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It's fire and ice in one shot

June 08, 2005|Patrick J. Comiskey | Special to The Times

No one says you need an occasion to enjoy aquavit. Straight from the freezer, poured into a cordial glass, its touch is cold, yet the flavors bloom warm on the palate. Aquavit's exotic aromatics, from meadow-scented fennel and dill to herbaceous caraway, elevate the spirit from firewater to something to be savored -- something that, among the initiated, might raise the question, "Where's the gravlax?"

In Scandinavia, where the spirit originates, no one would think of celebrating Midsummer Day without a plentiful supply on hand -- aquavit is considered vital to the celebration.

In fact, toasting with aquavit at Midsummer is almost religious in its deliberation and can seem at first to have all the levity of a Bergman film. When the time comes, all at the table fill their shot glasses. All stand. The host slowly raises his glass, elbow out, as he makes eye contact with each person present. He skips no one.

As his guest, you're expected to meet his gaze with the requisite gravity. Now you're nearly ready to hoist one -- but not quite -- it's time for a song. (For a region known for its self-possession, Scandinavia has an astonishing number of drinking songs.) The host chooses from his repertoire of several thousand and you commence singing -- loudly, and long; not until you've sung your third or fourth stanza is it time, at last, to wet your vissla.

Of course, the degree of solemnity is in inverse proportion to the number of times this ritual is repeated, but aside from getting happy, its purpose is clear. On the longest day of the year, you're obliged to welcome the lingering guest who has been a cold-hearted stranger all winter long: the sun.

Nothing about aquavit is cold-hearted, though it is best served ice-cold, thickened to a velvety texture. Where vodka is often refined to the point of tasting like nothing at all, aquavit is dressed up in herbal finery. Where vodka blends in, aquavit stands out.

A spirited history

The term aquavit, like eau de vie and usquebaugh (the Gaelic word from which "whiskey" is derived), is from the Latin aqua vitae, "water of life," and can vary slightly in spelling (akvavit, aqvavit) depending on its country of origin. It is nearly always a potato distillate, but is occasionally made from grain. It is never neutral, however. In fact, Hakan Swahn, the Swedish owner of Aquavit, the Manhattan restaurant, believes that aquavit is the original flavored vodka, with a tradition going back more than 500 years. As to why, he has a theory: "Back when the monks were learning the distillation process," he says, "they probably needed stronger flavors to cover up their mistakes."

Perhaps, but the traditional spices used -- caraway, cumin, dill, anise or some combination -- are stalwart enough to hint at the spirit's original purpose as medicine. (You could say that some of the more old-fashioned recipes still give this impression.) There are hundreds of aquavits available in Scandinavia; nearly every village had its own style and recipe for centuries, and many of these made it into commercial production. Some aquavits, such as Aalborg, made in Denmark, are clear in color; others, like Norway's Linie, are aged in old sherry casks, which impart an amber color. (Linie, it is said, crosses the equator twice, hence the name; in 1850, the story goes, a schooner loaded with aquavit arrived in Australia to find that its purchaser had died while the ship was on the water; when it returned to Norway, the aquavit had a much smoother taste.)

Tradition tweaked

In the U.S., there are only a handful of aquavits available in the market, and most are drawn from the traditional, stalwart spice box, with caraway as the dominant spice. These rather demonstrative flavors, according to Marcus Samuelsson, chef at Aquavit, pair well with more brawny game dishes like venison, and serve as a palate cleanser for more pungent smorgasbord staples such as gravlax and lutefisk. Aquavit is also a traditional accompaniment to the open-faced sandwiches of Denmark and freshwater crayfish in Finland, as well as shrimp and lobster.

But aquavit, like many other traditional spirits, is being infused -- literally -- with new life. "Just like our traditional cuisines are being influenced by other flavors," says Samuelsson, "aquavit started to draw from the rest of the world." Now it's not uncommon in Scandinavia to have aquavits made with lingonberries, lemon or cucumber. Few of these are available domestically, but you can find nearly 20 traditional and newer-style aquavits from Sweden, Norway and Denmark online at www.northerner.com.

Or, you can easily create your own modern aquavit at home. Start with a sturdy potato vodka ( such as Polish Luksusowa), and add, well, anything.

"We make different ones for each season," says Samuelsson, who uses traditional fennel and caraway flavorings for autumn, citrus for winter (blood oranges are especially nice, he says) and horseradish in spring. For summer, Samuelsson loves strawberries.

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