Sweden’s Greatest Gift to Humankind

After Abba, IKEA, and Ace of Base, of course.

In this country, vodka gives white a bad name. It's an odorless, insipid mixer that only serves as a means to an end or a dull cohort for cranberry juice. There is so much more to the clear-spirits rainbow than this underachiever. Spiced, luscious, and primed for food, aquavit is the anti-vodka. The word aquavit, and its language-specific variations (such as the French eau de vie), comes from the Latin aqua vitae, "water of life." The liquor we know as "aquavit" is a unique Scandinavian treat, oilier and richer than vodka but nowhere near as sweet as schnapps. All booze starts out as vodka—"neutral grain spirits" if you want to split hairs—a clear spirit distilled from any variety of grain, fruit, or starch. Schnapps is just vodka with intense flavorings added, like mint or licorice. Gin is just vodka with a certain flavor profile of herbs and spices. Even bourbon is just vodka, made from certain grains and then aged in wood. Aquavit can share characteristics with all of these. I've had a few aquavits the color of bourbon, some that smelled like gin, and a few that made German schnapps seem shy and unassuming. What makes aquavit different from flavored vodka, say, are the ingredients added. Flavored vodka is usually fruity or way too fiery, but aquavit is savory, with caraway seed, aniseed, and fennel seed generally dominating the mix. The spice oils that leach into the liquor give it a viscous quality, as well as a subtle licorice aroma and taste. (Subtle is the key word here: The licorice or other flavorings should never seem out of control, as they do in cheap schnapps.) Many brands of aquavit spend some months in wood casks; that's why certain brands have a yellowish or light amber cast. However, aquavit doesn't spend as much time in the wood as whisky or bourbon, so it doesn't come away with that crazy vanilla-nut flavor. Instead, the wood softens the sharp edges of the high-alcohol spirit, mellowing it out and erasing the burn. I couldn't write about aquavit without mentioning my dear friend Paula, the Swedish Housewife, who entertained us last Christmas with no fewer than four aquavits, each with a herring dish to match. Aquavit shines with pickled or salty fish dishes. I don't think I ever appreciated pickled herring quite so much as when paired with a golden, spicy hit of a caraway-intense aquavit from the Housewife's private collection. I certainly learned to love it that day. Krogstad Aquavit, crafted in Portland and available locally, shows an especially strong caraway streak, with powerful aromatics that make the spirit a phenomenal aperitif. Linie Aquavit is the most common brand found on store shelves and a fine example of a balanced, slightly sweet sipping liquor. O. P. Anderson, available only in select state liquor stores, spends more time in wood than the average aquavit and shows the class of a great sherry or scotch. If you want to experiment with different brands, though maybe not all at once, head to the Copper Gate in Ballard (6301 24th Ave. N.W., 706-3292) for a tasting. Aquavit is best for sipping solo, straight from the icebox, in tiny shot glasses. It's common practice to shoot the whole thing after a beer chaser instead of before. To sip aquavit, serve the liquor with some seafood. Never has a booze loved food so much, whether it's smoked oysters from the farmers market or fresh salmon sashimi. Aquavit also makes the best bloody Mary you'll ever knock back. Think about it: A bloody Mary is pure flavor—tomato, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce, and horseradish. Why add a tasteless booze like vodka to firewater it down? Check my math at Matt's in the Market, where aquavit in the bloody Mary is mandatory. mdutton@seattleweekly.com

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