The Nordic countries have the right idea when it comes to Christmas. They don’t celebrate just one glorious day, or even a week. They rejoice all December long, and they’ve even created a special spirit for the occasion: Christmas aquavit.
Few Americans know about Christmas aquavit. If you’re not familiar with aquavit, it’s a crisp white spirit flavored with citrus peel as well as herbs and spices like caraway, anise or dill. In some ways, it’s similar to gin or a flavored vodka. Aquavit is primarily made in Scandinavian countries, although a handful of U.S. producers like House Spirits and Gamie Ode now make it, too.
Compared to traditional aquavit, Christmas aquavit is bolder, more complex and tends to be spiced like holiday cookies or flavored with seasonal fruit. Many spend a few months in barrels, which adds a faintly tawny hue and light layers of honey and vanilla. Many Nordic families make their own for the holiday season, and most commercial aquavit producers roll out special bottlings, too.
“It’s meant to be consumed with family and friends at a gathering. It’s meant to be festive. It’s only available for a little while, then you have to wait a year.” — Joe Spiegel
Until recently, I had never tried Christmas aquavit. My first was Brennivin’s Special Cask Selection, a limited-edition “winter aquavit” from Iceland that’s finished in former Bourbon and oloroso Sherry casks. Interlacing vanilla sweetness with hints of banana, rye bread and baking spice, it was reminiscent of barrel-aged gin, another crisp white spirit mellowed by exposure to oak. Each sip warmed gently all the way down. It was easy to see the appeal.
Why has Christmas aquavit been such a secret in the United States? Joe Spiegel, importer for Brennivin, says it’s due to the bottlings typically being made in small batches and only available at holiday time.
“It’s meant to be consumed with family and friends at a gathering,” he says. “It’s meant to be festive. It’s only available for a little while, then you have to wait a year.”
Traditionally, Christmas aquavit is served as part of enormous buffet-style feasts around Christmas, from Sweden’s julibord to Iceland’s jólahlaðborð (rough translation: “Yule board.”) Think of a long board or table with every space filled with good things to eat and drink.
You don’t rush that kind of epic spread. The meal can last hours, even all day. Similarly, you don’t shoot Christmas aquavit, says Selma Slabiak, a Danish native and head bartender at Aska, the famed Scandinavian focused restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. Although aquavit is frequently presented in a shot glass, it’s meant to be sipped leisurely, often accompanied by a cold beer.
“Our Christmas month is a huge part of the Scandinavian culture,” she says. “Every weekend, you meet up with co-workers or your family. You sit down and eat until you can’t walk anymore.”
Similar to Italy’s herbaceous amaros, prized as a post-meal digestive, Christmas aquavits also tend to have a heavier hand with the botanicals. That may be done with these huge meals in mind.
While foods served vary from country to country, seafood is common fare at Nordic holiday tables.
“We have a saying that the aquavit helps the fish swim down into your stomach,” says Slabiak.
Time aged in barrels also affects how Christmas aquavits are served, according to Spiegel.
“Unaged aquavit is typically served chilled,” she says. “Aged aquavit, you serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.”
If part of the challenge, or allure, of Christmas aquavit is its scarcity, perhaps the growing number of American producers will help put it on more holiday tables this season.
“We have a saying that the aquavit helps the fish swim down into your stomach.” —Selma Slabiak
Minnesota distillery Gamle Ode’s Holiday on Rye is aged in former rye whiskey barrels and a favorite among aquavit experts. Gamle Ode also makes a more traditional Holiday Aquavit, which adds orange peels, mint and allspice to the caraway-accented base spirit.
Seattle’s Old Ballard makes three special-release holiday aquavit bottlings, including Tomten, made with orange, apple, vanilla bean and baking spices, meant for spiking eggnog and mulled wine.
Minnesota’s Vikre Distillery sells its Voyageur aquavit year-round, which is finished in Cognac casks.
“It’s in the overall style of a juleakevitt (a Norwegian phrase for holiday aquavit), even if it isn’t a different release from year to year,” says Vikre founder Emily Vikre.
For those who love aquavit or just want to learn more about it, Aquavit Week is December 4th through the 11th in the U.S, with events are scheduled in New York City, Chicago, Houston and Portland, Oregon.
For Nordic countries, the Christmas season can serve as a ray of hope amid the onset of another unforgiving Arctic winter.
“It’s important to remember every day over there gets shorter by 10, 15 minutes,” says Spiegel. “By Christmas, it’s total darkness.”
People make the best of it, however. They hunker down with family, friends and plenty of aquavit.
“A lot can be done to brighten that period of time, to make it special and make it a celebration,” says Spiege.