Photo courtesy of Vikre Distillery
A few years ago, if you asked just about any bartender this side of Scandinavia for a glass of aquavit, they probably would’ve told you to spell that. By the time you’d explained it’s the national spirit of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, they would’ve moved onto the next customer, because who wants to deal with that guy at the bar? But in the last few years, the drink of the vikings has started popping up at bars across the U.S. thanks to a surge in popularity of Nordic cuisine and the rise of craft cocktails.
Some of the best aquavit in America is fittingly being made in Minnesota, where Emily and Joel Vikre are paying homage to the state’s Scandinavian heritage with unaged and aged interpretations of the spirit. Vikre Distillery took home top honors in our Readers’ Choice Award for Best Specialty Spirits Craft Distillery.
Of course, that was never Emily and Joel's plan. Up until a few years ago, the husband-and-wife team didn’t even drink much hard liquor, let alone have any knowledge about how to distill it.
Whisky for Vikings
Few spirits have as romantic of an origin story as aquavit – at least the aged, Norwegian variety. The old tale goes that ships carrying aquavit in oak barrels on trips to Australia imparted a particularly beautiful taste thanks to the perpetual movement, humidity, and fluctuating temperatures that allowed the wood from the barrels to impart more of its flavors. To this day, some Norwegian aquavit brands send their product to Australia and back again.
Vikre makes two kinds of aquavit: Øvrevann Aquavit, the name of its unaged spirit, and the Voyageur Aquavit, which sits for a year in cognac casks, developing woody, orange blossom, french oak notes, making it good for a Manhattan or an old fashioned.
"We age it for a year in cognac barrels, which is my own personal Scandinavian inside joke, because historically, aquavit is kind of the national spirit of Norway, but for the last decade or so, cognac became the go-to after-dinner drink,” Emily Vikre said. “More recently, they pushed back and tried to reclaim their Norwegian heritage and celebrate aquavit, so I thought it would be fun to blend those two traditions.”
Gin's European Cousin
Aquavit and gin are very similar spirits, but what juniper is to gin, caraway (and/or dill) is aquavit. Vikre flavors its malted-barley spirit with caraway before layering on botanicals including citrus, cardamom, and a variety of Scandinavian baking spices, like fennel, peppercorn and ginger, to create what Emily calls a “warm spirit that is a little reminiscent of rye bread.”
Bartenders often use aquavit in place of gin in classic gin cocktails like a gimlet, negroni or a French 75, and lately are even creating aquavit versions of breakfast cocktails like bloody Marys and mimosas. Aquavit has yet to claim a prime position behind many bars in America, but if you grew up in Minnesota, where Scandinavian blood runs deep, you could always find a bottle of aquavit in your friends' liquor cabinets.
“We’re on a mission to educate the world about aquavit,” Emily said. “We’ve benefited from the growth of craft-cocktail culture, and there are a number of bartenders discovering aquavit as a really interesting base spirit that has a lot of similarities to gin, but also has its own richness and savory notes from the caraway.”
But before Emily and Joel started making aquavit, they were making single-malt whisky. They originally started producing aquavit and gin so they had spirits to sell while waiting for their whisky to age. Little did they know their gins and aquavits would be such a hit.
The Birth of Distillery
Photo courtesy of Vikre Distillery
A few years ago, on trip to visit Emily’s family in her hometown of Duluth, her parents told her and Joel about a Swedish single-malt whisky distillery, and she and her husband became inspired to start their own.
”These Swedish guys had been fishing and camping in Scotland and drinking their favorite single malts, and just got sick of hearing the Scots brag about how they have the best peat and the best barley and the best water and the best terroir for making whiskey," Emily said. "They thought, ‘Well, we have all of that. Let’s go home and start making whisky.’ So when we heard that story, we were instantly like, “Well, we have all that in Minnesota. Why isn’t anyone making Minnesota whiskey?”
Six months later they had left Boston – where Emily was finishing a Ph.D in food policy and Joel was a strategic planner at a global health organization – and moved to Minnesota.
The Magical Lake
The way Emily tells it, Duluth and craft distilling were made for each other. The terroir, water, and wild spirit of the city are the perfect storm for small-batch liquor. Not only does Duluth have what she believes might be one of the world’s great terroirs thanks to the surrounding boreal forests, it also has something that other distillers can only dream about: glacially distilled water.
Most distilleries use reverse osmosis to rid their water of minerals and other impurities that would otherwise tarnish the flavor. But the world's largest body of fresh water is so clean that Vikre is able to use city water.
“It is a beautiful blank palate to start with," Emily said. “You’re using water for the brewing process; you’re using water in the distilling process; you’re using water to cut your spirit back down to proof, so that is really the essence of what we make.”
If Superior is the soul of Duluth, the boreal forest is the body. Vikre spirits embody Minnesota by using local grains and botanicals that grow in the surrounding boreal forests – like the spruce tips, sumac, and local juniper berries in Vikre's gins.
“Each of our gins is sort of our attempt to capture the essence of the nature here," Emily Vikre said. "And the aquavit is really an homage to the Scandinavian heritage of the place, especially my family, who is very Norwegian. It’s really a celebration of the cultural background of a lot of people here.”