I recently had the pleasure of joining Joe Spiegel, the Wyoming-based importer of Iceland’s Brennivin, and Mike McCarron, the owner of the Minnesota/Wisconsin brand Gamle Ode for drinks at Marvel Bar in Minneapolis.
Bartender Tyler Kleinow started us off with a round of drinks that showcased all three of Gamle Ode’s aquavits: the Tomas Collins, a Dill aquavit version of a classic Tom Collins; an Aquavit Gimlet with Gamle Ode’s Holiday (the favorite of the table); and the Alkaline Trio, a truly weird but delicious cocktail that mixes Gamle Ode’s Celebration aquavit with sodium bicarbonate (yes, baking soda), Aperol, and Ramazotti amaro.
Spiegel, who started importing Brennivin to the U.S. in early 2014, brought a bottle of the Icelandic aquavit brand’s annual Christmas release along with the flagship aquavit for comparison. Like the 2014 Christmas Spirit, this year’s was aged in sherry and bourbon casks. And as Spiegel hinted in February, the 2015 has a higher proportion of Brennivin aged in sherry casks than bourbon barrels (last year’s was equal parts sherry and bourbon). The spirit spent six months in the barrels. The flavor was much lighter and more delicate than last year’s; the sherry notes really dominate.
Unfortunately, Brennivin is not yet available in Minnesota, and the Christmas Spirit won’t make it to the U.S. until early next year. However, Astor Wines & Spirits, Drink Up NY, and K&L Wines, among many others, all sell it online.
McCarron happened to have a bottle of Gamle Ode’s soon-to-be-released Holiday on Rye Aquavit for us to sample. Holiday on Rye is the Holiday Aquavit aged in barrels that previously held 45th Parallel Distilling’s New Richmond Rye Whiskey. The aquavit is bottled at around 100 proof and limited to just 438 bottles, and because of that, it will probably not make it outside Minnesota and Wisconsin. Like the legendary first batch of Holiday Aquavit, this is made for sipping. (Full disclosure: I am working with McCarron on material for the Gamle Ode website.)
The conversation at the table ranged from the fate of the Swedish and Danish aquavit brands (all have pulled out of the U.S. in the last ten years) and the wildly variable price of Norway’s Linie Aquavit (as little as $19 in Minnesota and as much as $59 in one California store) to the bizarre complexities of the three-tier system and the mysteries of government labelling rules (unlike whiskey and many other spirits, aquavit bottles distributed in the U.S. may not have age statements on the label).
But most of all, we talked about this current golden age of aquavit in America: not only do we have an explosion of domestic brands that are pushing the boundaries of the category (at least three in Minnesota alone!) and the importation of Brennevin for the first time ever, we have a wealth of new cocktails that are elevating aquavit beyond its Scandinavian roots as a folksy food pairing or retired person’s tipple.