One of the few consolations of aging is that even as a lot of our other senses start to decline, our palates become more sophisticated. When I was growing up, my Swedish grandmother would force us to have a taste of the abrasive spirit aquavit (a/k/a akvavit) every New Year; it was always a bone-shivering ordeal. This year, with Shirley Backstrom now passed, I found myself looking at the decades-old bottle of Aalborg, the label long since faded off, in a new light. I've been missing out all these years, I thought. This stuff is extraordinary. I knew nothing.
Aquavit — whose name is derived from the Latin for "water of life" — remains a rare spirit in the States, but in Scandinavia it's been a central part of the drinking culture for centuries. The reason for its continued obscurity here has to do with its uncanny flavor profile. While it's produced much like a gin, with a neutral grain or potato spirit infused with spices and botanicals after distillation (and sometimes aged, depending on the country of origin), the most assertive flavor typically comes from caraway, a seed we most readily associate with rye bread.
It's hard to find aquavit in Boston, says Ryan McGrale of Fort Point's soon-to-open Tavern Road. "A lot of bartenders don't use it. It's a give and take. You either like it or you don't, and if you don't, it gathers dust on the bar, like a bottle of Galliano, because there's really no call for it." It shows up in very few cocktails. However, McGrale notes, "I would assume even if I don't see it, there has to be a bottle at every good cocktail bar." You need to have it to round out the program, he says, much like grappa and other underused spirits.
You'll find it locally at a few well-stocked bars. In Kenmore Square, the Hawthorne carries a bottle of Linie, an aquavit that is shipped from Norway to Australia and back in sherry casks; the time at sea imbues the spirit with brine. Kendall Square's West Bridge has a house-made batch of aquavit flavored with caraway, fennel, bay leaf, and other spices and aged in a barrel for two months.
If you're looking to ease your way into aquavit before the bracing shot-taking, McGrale suggests trying it in the Trident, a cocktail from the lauded Zig Zag Café in Seattle. The Trident still offers an intense experience, taking a Negroni template and subbing in aquavit, dry sherry, Cynar, and peach bitters. Then there's noted cocktail scribe David Wondrich's Old Bay Ridge, a riff on an Old Fashioned that uses an ounce each of rye and aquavit.
If you've got a taste for caraway but still aren't quite ready for the full-bore experience, you might consider kümmel, the caraway- and cumin-flavored liqueur, says Chris Balchum of Park in Harvard Square. "It has a sweetness to it, so it isn't all just spice in your face," he explains. One good use for it he's found is another Old Fashioned variant from New York bartender Jeremy Thompson. It calls for a vodka base, muddled fresh dill and sugar, Angostura bitters, and a kümmel rinse.