Think of Aquavit as a rye version of gin, with vivid aromas and flavors of caraway dominating. Iced down, it makes a wonderful sipping aperitif, but the biggest surprise may be more brunch oriented.
If most Scandinavian families' Christmas Eve feasts are like those I grew up with, there is an elaborate smorgasbord prepared with homemade pickled herring, roast ham, Swedish meatballs, salmon mousse, headcheese, aspic, limpa (Swedish rye bread), dopp i gryta, (a ham reduction sauce to dip your Swedish rye in), and finished with a creamy rice pudding with lingonberry sauce and dozens of homemade cookies, including ginger snaps, lace cookies, pfeffernusse and "meringue surprises," ivory-colored puffs with chocolate chips inside which would turn into a chocolaty taffy when you chewed them.
This was followed by singing carols around the piano where my portly Grandma Kemner, who had taken a month to prepare this meal, accompanied us, dressed in her traditional Swedish peasant dress.
But the highlight of the evening of magical tastes and experiences, was when the Swedish Santa in the scary mask fit for a bank robber showed up at the front door with a sack full of wrapped presents for all fifty guests. We little kids were so excited we'd wet our pants. (We learned that Uncle Charley was underneath that cheap Santa suit and mask when one of the older kids observed that Santa had brown shoes under his black boot covers.)
Before the meal began, Grandpa Kemner would hold court on his back porch where the bar was, mixing drinks, passing out Cokes for the kids, and offering ice cold shots of aquavit to his guests.
Aquavit, I've come to find out, is practically unknown outside of families of Scandinavian descent. Essentially, it is a vodka which has been infused with caraway seeds and a host of other ingredients, often including anise, orange peel and the like. Think of it as a rye-bread flavored gin without the juniper.
As a drinks category, aquavit is so obscure, national importers stopped bringing it into the U.S. for a couple years. That provided the opportunity for a handful of U.S. craft distillers to step in and offer their interpretations. I found a couple so far that brought back memories of aquavits of Christmases past.
Perhaps it was this resurgence of interest in the genre that prompted two of the larger aquavit houses--Linie of Norway and Aalborg of Denmark--to resume exporting their products to America. As soon as they were available to the market we scooped them up.
I've also come discover that substituting aquavit for vodka in a Bloody Mary is nothing short of a revelation.
It is not uncommon for a Scandinavian household to keep a bottle of aquavit in the freezer during the holidays. Poured ice cold into small glasses, it is simply joyful when you salute each other with a hearty "skål!"
Venus Spirits Aquavit Santa Cruz, CA
Rye notes with juniper, coriander, orange & anise. Serve ice cold. Also, a dazzling alternative for use in Bloody Marys.
$34.99 per bottle
Krogstad Fistlig Aquavit House Spirits, Portland, Oregon
It'll remind you of drinking rye bread with a kick. Nose: an abundance of caraway; mouth: nearly sweet.
$32.99 per bottle
Eimverk Viti Aquavite, Iceland
An Icelandic aquavit with a base of organic barley and a selection of botanicals including caraway seed, grown wild in Iceland.
$46.99 per bottle
Linie Aquavit, Norway
Potato spirit aged in used sherry casks for a slightly oaky flavor with hints of vanilla and carraway.. Every cask mellows in a sea voyage
$29.99 per bottle
Aalborg Taffel Aqvavit, Denmark
Clean, classic standard. Serve straight from the freezer. Textbook flavors of rye and anise. Making a Bloody Mary with it is a revelation.
$25.99 per bottle
Aalborg Aqvavit Jubilaeums, Denmark
More citrusy version of its classic aquavit. Infused with coriander, star anise and dill and aged in American white oak. Serve ice cold.
$27.99 per bottle