Culinary — 29 January 2010
Tasting Notes from a Delicious Discovery. 

By Hope S. Philbrick

If you live in the U.S., odds are you’re not that familiar with Norwegian Aquavit. It’s not readily available in liquor stores.

“Our market is Norway and our job is to serve the Norwegian people,” says Halvor Heuch, distiller and master blender of Norway’s Arcus AS.

Since aquavit is made with Scandinavian palates in mind and made to pair with Scandinavian foods, how would an American group of five professional wine tasters react to a three-course Scandinavian meal (authenticity of certain elements made possible thanks to IKEA), and a pairing of 10 different aquavits? Last night we cracked open the sampler pack I’d purchased during a recent trip to Norway to find out.

The result: We were overwhelmingly impressed.

Halvor HeuchAccording to Heuch, who makes 28 different versions of the spirit, aquavit is distilled twice using a continuous column still. The first distillation converts potato or grain into a base spirit that’s 96% alcohol. During the second distillation herbs and spices are added—caraway is always included in the mix—to give the aquavit its aroma and flavor. It is then often barrel aged and, in the case of certain Norwegian aquavits, shipped from Norway to Australia and back—the ride aboard ship giving the spirit distinct character, thanks to the rolling motion, climate changes, sea air and so on.

Here are the 10 aquavits sampled last night. The producers’ descriptions are quoted, followed by our tasting notes.

aquavit 001Gilde Taffel Aquavit is a well-spiced aquavit in which caraway, dill, aniseed and citrus combine to give this aquavit its unique character. Gilde Taffel may be served slightly chilled, and is particularly well suited as an accompaniment to fish and shellfish dishes, including crayfish and crab.” (37.5% alcohol)

Softer than anticipated, we found the caraway flavor to be very forward while the dill took a back seat.

akvit 005Simers Taffel Aquavit is a pure, traditional aquavit in which caraway is the predominant spice. Maturation in sherry casks gives this aquavit a well-rounded character. Simers Taffel Aquavit is particularly well-suited as an accompaniment to herring dishes and to rich food, which often requires a full-bodied aquavit. This aquavit was proclaimed the best clear aquavit in the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2000, 2003.” (41.5% alcohol)

Very soft compared to the first aquavit. Faint flavors and aromas were reminiscent of vodka.

akvit 007“This smooth aquavit is produced according to a traditional recipe from Løiten Brænderis Destillation. Løitens Export Aquavit is an elegant, well-balanced drink, with a complex blend of spices, citrus and caraway and an underlying sweetness. Løitens Export is an ideal accompaniment to herring dishes, cured fish, grilled salmon and cured ham. Serve slightly chilled (10-12º C).” (40% alcohol)

Potent with distinct alcohol heat, this aquavit seemed rather one-dimensional. It was unctuous with a petroleum note.

akvit 008Løitens Summer Aquavit is based on the classic recipe used by the distillers at Løiten Brænderi, founded in 1855 at Løten. The aquavit is aged in barrels for six months and is mild in taste with a hint of caraway, aniseed and vanilla. An ideal accompaniment to fish and shellfish dishes, white meats and summer specialties such as cured meats. Serve slightly chilled (10-12º C).” (38% alcohol)

Dill and vanilla flavors dominated. One taster detected a sweet caramel note reminiscent of tawny port.

aquavit 013Løitens Linie is Norway’s most famous aquavit and is based on the classic recipe used by the distillers at Løiten Brænderi. The Aquavit is shipped in sherrycask as deck cargo on Wilhelmsen Line ships around the world. This unique maturing process gives Løitens Linie its elegant character of harmoniously balanced spices and cask aromas. An ideal accompaniment to salted and smoked meat or to traditional Christmas food. Serve at room temperature.” (41.5% alcohol)

With a pleasant, soft mouthfeel, this aquavit carried notes of orange, dill and vanilla.

aquavit 015Lysholm Linie Aquavit is the Nordic countries’ oldest aquavit brand. It is a classic, elegant aquavit that has achieved its complex character on its voyage in 500-litre oak casks across the equator to Australia and back. Lysholm Linie’s taste is a fine balance of oak, sherry, caraway and aniseed. The aquavit is slightly dry and is a good accompaniment to medium rich food. Lysholm Linie was proclaimed the best golden aquavit in the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2004.” (41.5% alcohol)

Boasting the sweetest nose among all the aquavits tested, this one surprised in that it also had the roughest palate. Its prominent vanilla flavor was paired with pleasant candied fruit and caramelized sugar notes, but then a hot residual burn on the finish.

aquavit 020Gammel Opland is made according to a traditional recipe created by Oplandske Spritfabrik, which was founded in Christiania in 1891. Gammel Opland is aged for over two years in old barrels and has a discrete character of caraway with an aftertaste of vanilla. The ideal accompaniment to the milder forms of traditional Scandinavian cuisine. Serve at room temperature.” (41.5% alcohol)

Caraway and vanilla flavors transform into pepper on the finish.

aquavit 022Gammel Reserve is a blend of mature aquavits produced by the three traditional Norwegian distilleries Løiten, Lysholm and Opland. This unique blend was first produced in 1927. Ageing in oak barrels contributes to its complex flavour with a hint of caraway and cask aromas. An ideal accompaniment to smoked and cured food, as well as traditional Christmas fare. Serve at room temperature.” (41.5% alcohol)

Toffee, orange peel and oak notes on the nose and palate blossomed into tasty spicy heat in the long, pleasing finish. “Not as many harsh points,” noted one satisfied taster.

aquavit 026Simers Oslo Aquavit is made according to a traditional recipe from Simers & Co Spritfabrikk & Destillation, established in Oslo in 1857. The long period of maturation gives Simers Olso Aquavit a fine, harmonious spicy aroma with a prevalence of caraway, vanilla, sherry and aniseed. The aquavit has a distinctly spicy character, but is also smooth and well-rounded with complex oak in the aftertaste. Simers Oslo Aquavit should be served at room temperature and may be enjoyed on its own or as an accompaniment to coffee.”(41.5% alcohol)

Enjoyable blend of caraway, anise and soft barrel notes.

aquavit 028Lysholm Throndhjemsaquavit was developed in conjunction with the celebrations to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Trondheim. The aquavit is based on the original Lysholm recipe, which is somewhat milder in taste than other classic aquavit recipes. Maturing in oak casks for over three years gives the aquavit a complex barrel character, which tends to masktone down the aromas and flavours of the spices. Serve at room temperature as an ideal accompaniment to coffee.” (41% alcohol)

The caraway burns into menthol that radiates up the sinuses.

Bottom line: All the Norwegian aquavits we tasted were enjoyable, and proved to pair well with Scandinavian dishes (including pickled herring, rye crackers, smoked salmon, venison sausage, salmon with dill, boiled potatoes, steamed asparagus and apple cake). Favorite aquavits included Gilde Taffel, Løitens Summer Aquavit, Løitens Linie, Gammel Reserve and Simers Oslo Aquavit. Gammel Reserve was our group’s No. 1 pick.

Read more of what Hope S. Philbrick learned about aquavit while visiting Scandinavia.

-Photos © HSP Media LLC

HopeP_144Hope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. She became a freelance writer and editor because she believes that work and fun should not be mutually exclusive. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. I visited Norway a few years ago, and have tasted half of the aquavit listed on this page. I hope to visit Norway and sample the others, though it would be nice to have a source in the US. My favorites were Gammel Reserve and Lysholm Throndhjemsaquavit.

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