The spirit of choice for this issue’s inebriant is aquavit, a traditional spirit from Scandinavia. Aquavit is very similar to vodka and gin in that it is distilled from a potato or grain mash and then infused with spices. Whereas in gin juniper berries are the dominant spice, in aquavit it is caraway or dill. This gives aquavit a particularly crisp and spicy flavor, and it has long been considered to have medicinal properties thence.
Aquavit is usually a clear liquor, as with gin and vodka, but there are some golden, barrel-aged variants. Of particular note is the peculiar “line aquavit” variant from Norway, which is not only aged in barrels (usually sherry or American white oak casks), but the barrels must cross over the equator (the “line”) twice aboard a cargo ship. This tradition was accidentally discovered in 1807 after a ship carrying barrels of aquavit navigated to Indonesia but returned with the barrels in tact for failing to sell the aquavit; upon this homecoming, drinkers noted that the aquavit tasted even better, with a hint of the salty tropics imparted. While this recipe is written with regular aquavit in mind, you can substitute a line aquavit instead; they are usually also available in higher-end liquor stores.
The names for aquavit (akvavit in Swedish and akevitt in Norwegian) come from the Latin aqua vitae (“water of life”), which was the Latin name for spirits. This is the same underlying etymology we also see for whiskey—from the Irish equivalent, uisce beatha—and for the French spirit eau de vie. In English text, a variety of spellings are used, especially the Swedish akvavit, but since there is an actual English word for the spirit, it seems a bit strange to me to use a loan-spelling.
Aquavit is usually consumed as an aperitif during meals, particularly at special occasions. The use of aquavit in cocktails is not traditional to Scandinavian culture, and its use in recipes has actually been popularized through American bartenders. The fact that aquavit is a very similar substitute for gin, as well as the rise in hipster popularity of Scandinavian culture and cuisine in the past decade, creates an obvious place for the spirit on a bar shelf. In light of history, however, I will keep our consumption simple, and closer to its Nordic traditions.
The first time I ever drank aquavit was, fittingly, at the restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan. It is a high-end restaurant and has usually commanded one or two Michelin stars, though it is relatively affordable compared to some similarly lauded Manhattan restaurants. As far as the food is concerned, they serve very competent takes on Scandinavian cuisine, but I confess I am not too excited by Scandinavian dishes in general. More interesting, however, are the array of aquavit aperitifs and drinks on offer that you can opt for instead of the usual wine, and it is the memory of one of the infused versions that I had at Aquavit that will form the basis of our drink.
Aquavit (lime & ginger infused)
- 1 lime
- ½ inch of ginger, peeled and chopped
- A few black peppercorns
- 250ml of aquavit (you can use the whole bottle if you like, but scale accordingly)
Zest the lime, then slice it thinly. Place all the ingredients in a mason jar, seal the jar, and let sit for a month or two. Strain into a bottle or other jar and store cold. Serve chilled in a small glass on the side of a dark bock beer in the Norwegian style. The refreshing and spicy elixir will nicely complement swigs of the malty brew.
Note: if you are too impatient to infuse, you could alternatively muddle grated ginger and then combine with lime juice, ice, and aquavit in a shaker, and finally strain into the small glass.
Iclose this inaugural issue with one final amusing aquavit anecdote from our estimable explorer Fridtjof Nansen; taken from his book chronicling his trek across Greenland on skis, he relays this scene from the letters written to him by some of the expedition crew that he had separated from at one juncture:
‘The water was boiled and sugar and spirits added, the latter being a luxury we have not tasted since we left [our ship] the Jason. Our grog did not promise to be of much strength, however, for Balto had boiled an absurd amount of water. But this was perhaps as well, as the spirits proved to be the ordinary Scandinavian “akvavit”, which is really impossible in combination with water, and a strong mixture would therefore have been most undrinkable. As it was, we thought it excellent.’
Balto, however, a connoisseur in these matters, reproachfully observes in his narrative that ‘one cannot expect grog to be anything but weak when one has to add five bottles of water to one of spirits,’ and that ‘this did not taste of anything at all.’”