Aquavit is the tequila of Denmark, the vodka of Norway, and the only thing guaranteed to make a Swede sing. The grain liquor is traditionally spiced with a blend of herbs such as anise, caraway and dill. Its name literally means "water of life," and it was once thought to cure everything from gout to deafness, plus stop the dead from rotting. As an old Danish cookbook from 1616 says, "He who rubs the skin on his head and face with aquavit has always beautiful skin, strengthens the mind and brain."
But until a decade ago, when Portland distillery House Spirits began making the first American aquavit, it was almost unavailable in the United States. In fact, only Norwegian Linie could be found. Even today, it's hard to get the Scandie stuff: About half of the aquavits available in the U.S. are made in Oregon and Washington.
To celebrate the obscure but wondrous herbal liquor, local bartender Jacob Grier founded Aquavit Week four years ago, with aquavit cocktails at more than 30 bars till Dec. 12 (full list at aquavitweek.com).
TRADITIONS OF AQUAVIT
Danes do aquavit like a shot of Jack. You raise your shot and clink glasses while always looking your clink partner in the eye (otherwise you lose your hair), tap the glass on the table and down it in one gulp. Then, you down a beer, too. Denmark is basically one giant, well-mannered frat house.
When Swedes drink, they sing—there are around 9,000 drinking songs in the national registry. In 1957, when the Swedes won the world ice hockey championships, they didn't know the words to their own national anthem so instead they sang a drinking song, "Helan Gar," which loosely translates as "the whole one goes down." ABBA and the Cardigans are also best understood only when drunk.
Norwegians drink aquavit like Russians do vodka: with hard bread and pickled fish. If you eat, you drink, and vice versa. Those are the rules. Also, for whatever reason, Norwegian aquavit like Linie is aged in oak on a boat, and must cross the equator twice to be certified as Norwegian aquavit. This reminds the Norwegians of their history as drunken pillagers, but with fewer casualties.
House Spirits Krogstad Aquavit
Just as many American craft gins are floral because of House Spirits' lavender-rich Aviation, American aquavit leans hard on anise because of the influence of House Spirits' Krogstad, which tastes like steroidal Fernet.
Rolling River Ole Bjørkevoll
Rolling River is making a specialty out of aquavit, with a fennel-caraway holiday version, a caraway small batch and a very dilly original aquavit that's light and crisp on the tongue.
Temperance Regnig Dag
Bull Run Distillery's aquavit is aged in wine barrels and released each December—this year's batch is sweet and anise-forward, balanced against the crackle of caraway.
AQUAVIT WEEK EVENTS
Thursday, Dec. 10
Northern peoples love their aquavit with beer—and so the Hop & Vine will host an aquavit-beer pairing event, including aquavit barrel-aged ale from Alameda, elderflower saison from Breakside, and cardamom-coffee barleywine from Upright. The Hop & Vine, 1914 N Killingsworth St., 954-3322, thehopandvine.com. 5 pm-close.
Saturday, Dec. 12
To close out the week, bartenders from La Moule, Fenrir and other local bars will hold a huge-ass aquavit cocktail party at Clinton Street mussel house La Moule. La Moule, 2500 SE Clinton St., 971-339-2822, lamoulepdx.com. 10 pm-2 am.
Through Dec. 12
Bit House Saloon (727 SE Grand Ave., 954-3913, bithousesaloon.com) will offer a different aquavit cocktail each night, Multnomah Whiskey Library and the Green Room (1122 and 1124 SW Alder St., 954-1381, mwlpdx.com) have a special cocktail menu all week, and Raven & Rose's Rookery (1331 SW Broadway, 222-7673, ravenandrosepdx.com) is offering aquavit flights.