Spirits for the solstice

If you write about spirits and cocktails, you know all too well that there a thousand manufactured holidays that can be used as excuse to drink. My inbox overflows with tone deaf pitches urging me to feature a client’s product in my “coverage” of “National Hot Dog Day” or whatever the irrelevant tie-in of the moment happens to be.

None of these pitches ever mention aquavit, because aquavit doesn’t have that kind of marketing budget. But this weekend is actually a real holiday and a real excuse to drink aquavit. Tonight is the summer solstice, AKA midsommar, the longest day of the year. If you live in Scandinavia, that’s a great reason to stay up all night with food, fire, and spirits. And if you don’t live in Scandinavia, just pretend that you do.

As it happens, I have two new aquavits to celebrate with this year, courtesy of Gamle Ode. Created by Mike McCarron, based in Minnesota, and distilled in Wisconsin, Gamle Ode produces a Dill Aquavit that I’ve mentioned here before; I named it “Best New Spirit” for 2012. Now Mike has two more aquavits on the market.

Before reviewing those, let’s pause for a moment to note how unique that is. There are only five aquavit producers that I’m aware of in the United States. All of the others make a range of spirits, most of them much more familiar, like vodka and gin. Even European aquavit distillers don’t view the American market as a growth opportunity. Yet here is Mike building an entire brand around the spirit. And he’s not just making one aquavit, he’s making three of them. That takes a special kind of passion, or maybe even craziness. I’m sure it helps that he contracts with 45th Parallel to distill them, thus reducing the initial investment, but to my mind that makes Gamle Ode one of the most innovative and imaginative craft spirit brands in the United States.

Here are Gamle Ode’s newest spirits:

Holiday Aquavit — Just like it sounds, the Holiday aquavit incorporates traditional winter spices. This is a jule aquavit, released once a year in the winter. From Gamle Ode’s own description: “The Holiday Aquavit builds on Gamle Ode’s unique dill, caraway and juniper recipe, adding a holiday mélange of orange peels, mint, and allspice.” After distillation it’s aged for six months in red wine barrels from Alexis Bailly Vineyard, imparting a rich hue for such a young spirit.

The flavor profile on this very interesting. The dill comes through in the beginning, then the orange and spice notes take over for a long finish. I like it on its own and I can also see a lot of potential for it in cocktails; I can see it working very well with fortified wines and a dash or two of bitters.

Celebration Aquavit — Gamle Ode’s Celebration Aquavit takes the prize for most complex aquavit available in the US. The list of botanicals includes fresh dill, caraway, juniper, star aniseed, vanilla, orange, and lemon. This is then aged in a mix of barrels to give it a pale straw color: The Alexis Bailly barrels mentioned above, and bourbon barrels from 45th Parallel Spirits.

Mike describes this as his “aquavit’s aquavit.” While the Dill and Holiday offerings highlight less common flavors, this one emphasizes the caraway and anise a little more. No single ingredient dominates, however. It’s very well balanced, complex, and lingers for a long time. This is just a great spirit, my favorite of the three Gamle Ode aquavits. It reminds me a bit of an Old Tom, though obviously with a very different botanical profile. I’m sipping on it now in a Martinez and it’s working wonderfully.

Unless you live in certain parts of the Midwest, you probably can’t find these spirits at your local liquor store yet. But I encourage you to request them and see if you can get them in your state. In the meantime, NPR has some tips for enjoying a midsommar celebration. And if you’re looking for aquavit cocktails, my drink archive has a whole page of them.

As I’ve said before, if you like gin, there’s no reason you shouldn’t like aquavit. It can be just as botanically complex and deserves much more exploration as a cocktail ingredient. This weekend is a great time to give it a shot.

Skaal!

[Image courtesy of Gamle Ode.]

Comments

  1. Harry says:

    I’m a big fan of Gamle Ode’s Dill aquavit and I like the Holiday stuff even better. I had the pleasure of trying Celebration last week with Mike himself at Eat Street Social in Minneapolis and I was really taken with it. I detected the anise and dill straight away but kept thinking to myself that there was something else there too — something more complex than the citrus and other typical botanicals. Then Mike told me about the vanilla. In my opinion, it’s what makes its more classic aquavit flavor profile unique. Great stuff! Eager to try it in a Martinez!

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