American Aquavit: Riffing on a Scandinavian Staple

With its long-established tradition and unique flavors, aquavit is finding favor among North American drinkers and bartenders—and among craft distillers, who appreciate its familiar process and opportunities for distinctive character.

Courtney Iseman Feb 22, 2024 - 14 min read

American Aquavit: Riffing on a Scandinavian Staple Primary Image

Photo courtesy: Aimsir Distilling

There’s a spirit popping up more often lately on distillery tasting-room menus and in more cocktails at mixology-savvy bars. While it’s new to many Americans, it has a centuries-old history in Scandinavia. It’s most easily compared to gin, with its botanical and herbal bouquet—so it can simultaneously ride gin’s coattails toward wider popularity while offering curious drinkers something different and interesting.

We’re speaking, of course, of aquavit.

Aquavit is approaching at least five centuries of existence—the first record of it dates to 16th century Norway. In essence it’s a neutral base spirit that features some amount of caraway and dill plus other herbs and botanicals. However, this long-running Scandinavian staple flashes a few variations from country to country.

The Norwegians make aquavit from a potato-based spirit, and they must age it for at least a year on oak. Danish and Swedish aquavits are grain-based, with the Danish iterations leaning more dill-forward. More broadly, aquavit should be at least 37.5 percent ABV.


The drinking traditions differ, too, says Jonas Larsson, master distiller at Tevsjö Destilleri in in Järvsö, Sweden, about 300 kilometers north of Stockholm. There in Sweden, people associate aquavit with celebrations, often enjoying it amid holiday feasts. In Denmark, meanwhile, you can find it on more quotidian lunchtime menus, typically paired with smørrebrød—open-faced rye topped with cheeses, cold cuts, and/or various garnishes.

Aquavit Abroad

In the United States, meanwhile, there is basically only one rule about how to make aquavit: Legally, it must feature caraway, dill, or both. Likewise, the ways that bars present aquavit on menus run the gamut. Drinkers might find it served straight as part of a flight, poured neat, in a martini in place of gin, or mixed into a tiki drink as a subtle, savory twist.

While aquavit’s popularity fluctuates in Scandinavia—consumption is waning as its more ardent drinkers age—Larsson describes seeing renewed interest among the next generation. Meanwhile, interest also is growing abroad among North American drinkers who seek bold spirits with strong cultural ties, such as Mexican agave or Italian amaro. Bartenders, meanwhile, are intrigued by the creative flex of working with something different.

Its popularity in the United States is sufficient to support something called Aquavit Week, a week of events celebrating the spirit in various bars. The week’s website lists more than 60 different aquavits produced at American distilleries. It’s an attractive option for a distillery’s portfolio—a chance to offer something novel to consumers while engaging them in its story and unique flavor profile. At the same time, it’s close enough to gin that producing it isn’t too heavy a lift.

Local Variation in the Base

There are a few essential decisions to make when starting down the aquavit path. Are you going to choose a more traditional Norwegian or Swedish style when it comes to your base spirit and botanical bouquet? Or—and this appears to be the popular route among American distillers—will you hone your understanding of Scandinavian aquavit writ large, then perfect your own riff?


When fine-tuning your aquavit, your process hinges largely on which base and which botanicals and herbs you choose.

At Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cofounder Jon O’Connor says they make a neutral spirit from Michigan-grown red winter wheat. While the goal of such a base is to indeed be neutral, it doesn’t have to be characterless—different grains can lend subtle traits to their aquavits in overall tone and mouthfeel.

O’Connor says the local wheat provides a signature backbone to all their spirits. While a good base shouldn’t stand out, it also should be apparent when a spirit is lacking a good base. “With the red winter wheat, I think you pick up vanilla notes,” O’Connor says. “Some people say toasted marshmallow. You get a softer, creamier, richer mouthfeel with wheat compared to corn or rye or sugar or barley.”

In Portland, Oregon, Aimsir Distilling also uses a wheat base, says head distiller Andy Robinson. “It’s very, very clean and very light in flavor but does have a subtle sweet profile to it,” Robinson says. “It has a really nice, velvety-smooth texture coming from that wheat.”

The base spirit for aquavit often depends on what’s available, says Larsson in Sweden. For Tevsjö, near the country’s center and the Baltic coast, there’s more barley than wheat, so their base spirit comes from barley. Naturally, this pragmatic approach fits with that of craft distillers who prioritize local ingredients. Norden Aquavit, based in Chelsea, Michigan, distills its base from organic corn grown in the Midwest. New York’s Halftone Spirits—based in Brooklyn but licensed as a farm distillery—buys its base made from corn grown in-state and then re-distills it on site.


Customizing the Botanicals

After you settle on the best base for your aquavit, there are decisions to be made in the botanicals. While the characteristic element of caraway and/or dill is necessary—as it is with juniper in gin—the supporting flavors offer room for creativity.

Long Road in Grand Rapids uses both caraway and dill, the latter in the form of both dill seed and fresh dill; O’Connor says they also use cumin, star anise, fennel, and cinnamon. For Brooklyn’s Halftone, besides dried dill and caraway seed, there’s fennel, juniper, bitter orange peel, licorice root, coriander, long pepper, angelica root, and orris root. For their 100-liter batch size, Thomas says that he uses nine pounds (four kilograms) botanicals in all, and that about 35 percent of that is caraway seed.

At Aimsir in Portland, it’s caraway seed plus star anise, fennel, lavender, coriander, and cinnamon, plus a mulling spice blend of allspice, clove, (more) cinnamon, and orange peel.

As a brand focused on aquavit, Norden produces a few different varieties. For their flagship—a “taffel” or “table” style— cofounder and head distiller Robyn Cleveland says he works to highlight caraway’s subtleties, such as its minty backbone and elements of pine and lemon. He also uses a little bit of juniper, sumac (for its citrus-and-pine aroma when distilled), coriander, angelica root, orris root, and clary sage.

With his Southern California–based brand Batch 22, cofounder Matthew Arkin says he wanted to create a new riff on aquavit that felt a little more accessible to the American palate. Batch 22 Classic Gold gets caraway and dill, but instead of leaning into some of the stronger anise- and fennel-forward flavors, Arkin says it incorporates more citrus than other examples.


Ways to Capture Those Flavors

Trial and error leads to discoveries about how and when to add the various botanicals to achieve their ideal expression.

For example: At Long Road, O’Connor says their dill, being fresh and soft, is best going straight in right before distillation; the caraway, on the other hand, is hard and dense, so it benefits from some maceration. He starts a soak for these denser botanicals about three days before distillation, adding a couple of others only on the last day. On the day of distillation, he charges the still with the botanicals that have been soaking in the neutral spirit—which starts at 190 proof—along with more neutral spirit plus water to lower the proof. He charges a gin basket with the more delicate botanicals, doing a single distillation through Long Road’s Vendome copper still for the final extraction of flavor. Finally, he proofs the aquavit back down a day or two later. (The finished product is 45 percent ABV, i.e. 90 proof).

Halftone’s maceration goes for five days, says cofounder and distiller Andrew Said Thomas. He soaks about half the total weight of the botanicals, then pulls them off the neutral spirit and fires up the still.

“Essentially, what’s happening in maceration is alcohol has this open carbon hand, as it were, grabbing onto all the essential oils in these botanicals,” Thomas says. “So, when we fire up the still and the alcohol vaporizes off the water bath, it’s grabbed those essential oils and carries them with it through the distillation process.” This essential oil–packed vapor passes through the gin basket—which holds the other half of the botanicals—picking up even more oils, recondensing into liquid on the other side with its full flavor and aroma bouquet.

Thomas says the base is 120 proof at the maceration stage, clocking in around 75 percent ABV after distillation, and later is proofed down to 43 percent ABV after settling.


At Aimsir in Portland, Robinson’s maceration stage takes two days. All his botanicals go into a nylon bag that goes into about 50 gallons (189 liters) of his neutral spirit. “We’re essentially making an alcohol tea,” he says. This all goes into the still for a four-hour distillation, gets proofed down with water, and run through a pot still, coming off at 90 proof.

At Tevsjö in Sweden, Larsson macerates his botanicals for 24 hours. He also adds a small amount of sugar, about one gram per liter—such an addition is typical with some Scandinavian producers but not common in the United States. His spirit comes off the still at about 75 percent ABV; he proofs it down over a week to 40 to 43 percent.

Norden’s full aquavit range offers a spectrum of variations, with the aforementioned Original Taffel Style anchoring the repertoire.

Cleveland does a one-shot distillation, with all the botanicals together in the still, and he only adds water to proof down before bottling. “Most Scandinavian producers, the old guard of aquavit, they primarily do concentrates of individual botanicals and blend that into the spirit, like a compound gin,” he says. “For me, making it that way, the botanicals are not as intertwined as I want them to be.”

Cleveland’s one-shot distillation means he must be careful and consistent with his botanicals—which ones he chooses, where he sources them, and how much he uses. “There’s no margin for error,” he says. “I can’t add a little more coriander or take something out.”


More Ways to Diverge

From Taffel, Cleveland has developed Norden’s additional styles. While it’s not necessary for an American producer to do so, he and his wife and cofounder Summer Ransom-Cleveland strictly follow European Union guidelines on aquavit production.

“We want to pay homage to where these categories originated,” Cleveland says. “We want to be champions of aquavit and make something that won’t confuse the consumer. The regulations in the U.S. are relaxed … and that’s nice for innovation, but there’s room for innovation without going off the rails.”

Norden’s American Oak Reserve is their cask-strength offering. Cleveland puts his aquavit in once-used rye barrels at 110 proof for one to two years, then bottles it at 107 proof. When Scandinavian producers age aquavit, they more commonly do so in sherry barrels. Cleveland says he sees the American Oak Reserve as a way to tell the aged aquavit story but in a uniquely American way. It’s also a nod to Michigan, with its history of growing “extraordinary rye,” he says.

Norden’s Pink Aquavit and Heirloom Garden Dill also fuse European and Michigan traditions and ingredients. The Pink is the only aquavit Cleveland sweetens, at 14 grams of cane sugar per liter. The result, he says, is like an Old Tom gin. Within hours of picking, strawberries and rhubarb are infused into the Taffel base, at 90 proof. They soak for about 45 days, then Cleveland does a secondary distillation with caraway and orris root. That distillate gets a hibiscus infusion for three weeks, and Cleveland adds rosewater to his proofing water.

For the Heirloom Garden Dill, Cleveland started growing their own dill three years ago with seeds from a family friend in Denmark. He does a vapor distillation with dill stalks that are four to six feet tall, treating it like he would a gin basket. “We put whole stalks in the column still and blast our high-proof ethanol right through that, making a high concentrate of extract dill flavor,” Cleveland says. He puts that aside to do a supporting botanical run in line with Taffel, then blends that with the dill distillate at bottling time.

American Aquavit

These producers and many others are offering a glimpse of what can be done within and around aquavit’s parameters, from classic Scandinavian iterations to experimental riffs and reliance on local flavors.

Many are winning awards for it, too, including Long Road’s Best in Show at the 2016 Denver International Spirits Competition, and again at the American Craft Spirits Association in 2017. Norden’s Original Taffel Style won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019.

Aquavit intrigues in tasting-room flights, even as it provides new pathways to cocktail creativity. Based on what’s been accomplished already, the spirit’s future in North American appears to be bright indeed.

Courtney Iseman is a freelancer writer focused on the craft-beverage space, based in Brooklyn, New York.