Since I interviewed Mike McCarron, founder and creator of Gamle Ode Aquavit in November, I’ve gotten to know him a little better and—full disclosure—I’ve done a little work for him and his brand. It’s been exciting for me both as an aquavit aficionado and a Minnesotan to be a part of his story, however small.
McCarron started Gamle Ode in Minneapolis last July. The company’s first product, a dill aquavit (perhaps the first of its kind to be produced outside of Scandinavia) is distributed in Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s distilled by 45th Parallel Spirits in New Richmond, Wisconsin, about an hour from Minneapolis.
I was lucky enough to be among the first consumers to taste Gamle Ode’s newest product, the Holiday Aquavit, back in December, and I’m proud to be one of the first to write about it. Its story is fascinating to me because it wasn’t easy to make. At first a few things went wrong, and then those setbacks were used to create something new and wonderful.
But before I get into the story behind it, let me first say that it’s incredibly delicious. Like Gamle Ode’s flagship product, it’s made with dill, caraway, and juniper. Unlike the standard formulation, the Holiday Aquavit has orange peels, mint, and allspice added to the mix. That and it’s aged in barrels that held wine. It’s closer to the barrel-aged style of aquavit you see from Linie and the Jubilæums aquavit from Aalborg than the clear, taffel style but, it is uniquely Gamle Ode. The dill and caraway are still detectable, but there’s more going on; I was reminded a little of Chartreuse. But there’s also that depth of flavor that can come only from a barrel. The people I’ve shared it with have been impressed with the complex layers of flavor. If ever there was an aquavit meant to be sipped like cognac, this is it.
Holiday Aquavit: The Background
While seasonal beers are common in the U.S., seasonal spirits are much less common. Scandinavia isn’t like that. With both beer and aquavit, seasonal expressions are typical. Many Scandinavian aquavit brands release Christmas, or Jule, versions every year (Jule aquavits from Denmark’s Aalborg and Norway’s Gilde were two of McCarron’s inspirations). They’re meant to be gifts and treats. Unfortunately, those products are rarely available outside of their home countries and they’re very expensive.
McCarron had planned from the beginning to release seasonal and special versions of aquavit. The first one, the Holiday Aquavit, was to be a November release and the next one, to be called Celebration Aquavit, would be earlier in the year. Each will be annual, limited runs—the Holiday Aquavit is 600 bottles. And like any small batch spirit, there will be some variability each year. However, this run of the Holiday spirit will be hard to top: its production was extremely difficult and labor intensive. Gamle Ode’s distiller, 45th Parallel, isn’t likely to go through so much next time—for better or worse.
Better Than Planned
The Holiday Aquavit didn’t start out as such. “It was born out of a failed dill production run a year ago. It had great dill aroma but instead of a dill taste it was caraway-forward,” McCarron (pictured below at left with Paul Werni) explains.
“[45th Parallel distiller] Paul Werni was proud of getting what he called a ‘clean distill.’ The smell of dill filled his distillery and the fragrance was incredibly floral and fun. But a few days later, when we blended it down to 84 proof and sampled it, we were stunned to find it tasted heavily of caraway! The dill aroma was there but its flavor was missing.”
This was actually the first large-scale attempt McCarron and his partners at 45th Parallel made, and its failure to capture the flavor profile they expected was heart breaking. “Paul then tried a second infusion and re-distillation to save it, but with no luck.”
With hundreds of liters of twice-distilled spirits—which were now remarkably smooth—McCarron realized they could save the batch by using it as a base for the Holiday Aquavit, something he didn’t think he’d have the chance to work on until further down the road.
“It was failure as a ‘dill’ aquavit, but it was very good booze; and the challenge became what to do with it given that I only had one label in the works at the time,” he recalls. “But I had two more aquavits (the Holiday and Celebration) in mind for later development, so it forced me to move faster on the Holiday. It turned out to be perfect timing since moving early actually meant moving right on time to get everything set and in the barrels for the six months aging the Holiday required to be considered finished. It was ‘failure’ that actually was kismet, a fate that resulted in something better than what was originally planned.”
To turn it into Holiday aquavit, McCarron and Werni re-infused it again with the Christmas flavors of orange, allspice, and mint. Then they re-distilled it a third time and put it into barrels last May. The two 60 gallon oak barrels, which were already used to age wine, came from a local wine producer, Hastings, Minn.-based Alexis Bailly Vineyard. The spirits sat in the two barrels for more than six months.
“We pulled it from the barrels in December, when it tasted great; we worried it might change and we thought we would be able to sell it then,” McCarron said.
But the label approval from the TTB (the government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) didn’t come until after the New Year. Consider this Holiday Aquavit a late Christmas present. Or an Easter treat. Or, do as McCarron does: “We should have a holiday every week, to share with and show appreciation of family and friends,” he says. And why not?
Get it While You Can
I can say without reservations that this is a remarkable spirit, the likes of which won’t be produced ever again. It may not have made it stores for Christmas, but it was worth the wait.
“All I know at this point though is it is unlikely that we or any other producer will intentionally duplicate the process: to do three distillations, two separate and full infusions, and to start with 1,000 liters and end with 450 liters cuts way deeper than anyone cares to make cuts,” said McCarron. “It is much more handling than any craft or major distillery can justify doing for $30 a bottle. My advice is to buy some and savor it like a fine Scotch, because no one will ever replicate this, at any price.”
Gamle Ode Holiday Aquavit ($30; 42% abv) will be available in Minnesota and Wisconsin liquor stores in the next couple of weeks.