Thursday 18 October 2012

Akvavit: gin's caraway cousin

I briefly visited Denmark earlier this year, so I took the opportunity to bring back some examples of akvavit, the national spirit over there. Akvavit is similar to gin in that it is a distilled spirit flavoured with botanticals, although after infusion the spirit does not normally seem to be redistilled. It is also frequently barrel-aged (although this is now beginning to become trendy with gin too); even the clear examples may have been aged in old barrels that do not impart much colour. It seems that the origins of the drink lie, as with gin, in the believed medicinal properties of the botanicals, and the name comes from Latin aqua vitae, “water of life”—the same as eau de vie and indeed the Gaelic uisge beatha, from which we get “whisky”.

Isidore Henius. Doesn't exactly
look like a party animal, I admit
The defining botanicals in akvavit are caraway and dill, although cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel and lemon and orange peel are also used. One of the products made by Danish akvavit giant Aalborg (owned by Pernod Ricard) even has amber in it. The base spirit is typically made from grain (Aalborg say they use corn) or potatoes. While Norwegians are more inclined to age theirs and savour it at room temperature, Danes are more likely to drink shots of it very cold with food—it is a perfect match for marinated herring.* In fact the Aalborg site seems obsessed with drinking it with lunch (not sure how good an idea this is, given the typical ABV of 42–45%, particularly if you’re going back to work at the sawmill afterwards) and makes various food pairing suggestions with their extensive range of spirits.

The akvavit you’re most likely to encounter is Aalborg’s Taffel Akvavit, apparently the most popular spirit in Denmark. Invented by Isidore Henius in 1846, it is considered a benchmark companion to herring. It has a pronounced, though not overpowering, caraway aroma, along with citrus and maybe a hint of cloves. It’s remarkably smooth on the tongue given its 45% ABV, even sweetish, though I’m assuming this sensation comes from the botanicals (aniseed can give this impression) rather than added sugar. Henius himself was actually a Pole but he settled in Denmark and overhauled the industry through an understanding of modern rectification techniques, producing his Taffel Akvavit as a quality bread-and-butter product that quickly dominated the market. I took the precaution of investing in some marinated herring for this tasting, and I can confirm that the two go together very well, a classic combo of sweet, sour and aromatic spice. These are cold, heady, Nordic flavours. From the freezer it loses some of the wallowy sweetness and becomes sharper, actually making it a slightly better foil for food.

Harald Jensen, clearly the sensitive,
creative one: just look at the hair
Harald Jensen is, like Henius, considered one of the three akvavit godfathers (the third is Anthon Brøndum, whose name lives on in Brøndum Snaps, another Aalborg product); originally wanting to be an artist until his stern father forced him to take over the family distillery instead, Jensen became known for his creative use of botanicals, such as aniseed, ginger, allspice and bitter orange. His Akvavit, now made by Aalborg, inevitably, contains all these ingredients but is broadly similar to the Taffel, though it strikes me as less soft and sweet, a bit fiercer and with some darker, woodier, more bitter notes, maybe with hints of berry fruit, compared to the brighter, simpler flavours of the Taffel. It doesn’t go quite so well with herring. From the freezer notes of orange and dill seem a bit more prominent and, as with the Taffel, it seems to be a better accompaniment to food at this temperature.

Aalborg’s Jubilaeums Akvavit was produced to celebrate the centenary of the firm’s Taffel product in 1946. It is a yellow colour from ageing in American white oak and has a soft nose of coriander, orange and vanilla (presumably from the oak). There is also dill in there too. I find it rather lovely, and I think it would appeal to many a gin drinker because of the pronounced coriander flavour, though it is not a hugely complex drink. It stands up pretty well to herring. I also tried this one frozen, although Aalborg don't prescribe this serve; it actually seems to keep its character more than the last two, although again I feel that it goes better with food (or at least with marinated herring) at a low temperature.

The four-month journey on which every Linie barrel must go
Linie Aquavit (that’s how it’s spelled on the bottle) is also fairly common but is very peculiar in its manufacture (and it is also not made by Aalborg, for once). It is Norwegian in origin and is made from potato-based spirit, flavoured with caraway, aniseed, dill and coriander. This is then aged in barrels previously used for oloroso sherry. But the weirdest is yet to come: the barrels are then taken on a long sea voyage. It is believed that the constant motion of the ship enhances the interaction between the spirit and the wood, but the barrels are always carried on deck, as the exposure to salty sea air and climatic extremes of Nordic storms and baking equatorial heat are also considered important. (Experiments have been conducted to try and synthesise the movement in static warehouses using machinery but apparently it just wasn’t the same.) The name “Linie” refers to the equator. All Linie Akvavit goes on a four-month journey visiting 35 countries and crossing the equator twice. At any time more than a thousand casks of this spirit are out on the seas somewhere. The technique was discovered in 1807 when a captain took a cargo of akvavit to Indonesia hoping to sell it; the Indonesians proved unreceptive to the drink so he had to take it back home again, and it was then that the effect of the voyage on the spirit was discovered.

Linie has a soft but burnished aroma, seemingly with dill as prominent as caraway (although there doesn’t seem to be any dill in it), plus vanilla and orange notes too, and a smooth, sweet caraway flavour with a subtle wood element and a chocolately aftertaste. Being Norwegian, it is recommended to be drunk at room temperature or only slightly chilled, not frozen as the Danes tend to drink it. They also suggest drinking it as a chaser after beer. I found it very agreeable, sweet enough to be approachable but not cloying. It goes OK with marinated herring but not as well as Aalborg Taffel: there is something about the wood that seems to clash slightly.

There is not much of Hven island
I bought some of my samples in the booze section of Magasin du Nord, a famous department store in Copenhagen, simply asking the assistant to recommend something. He selected the Jensen as “something that ordinary Danes drink” and, at the other, artisanal end of the scale, the Aqua Vitae from Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn, handmade on an island between Sweden and Denmark. This organic spirit is pot distilled in what is only the third pot-still distillery ever built in Sweden, where they make a whole gamut of products including vodka, gin, rum, three different akvavits and single malt whisky in a range of styles. They use no additives and do not carbon- or chill-filter. They are also keen on barrel-ageing—even their vodka and gin spends some time in wood before a final distillation. The akvavit is made from organic wheat alcohol in which herbs, spices and fruits (orange, lemon and St John’s wort are the only ones they name, along with local honey) are macerated for 24 hours and then redistilled. It is aged in American white oak both before and after redistillation.

The range of Hven spirits, all in the trademark 50cl flasks
The spirit is a deep golden colour and comes in a conical 50cl flask with a wooden stopper and a wax seal. The distillery also make a Summer Schnapps and a Winter Schnapps, both with botanical flavorings, and the standard aquae vitae is distinguished from these by being caraway-based; but I must admit I don’t really get much caraway from it myself. It is strikingly different from the other samples tasted here, with a nose predominantly of orange, woody vanilla, fig, chocolate and Christmas spices. It is strong on the tongue but oily smooth, and loaded with mellow wood, chocolate, coffee and subtle aniseed. It’s a classy bit of barrel ageing, redolent of old brandy or rum, with an evolving aftertaste of prunes, cloves and other unexpected flavours. Rather wasted with marinated herring, though it doesn’t clash—the fish brings out the orange and clove flavours, for some reason.

If you’re one of those people who just doesn’t like aniseed then you probably don’t like caraway and you’re not going to like akvavit. But this small handful of examples, from three different countries, goes to show what a varied product it is. As with gin, the use of botanical flavourings gives you scope to take the taste in all kinds of directions, and the common use of wood ageing gives even more scope. I like the simple Aalborg Taffel—which does indeed go splendidly with herring—but the mellow complexity of the Linie and, in particular, the Hven makes for a spirit to be savoured on its own. And if you’re a gin drinker, check out the twinkling, coriander-laced Jubilaeums. Akvavit isn’t cheap in this country, with the basic Taffel selling for about £20 and the Jubilaeums and Linie for £26 (the other two don’t seem to be sold here at all, though you can tour the Hven distillery if you find yourself on the island), but I’d recommend giving it a try.

* The Aalborg site draws a distinction between “marinated herring” and “pickled herring” (which is better with Brøndum Snaps, they reckon), as well as a couple of other kinds of cured herring. The stuff I’m eating is labeled as “marinated” and is quite sweet, flavoured with dill, onions, etc. I’m guessing that by “pickled” they mean a more tart cure.

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