,” he says. “In a cocktail aquavit works extremely well, particularly as a modifier.” His view is shared elsewhere: “I think of aquavit as modifying flavour in cocktails rather than a base flavour,” says Geoffrey Canilao, a New Yorker who emigrated to Copenhagen some years ago and now runs Balderdash. Berg refers to aquavit as her “seasoning” and says “for that there is no substitute”.

Like most niche spirits starting to find traction, there’s not that much information around for the curious bartender. Counter-intuitively, that is the attraction. “It’s not that easy to get into aquavit – which is part of the appeal,” says Matt Hastings of Fluid Movement, the London-based bar and consultancy firm. “It’s my jam. I love caraway for a start, so it’s quite an obvious go-to for me. Because there was no material, I had to try even harder to learn about it, which is fun. It appeals because there’s a good variation of styles and aquavit isn’t gimmicky (cough, gin, cough).”

No one is saying aquavit is the next gin, but it’s undeniable that bartenders once drawn by gin seem to be interested in aquavit – the use of botanicals being the major reason. But with maturation also a factor, there is arguably more variety in aquavit. Hastings says there is a lot of crossover of styles as new producers enter the market and the likes of Arcus and Altia launch products, but he has a framework by which he understands the various styles. “Norwegian aquavit is normally aged with a high caraway and fennel content, rich/sweet and relatively heavy. Swedish is unaged, light, floral with more dill and slightly savoury. Danish is medium to rich, very herbal and spicy, and unaged.” With so much diversity, you can see why he’s excited.