You know things are going to get interesting when the drink menu features horseradish- infused aquavit. That's one of the offerings at Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit in New York. The place takes its name from the national drink of Sweden and may be doing as much to advance Swedish culinary expertise as Volvo has done for auto safety.
Aquavit nowadays is produced in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden, starting with alcohol from either grain or potatoes, fermented and distilled twice. When people with imagination and skill steep the odorless and colorless alcohol with fresh fruits, herbs, and botanicals, they deliver a distinctive and slightly buttery libation bursting with flavors far superior to those of mass-produced flavored vodkas. Such carefully concocted spirits are best ice-cold and can be drunk on their own or astutely matched with food at a meal.
A few commercially available aquavits are underwhelming representations of 500 years of distilling experience. The Swedish OP Anderson ($22-$25 for a 750-ml bottle) is amber, owing to aging in oak casks, and has the strong taste of caraway, anise, and fennel. From Denmark, Aalborg Jubilaeums Akvavit ($20) has a noticeable dill flavor, along with coriander and a hint of star anise. Aalborg Akvavit ($19) has the traditional distinct caraway flavor.
Aquavit restaurant owner Hakan Swahn and head chef Marcus Samuelsson, however, cross a new fjord when it comes to making the Old World spirit both in homemade stuff crafted at the restaurant and in the bottled aquavit they recently have begun to supply to liquor stores. Among the aquavits on the restaurant's menu these days are lingonberry, cucumber, raspberry-lime-ginger, orange-lemon, grapefruit-lemongrass, saffron, and pumpkin-espresso.
To make the aquavit that is handcrafted at the restaurant, Swahn starts with what he calls "a good shelf vodka" and adds flavor. Aquavit doesn't become aquavit until it's a finished flavored product. In the case of the orange-lemon, the vodka was allowed to steep together with fresh fruit for three weeks to a month. Then the spirit was strained through a large coffee filter. The result is a slightly cloudy fusion of citrus flavors with plankton-like bits of pulp that has a bright, sumptuous taste and long, smooth finish. Since Swahn started with a 70-proof spirit, it did not have the bracing, almost medicinal shock of an 80-proof vodka such as Absolut Citron ($22) or Stolichnaya Limonnaya ($19-$24).
The variety of flavors and ingredients that the restaurant turns out in small batches makes matching the results with its dishes an adventure. "When you don't come from a wine-producing country, you can get very creative with spirits," says Samuelsson. The horseradish aquavit was brilliant with the herring sampler and a better match than any Riesling or even beer I might have ordered. The unlikely, but delicious, pumpkin-espresso aquavit, made from steeping baked, brown-sugar-laced pumpkin in vodka for a month and adding espresso beans in the mixture for a week, complemented a venison loin with fennel, caramelized ginger, celeriac purée, and apple-pine broth.
You don't have to go to the restaurant to sample the new generation of aquavit. Swahn took one of the more popular handmade flavors from the bar, white cranberry, and made it his first commercially available aquavit. Produced from cranberry concentrate from New England, and distilled in Sweden, his bottled Aquavit has a small amount of caraway, too, as required by the Swedish government. At $28 per bottle, Aquavit New York is rolling out in major cities.
The taste and mouth feel of these aquavits tilt toward liqueur, though they aren't nearly as viscous as, say, an anisette. That makes this new class of aquavit unique, a delight with or without herring, and a refreshing alternative to factory-made flavored vodkas. Skoal!
By David Kiley