Aquavit (or akvavit) is a quintessential Scandinavian spirit that has been produced since the 15th century.
The liquor itself is distilled from grains and potatoes, then flavored with a variety of botanicals and herbs that vary according to the region (traditional flavors include caraway, dill, and fennel). Aquavit is derived from the Latin phrase “aqua vitae,” meaning “water of life,” as it was believed to have healing powers. It expresses terroir because each region in Scandinavia uses native herbs, spices, and botanicals, similar to the New World gins that have taken the craft spirits world by storm.
At two Michelin-starred Scandinavian restaurant Aska in Brooklyn, New York, chef and owner Fredrik Berselius has embraced his roots by serving housemade versions of Aquavit that leave guests curious about the rising spirit, its origin, and its history. “Before opening Aska, Fredrik knew he wanted to serve aquavit because of its importance in Scandinavian culture,” says Rachael Pack, Aska’s beverage director. “Besides being a nod to his roots, the aquavit program serves as a fantastic way to highlight Aska’s foraged ingredients, plus it gives recognition to ingredients that are less well-known and not often seen on restaurant menus.”
While most spirits are simply poured out of a bottle and into a glass, Aska elevates its service to properly showcase its aquavits. “Best served chilled, the aquavit is presented to guests in a small decanter on a bed of crushed ice alongside a cold, frosted aquavit glass,” Pack says. “Usually enjoyed as either an aperitif before a meal or digestif after a meal, guests are instructed to ‘imbibe as you will,’ though the spirit is traditionally sipped slowly, allowing the focus to be on the precision of flavor and aroma.”
Pack explains how exciting it is to forage these special ingredients and taste them to experience how the flavors change throughout time. The aquavit-making process is creative and experimental, which keeps things interesting for Aska’s bar staff. Luckily for us, Pack shared the inside scoop on how Aska approaches aquavit and a fun recipe to try at home or behind the bar.
“The method in which aquavit is made at Aska mirrors the way it is made at home in Scandinavia,” Pack says. “The process is actually quite simple. Different herbs, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and botanicals are covered with a neutral spirit—at Aska, we use an organic vodka made in New York. They are left to infuse in an airtight container for different amounts of time. The neutral spirit gives the flavoring ingredient a stage to preserve and showcase its flavor in a really precise way. These infusions are checked periodically to track progress in terms of color and flavor—each week or less for soft herbs and flowers, and each month for sturdier fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs.”
When you’re making aquavit, the ratio of botanicals to neutral spirit wholly depends on the ingredients you’re using and how strong you want the final product to be. “Ingredients like white truffle, for example, are far more potent than others, so you will need less of it to impart a strong flavor,” Pack notes. She also states that the process overall is largely trial and error and left to the bartender’s mixological prowess.
“When it comes to length of infusion, this differs on a case-by-case basis,” Pack explains. “Ingredients such as honey, which dissolves quickly, only take about a week to infuse. Herbs with a delicate structure, such as dill (a very traditional aquavit flavor), that degrade quite rapidly will only take a couple of weeks until they are ready to serve.” When it comes to sturdier herbs such as lovage, fruits like lingonberry, and nuts (such as black walnuts, which are toasted before infusion), “[they] can be left for many months, even years, until their flavor is properly developed,” she says. Additionally, the flavor of each aquavit will develop and change over time the longer an ingredient is infused, as is the case with most infusions.
To make your own aquavit at home, check out Aska’s simple recipe for a traditional dill version below.
Aska’s Dill Aquavit
- In a 32-ounce Mason jar, add only the stems of a large bunch of dill (set aside the leaves for another use). Fill the jar with vodka and cover.
- Leave to infuse for one week. After a week, remove the dill stems and add in new dill stems. This ensures it doesn’t turn brown with oxidation and results in a more vibrant green color.
- Repeat this process one more time after another week has passed.
- The aquavit should be ready after three or four weeks. But remember, it’s all based on trial and error and subject to the bartender’s palate.