Norwegian aquavit: The resurrection of an old classic

The resurrection of a Norwegian classic

Aquavit, Norway’s potato-based liquor, is making its way back into the coolest cocktail bars in the Oslo region. 

Every corner of the world has its own culinary traditions – including distilled beverages unique to the particular area.

In Norway, there is only one drink that could be considered “the national liquor”: Aquavit (derived from the Latin “aqua vitae”, “water of life”). Traditionally, it has been regarded as a seasonal drink – specifically as a digestive part of rich Christmas dinners, and often accompanied by dark beer. Potatoes, flavored with either caraway or dill, are considered essential elements of the Norwegian variety of aquavit.

Nowadays, however, a new generation of distillers and bartenders are quite literally shaking things up – bringing new life into this 500-year-old tradition.

New kids in town


In one of Oslo’s oldest brick buildings, behind an anonymous-looking facade, you’ll find Himkok – a cocktail bar that is currently ranked number 19 on the prestigious list The World’s 50 Best Bars.

More than merely a bar, Himkok is also a small distillery. And their main produce is aquavit, albeit with a twist: Unlike most Norwegian brands, Himkok’s aquavit is not aged in oak barrels. This makes for a more cocktail-friendly variety of the liquor, according to bar manager Odd Strandbakken.
 

 

Odd Strandbakken at Himkok
Odd Strandbakken at Himkok
Photo: Visit Oslo Region/Newslab

 

“It’s a great alternative to gin and works well as a tonic. At first, when we started making aquavit drinks, we didn’t necessarily reveal the main ingredient. Many of our guests told us it was the best gin tonic they’d ever tasted”, he chuckles.

Himkok’s experimentalism was initially met with skepticism and even downright hostility. The established players in the industry had a hard time accepting inventions such as “summer aquavit”, unusual spices and other playful innovations. But they didn’t take long to come round, Strandbakken says.

 

Barrel at Himkok
Barrel at Himkok
Photo: Visit Oslo Region/Newslab

 

“For a long time, the development of aquavit was controlled by old, white men. But business was struggling. The younger generations wouldn’t drink it.”

Even though the bar manager and his colleagues play around with conventions, they’re well aware of the traditions they’re part of – which also may help explain why they won the inaugural Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award last year.

“We try to do everything as local as possible, both when it comes to themes and tastes. The caraway we use, for instance, comes from Inderøy in Trøndelag. It feels great to showcase our Nordic traditions, and there’s a sense of national pride when we get our international friends to love aquavit”, Odd Strandbakken says.



Nordic with a tropical twist


At the recently opened bar Svanen, situated in Oslo’s busy main street Karl Johan, manager Yunus Yildiz prepares what has quickly become a signature drink: Nordic Tiki.

Among the ingredients are falernum (a rum-based syrupy liqueur), several bitters, pineapple, lime powder and – most importantly – traditional Norwegian aquavit. The most beautiful kind of culture clash, in Yildiz’ opinion.

 

Yunus Yildiz at Svanen Bar
Yunus Yildiz at Svanen Bar
Photo: Visit Oslo Region/Newslab

 


“Few places in the world are less tropical than Norway. That’s probably why we love all things tropical so much up here. In principle, I’m not a fan of using ingredients such as passion fruit, pineapple or even lemons in our drinks. They don’t taste anything like they do where they’re grown. But for this particular drink, it works – not least as an introduction for people who think they don’t like aquavit.”

Having been a central part of the Himkok crew for years, Yunus feels lucky to have taken part in what he calls “the cocktail revolution”.

“We realized that maybe it was time to shake things up. But nobody else had the guts to do it. When we started experimenting, many people probably hated us. Now, however, everybody is doing it.” 

 

Aquavit cocktails at Svanen
Aquavit cocktails at Svanen
Photo: Visit Oslo Region/Newslab

 

Sustainability is of the essence to Yunus Yildiz and his co-workers at Svanen. Biodegradable bamboo straws, natural ice cubes bought from a local producer and instant recycling behind the bar are among the instruments they utilize – using aquavit instead of more exotic ingredients is another.

“It goes without saying that using aquavit from Norway is a lot more sustainable than importing whisky from, say, Japan. But the bar industry is actually quite progressive when it comes to environmental knowledge”, Yunus says, adding what may come as a surprise to anyone thinking he’s an anti-traditional aquavit hipster:

“I love experimenting. But my favorite aquavits are actually the traditional ones. The taste of caraway really has to be a central part of the taste.“



Keeping traditions alive


Although an increasing number of bars experiment with flavors, ingredients, spices and mixes, others like to keep their aquavit pure and unadulterated – preferably serving it plain in customized, tulip-shaped glasses, often accompanied by food and beer.

Norway’s most extensive collection of aquavit is probably found in the restaurant Fyret, located on the Youngstorget square in Oslo’s city centre. No less than 340 brands are now available to thirsty guests, from the classics to limited editions and custom-made treasures.

According to the manager at Fyret, Kaja Tinderholt, the idea of aquavit as the featured drink in an eatery was considered absurd at first.

 

Kaja Tinderholt at Fyret, Oslo
Kaja Tinderholt at Fyret, Oslo
Photo: Visit Oslo Region/Newslab

 

“My father opened this place in 1997. When people heard he would be focusing on aquavit as an all-year drink, they thought he had lost his mind”, she says.

However, things have changed over the past few years. The biggest difference from 20 years back is generational, Tinderholt explains. 

Hemingway quote at Fyret, Oslo
Hemingway quote at Fyret, Oslo
Photo: Visit Oslo Region/Newslab


“These days, groups of 8-10 people in their mid-20s may visit us to taste their way through different types of aquavit. It’s really fun to see younger people open their taste buds to this great drink. It’s no longer a beverage reserved for old men.”

She credits the young, experimental players on Oslo’s nightlife scene for making aquavit cool again, as well as an increase in both media attention and international export. But a growing interest – and pride – in local traditions is equally important, Kaja argues.

“Nowadays, a lot of places in Norway have their own aquavit brand, and many of our customers ask if we carry the particular brand from their own hometown. So there’s a traditional aspect here as well.”

   


Norwegian Aquavit
at-a-glance

  • Spirit destilled in Norway from minimum
    95% Norwegian potatoes
                  
  • Aged in oak barrels for at least 6 months

  • Flavoured with caraway or dill seeds

  • The name is derived from Latin "aqua vitae"  
     water of life  and dates back to the 16th century