The spirit most associated with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark is akvavit--a strong spirit with a distinct caraway or anise flavor--served alongside traditional dishes like pickled herring, gravlaks, or lutefisk. It's usually served ice-cold with a beer chaser at Christmastime, during midsummer celebrations, and on holidays like Syttende Mai, the 17th of May, Norway's Independence Day. At tomorrow's 17th of May parade in Ballard, Norwegians, Norwegian-Americans, and the thousands of other people flocking to Ballard for the festivities will drain the area's bars of akvavit, as they raise glasses to say Skål!
Sound Spirits, Seattle's first distillery since Prohibition, is already well known for their Ebb & Flow vodka and gin. This summer they are releasing an akvavit as well. Their base spirit (an undiluted, high-proof vodka made with 100% barley grown in Washington) is flavored with anise, fennel, dill, coriander, and caraway. The anise flavor comes on strong mid-palate, but there is a fresh citrus finish and an almost cucumber-like aftertaste.
For the best selection of akvavit in town, it's no surprise that you need to head to Ballard--more specifically, to Copper Gate. For this tasting, I enlisted the help of my longtime akvavit-drinking partner and former tour-guide colleague Dave Fox. Dave is a humor writer, writing coach, and author of Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad. We bellied up to the bar at Copper Gate and let barman Jake lead us through their akvavit offerings.
First up, Aalborg from Denmark. It is made from a base spirit distilled from corn. It is by far the lightest akvavit we tasted. This is one for beginners. It goes down smooth with hardly any aftertaste. Like most akvavits, though, it packs a wallop at 40% alcohol.
Copper Gate serves a housemade Brennevin, a more general name used in Sweden and Iceland for vodka or akvavit. Copper Gate takes potato vodka and infuses it with caraway seeds. It has a strong bite with an assertive rye-bread flavor. They make another house infusion called Heldig which has a golden hue thanks to the addition of saffron. For the Heldig, they flavor vodka with caraway, coriander, fennel, and horseradish. The horseradish adds a nice touch of heat, but they also add some raw sugar, which softens the edges and blends the flavors.
Next we sampled Krogstad from Portland's House Spirits. They use the spelling aquavit, which was used in the earliest written references to this "water of life." In the 1500's a Danish lord sent Norway's archbishop a care package of sorts, which included some Aqua Vite to "help for all sort of illness which a man can have both internally and externally." I'll drink to that! Krogstad is light in color, but has a strong black-licorice flavor thanks to flavorings that include star anise. This is definitely an aquavit for black-licorice lovers.
North Shore from Chicago is one of the few domestic akvavits that are aged--in new American oak--and flavored with caraway, cumin, and coriander. I found it to have a much sweeter herbal quality than the typical Scandinavian-style akvavits, with flavors of clove and cardamom on the nose and a touch of cumin on the palate.
Finally we got to the good stuff--Linie from Norway. Linie begins with a potato-based spirit that is then flavored with various herbs, caraway among them. This aquavit is then stored in old sherry casks and loaded on ships that will cross the equator twice. The Norwegian word for equator is linie, hence the name. The total sailing time is typically 12-14 months, but the back of each label--if you read it through the back of the bottle--shows the exact sailing dates and the name of the ship. Linie has a nice caraway flavor balanced with coriander and anise. The aging time softens the edges, even though Linie still has that distinct rye-bread flavor, and is 40% alcohol.
Akvavit is used in some cocktails, but is more commonly enjoyed straight up. Zig Zag Café makes a delicious cocktail called the Trident that mixes akvavit with equal parts dry sherry and Cynar and a couple dashes of peach bitters. Copper Gate has the Stor Agurk--or Big Cucumber--mixing akvavit with lemon, sugar, and cucumber, which makes a refreshing and slightly sweet cocktail.
The Syttende Mai parade in Ballard begins tomorrow, Tuesday, May 17, at 6 p.m., but happy hour at Copper Gate begins at 3 p.m. There will be specials on drinks, including akvavit specials. There will also be food specials, so be sure to try their excellent housemade pickled herring and the classic Norwegian treat pølse med lompe--a hotdog wrapped in lefse--served with French fries.