What Is Aquavit, and Why Are They Suddenly Making Scandinavian Booze in Colorado?

Devil’s Head distiller Ryan White makes aquavit that’s true to his roots and entirely new.

image
Nick Wagner

How to Drink Aquavit

Aquavit is traditionally consumed neat. But its unique botanical flavor profile also makes it an ideal spirit for mixologists looking to innovate.

The Cocktail: "Notes of a Dirty Old Man"

  • Place a large ice cube in a rocks glass. Add six drops of bitters.
  • Add ¼ oz honey simple syrup (combine equal parts honey and water).
  • Add 2 oz aquavit.
  • Run the pith side of an orange peel around the rim of the glass. Light a match, hold directly over the cocktail, and squeeze the peel into the flame. The orange-peel oils will ignite in a small burst of flames. Garnish with the peel.

    The Crazy Backstory

    When we started making aquavit, I wasn’t connected to my family’s Scandinavian origins. Due to economic struggles, my grandfather, now 93 and one of three brothers, was adopted by a neighbor (with the last name Maupin), although he maintained a close relationship with his brothers and mother (last name Nielson). Accepting his adoptive parents as my great-grandparents, I never thought much about that history until recently.

    Honestly, it was sheer dumb luck.

    In 2015, my grandfather was ed by a group claiming to have discovered the remains of his oldest brother, Roger Nielson, buried in the sand on a small island in the South Pacific. Roger went MIA in the World War II battle of Tarawa (November 20 to 23, 1943)—no one ever knew what happened to him. My grandfather submitted a DNA sample that confirmed the brother’s remains, still intact other than the fatal bullet entry wound in the skull, which were exhumed and cere­moniously interred at Fort Logan National Cemetery, Denver. I learned that my grandfather’s biological mother’s maiden name was Jourgenson, and it hit me that both of his parents were Scandinavian: Nielson and Jourgenson. At that point, it made perfect sense that I’d chosen to make aquavit, a then-obscure spirit. It was in my DNA all along.

    The Signature Spirit

    Many distilleries start out making vodka and gin, the most popular clear spirits (which don’t require aging). I decided to incorporate aquavit into our portfolio as a differentiator, and it’s outsold our vodka and gin combined.

    In addition to the customary clear version, we also make the wood-rested Oak Barrel Reserve. While a few brands may finish for a short time in an oak barrel, ours is rested for a longer, whiskey-like duration. We’ve actually had inquiries from Scandinavian bars and restaurants looking to import our aquavit from Colorado. We never planned to make a rested aquavit. We had the barrels—new American white oak at a standard No. 3 char—because we were planning on entering the whiskey field. But then decided to experiment.

    Honestly, it was sheer dumb luck.

    The Process

    Federal law states that the flavor of aquavit must be led by caraway, dill, or both. We start with a premium base spirit made from malted barley that is mashed, fermented, and distilled in-house.

    It is double-distilled, with the second or “finishing” run the product of fractional distillation, using a custom-made 20-plate copper Vendome column still, hot at the bottom and cold at the top (so the proof increases as the vapor rises within the columns). The vapor passes through a suspended basket of botanicals, and as a solvent, the alcohol extracts the essential oils and carries the flavors into the condenser, where the alcohol in the vapor is cooled and recondensed into a liquid.

    I’m transparent about our botanical mix: caraway, fennel, dill, celery, and anise seeds, and cubeb berry, an Indonesian black pepper. But I’m not as willing to part with the ratio of those ingredients. It took me two years of due diligence, experimenting on a benchtop still to determine what type of flavor each botanical imparts. If you want to fully understand botanical distillation, you need to put in this work and time.

    Advertisement - Continue Reading Below