These Are the Best Ways to Drink Aquavit

The Nordic-inspired liquor is great on its own, paired with food or as a replacement in a classic cocktail

June 22, 2023 6:09 am
A bottle and a glass of Krogstad aquavit on a porch near a dog. Aquavit is a diverse, Nordic-inspired liquor that's great for cocktails
Portland's Krogstad is one of 80+ aquavits available in the U.S.

When was the last time you cracked open a bottle of aquavit? And would you know how to drink it?

Perhaps there’s a dusty bottle hanging out in the back of your liquor cabinet, or maybe you have a Scandinavian relative who pulls one from the freezer on holidays. If you’ve vacationed in Iceland, you might have taken a shot on a dare to wash down fermented shark. 

Aquavit probably isn’t the first bottle you reach for when you’re ready for a drink. But maybe it should be: Without much fanfare, this Nordic-inspired liquor has been quietly becoming one of the most interesting and diverse categories of spirits in the United States.

Of course, I would say that. I’m personally obsessed and a little biased from having founded Aquavit Week, an annual celebration of the spirit, way back in 2012. That experience has allowed me to see how distillers and bartenders have embraced aquavit over the past decade. When I started out, I was only able to find six aquavits to feature at the first event. Today there are more than 80 available in the United States, with distillers getting experimental to make a spirit unbound by convention. (Disclosure: by organizing this festival I’ve worked with quite a few aquavit brands, but it’s always been dedicated to promoting the category as a whole.)

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The legal definition of aquavit is deceptively simple. According to the Tax and Trade Bureau, aquavit is a “caraway and/or dill-flavored distilled spirits product.” In other words, just as gin must be made with juniper, aquavit must be made with caraway or dill. It’s that simplicity that makes the spirit so exciting: once that requirement is met, the sky’s the limit on whatever else distillers want to do. Obscure botanicals, barrel aging, aging at sea in casks that are shipped around the world, it’s all fair game. The lack of constraints is what makes aquavit so much fun.

In Scandinavia, aquavit is often served with food, which is an excellent way to get to know the spirit. Clear, crisp, caraway-forward aquavits, such as Brennivin or Aalborg Taffel, are often poured straight from a refrigerator or freezer into small glasses to accompany seafood, and the pairing works wonderfully. Barrel-aged aquavits, often accented with botanicals such as fennel and anise, may simply be served neat. Aquavit is pretty much absent from the classic cocktail canon, having arrived in the United States too late, but contemporary bartenders rely on its unique botanical profile to create innovative cocktails; it’s a staple ingredient at Death and Co. and other leading bars. (If you’d just like to enjoy aquavit neat, let Swedish actor Max von Sydow show you how it’s done.)

Traditional Nordic brands are a great introduction to aquavit, but it’s worth branching out to try new takes on the spirit. Ten years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anything beyond a couple old school imports and some early experiments from American craft distillers. Now there’s far more to explore. 

Below, a guide to what’s making aquavit exciting in cocktails and a few easy drinks to make with these bottles:

four bottles of aquavit
Aquavit offers a wide range of flavors and styles, from dill to barrel-aged
Photo illustration/Courtesy of

Dill is a big deal

Fresh dill has typically played a supporting role to savory caraway in the aquavit category. Until a few years ago, the American legal definition didn’t even mention it. And yet it’s a dill aquavit that opened my palate to the diversity of aquavit expressions; one whiff of Gamle Ode Dill, created by Minnesotan Mike McCarron with a carload of fresh herbs, and I was instantly hooked. It’s wonderfully aromatic and herbaceous, capturing the green essence of the plant.

Until recently, Gamle Ode had the niche of dill aquavit pretty much to itself in the United States. Now there are a few others to choose from. In Portland, Rolling River makes the cleverly-named “Kind of a Big Dill” aquavit. Michigan producer Norden makes a new dill aquavit from a mammoth Danish dill varietal that they grow locally. The “Swedish-style” aquavit made by Svol in New York takes more of an ensemble botanical profile, but the fresh dill infused before the other ingredients is prominent. And for imports, Icelandic craft distillery Reykjavik 64 has recently brought their dill aquavit stateside. 

How to drink a dill aquavit? It’s a natural with seafood like crayfish or salmon, and it’s a style I personally like to serve chilled. It also makes a great substitute for gin in a classic Collins, taking the drink in a lovely summery direction.

Aquavit Collins

Prep Time: 5 mins

Servings: 1

  • 1.5 oz dill aquavit
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • .5 oz rich simple syrup
  • Soda
  • Directions
    1. Shake the aquavit, lemon juice and syrup with ice.

    2. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass, top with soda and stir gently to combine.

    3. Garnish with a lemon twist and/or drill frond.

Put it in a barrel

If you’re a whiskey drinker, you’ll likely enjoy branching out into barrel-aged aquavits. These have long been popular in Scandinavia, especially Norway, where aquavits are typically aged in sherry casks and sometimes finished in other wine barrels, such as port or Madeira. Norway’s Linie is the one that’s long been exported to the U.S. American distillers are putting their own spin on the spirit by aging in locally available casks, creating new aquavits entirely different from what you’d find in Europe.

Krogstad in Portland made the first American barrel-aged aquavit; their “Gamle” expression is currently aged for two years in a mix of new, charred American oak barrels (just like bourbon) and used French wine barrels. Gamle Ode’s “Holiday on Rye” takes their complex holiday-spiced aquavit and ages it in rye whiskey barrels. Norden’s “American Oak Reserve” is a bruiser of an aquavit, bottled at cask strength at 107-proof from ex-rye barrels. Minnesota distiller Vikre ages theirs in a cognac barrel. This barely scratches the surface of what American producers are doing with barrel-aged expressions. There’s even an extremely rare aquavit aged at sea in the hold of an Alaskan crabbing vessel; at $225 per bottle, it’s probably the most expensive aquavit ever sold in the United States.

How to drink barrel-aged aquavit? There’s less need to chill this style, so you can enjoy it at room temperature or over ice. Grilled meats and smoked fish are a great match. For a cocktail, try them in a simple Old Fashioned. In addition to the usual aromatic bitters, I like to accent aquavit’s caraway spice with a dark bitter like coffee or chocolate.

Aquavit Old Fashioned

Prep Time: 5 mins

Servings: 1

  • 2 oz barrel-aged aquavit
  • 1 barspoon rich demerara syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash chocolate or coffee bitters
  • Directions
    1. Stir ingredients with ice.

    2. Strain into a rocks glass over a big cube.

    3. Garnish with an orange peel.

Get weird

Some of the most fun aquavits being made right now break boundaries by incorporating new and unusual ingredients. Norden is once again a notable entrant, offering up a soft “pink aquavit” inspired by the Michigan summer, infused with local strawberries and rhubarb. Swedish producer Åhus has introduced a “Midvinter” edition, creating a clear aquavit with wintery notes of apple and cinnamon. In a darker direction, the classic Icelandic brand Brennivin introduced a “Rúgbraud” edition that gets its color from an infusion of dark Icelandic rye bread (caraway and rye, who knew?). Or why not get tropical? In one of the most intriguing aquavits I’ve tried lately, Minnesota distiller Tattersall rests their barrel-aged aquavit on toasted coconut. It’s completely unexpected and delicious.

How to drink aquavits with unusual botanicals? Since they’re all unique, there’s no one way to go about it. Try them neat or chilled, of course. And you really can’t go wrong with an aquavit Negroni, swapping aquavit in place of gin. Obviously, the cocktail will taste differently depending on which aquavit you use, but in my experience, it’s a failproof drink that always hits the spot.

Aquavit Negroni

Prep Time: 5 mins

Servings: 1

  • 1 oz aquavit
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz Campari
  • Directions
    1. Stir with ice.

    2. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.

    3. Garnish with an orange peel.


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