Mike McCarron started Gamle Ode, his new aquavit brand, in an effort to recreate a unique Danish dill aquavit he drank on a magical evening in Iceland ten years ago. “It was an eye-opening experience for me, a very worldly, elegant yet casual evening sharing skåls [Danish for toasts], three kinds of herring, and as much of the trimmings they could find in the local stores,” McCarron recalls. “I felt very comforted and engaged with the food, drink, and conversation.”
The first bottles of Gamle Ode (which means “old ode” in Danish) aquavit were released in Minnesota in July. It’s one of a small but growing number of American takes on the spirit, which is sort of like a more herbal, Scandinavian version of gin. Aquavit is a broad category, but they typically include some combination of caraway and dill, sometimes with cardamom, cumin, anise, and other botanicals. Gamle Ode is unique in the U.S. market in that it is dill-driven.
McCarron never thought of himself as entrepreneurial. He spent most of his career working IT jobs, but when the dotcom bubble burst about ten years ago, he did something drastic: “I had, through a huge twist of fate, managed to become a cross country ski coach for a club in the northwest fjords of Iceland (Isafjordur),” he told me via e-mail. During his five-month stay, a Danish friend invited him for a traditional Danish meal of smørrebrød, or open-faced sandwiches. They were washed down with shots of Aalborg Dill Aquavit.
When he returned to Minnesota (and more IT jobs), he looked for dill aquavit, but didn’t have any luck. The Aalborg brand was available, along with some Norwegian and Swedish brands, but none of the distinct dill variety. “I finally bought a bottle of Linie, which I shared with my family, but it just wasn’t the same,” he said. “And I forgot about it until 2011 when I wondered ‘what if.'”
He started researching the aquavit market. None of the new, American entries—like the caraway and cumin-driven North Shore (Chicago) and the anise and caraway style Krogstad (Portland, Ore.)—had that dill flavor he remembered so fondly. He learned about a craft distillery about an hour from the Twin Cities in New Richmond, Wisc., where, it turned out, he already had a personal connection: he and master distiller Paul Werni had graduated from the same Wisconsin high school and Werni had been the best man at McCarron’s cousin’s wedding. Werni and McCarron started working together to create a dill aquavit.
The research stage picked up when McCarron realized he lived just a block away from the Danish American Center in Minneapolis. “I contacted them to see if they would be willing to help us tune the recipe, and they heartily agreed,” McCarron explains. “We went through several very small scale batches until we had one that was so good that Paul, a man of few words, wrote me an e-mail with one line: ‘You’re gonna want to come over and taste this.'” Everyone, including the Danes, loved it. But scaling it up from the sample batch to a 1,000 liter production batch wasn’t easy. “It took us almost a year to get a successful production run,” McCarron recalls.
Pictured above: One of the first events to feature the new aquavit when McCarron launched this summer was the annual Crayfish Party at The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
Werni, who once owned a landscape construction business, and friend Scott Davis, a well-known figure in the Minneapolis restaurant scene and a former owner of Auriga, started 45th Parallel distillery in 2007. They launched with a corn-based vodka that spirits critic Paul Pacult gave five stars. It’s that spirit that forms the base of Gamle Ode, redistilled with a mix of botanicals that includes fresh dill from Rock Spring Farm in northeastern Iowa, caraway seed, and juniper berries.
“The mixologists I meet are stunned for a moment when they first sample the dill, and then their eyes light up and they start grabbing different flavors to try with it,” says McCarron. “And at first they struggle because there is such a deep tradition for sweet liquor and mixes, but they are exploring uncharted ground with dill. Similarly, at tastings, many people are baffled yet intrigued when they try it. For a lot of people, it will challenge them in a good way.”
Aquavit is typically drank straight and chilled, in a stemmed shot glass, and often with food. It makes a good Bloody Mary, but relatively few other aquavit cocktails have found widespread success (save, perhaps Robert Hess’s Trident cocktail).
Mixologists Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, the Minneapolis/Milwaukee-based founders of Bittercube bitters, are working with McCarron to develop some cocktails (which should be made public this week). Eat Street Social in Minneapolis has a Gamle Ode cocktail on the menu this fall called the Astrid Projection (pictured here, $9): Gamle Ode aquavit, lemon, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters.
One of McCarron’s favorite ways to enjoy Gamle Ode though has been over lunch with his Danish friends at the Danish American Center. “They’ve been so kind to me during this year plus of research,” he says. “And every time I learn something about their traditions or how they pair it with certain foods and avoid it with others. But it isn’t all fun with friends as I must admit some nights I just come home from work, and I’ll pull out the herring, plop a few on some crackers, and pour a generous shot to become my late dinner before bedtime. It reminds me no matter what stress of the day that I still live a blessed life.”
McCarron is working to get Gamle Ode into greater Wisconsin (so far he’s only at 45th Parallel’s tasting room) and Illinois. He’s got a special holiday aquavit that’s ready to go, but it’s awaiting approval by the TTB, the government’s notoriously slow alcohol regulation bureau.