Tales from the Fringe: Beaver Gland Vodka

Welcome to "Tales from the Fringe" an occasional column exploring the hinterlands of wine and spirits. Up first, a dispatch about trapping beaver in the Adirondacks to make Bäverhojt, a Swedish spirit flavored with beaver musk.

My obsession with the beaver castoreum began late November several years ago in a small cabin high atop the Adirondack Mountains. I was staying with a group of fur trappers I had met at a Native American pow-wow a few months earlier. The goal was to brush up on survival skills and take home any meat they might not be utilizing for a dinner I was hosting.

“Take a smell of that,” said Bill Guiles, a retired construction foreman turned full-time mountain man, clapping a piece of dried meat into my hand. This was my first day of trapping with a group of hardened men, and I was doing my best to fight above my weight class. We were trekking through the deep snow, checking traps and had started drinking at around 5 a.m. Each man had crunched through a case and a half of beer each by dinnertime.

“You can keep that set if you like,” said Guiles with a cadence not dissimilar to John Wayne’s. “A little later we’re gonna grind up the other sets of castors, and I’ll show you how to make some good beaver lure.”

The castor sacs are glands in the North American beaver filled with a secretion, known as castoreum, used in territorial marking. Like most trappers, Guiles uses one beaver’s castor glands to capture another. But after catching a whiff of the castor sacs after they’d been laid out to dry—birch, leather, vanilla, smoke, iodine—I wondered aloud about infusing them into vodka. Guiles looked over at me as if I just asked him to make me a quiche.

I’ve made a hobby out of collecting and producing spirits steeped with various solids, resulting in a personal liquor cabinet that has been known to delight the intrepid and horrify the faint-hearted. Homemade delicacies such as sea roach mamajuana, black bird wine, huitlacoche mezcal and “the Seven Plagues of Egypt” vodka run the gamut from ethereal potion to putrid swill. Where would “Castorvit” fall?

Surprisingly, castoreum is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA and has long been used to enhance artificial versions of raspberry, strawberry and vanilla flavoring, and over the centuries has been added to perfumes to create a leathery aroma. Today it remains an aromatic enhancing “natural ingredient” in cigarette tobacco, a practice that originated with the Native Americans, who used dried ground castors, along with muskrat glands, in both smoking blends—called kinnikinnick—and incense.

It is also, it turns out, the main ingredient in Bäverhojt or “beaver shout,” a traditional sort of schnapps made with a set of castors steeped in spirits consumed as a ceremonial shot by Swedish hunters and trappers before heading into the forest for the day.

After returning home from the Adirondacks, I pondered the castoreum-steeping process. I’ve made a hobby out of collecting and producing spirits steeped with various solids, resulting in a personal liquor cabinet that has been known to delight the intrepid and horrify the faint-hearted. Homemade delicacies such as sea roach mamajuana, black bird wine, huitlacoche mezcal and “the Seven Plagues of Egypt” vodka run the gamut from ethereal potion to putrid swill. Where would “Castorvit” fall?

The initial batch involved gently warming the sacs in vodka. Once they were soft, I ground them into meal and pressed them through a colander. Repeated filtering left me with a tawny pungent soup with a long finish.

After speaking with several Swedish home crafters, I learned the error of my ways. As it turns out, the original batch was strong enough to work as a concentrate or tincture. A single shot of the stuff could flavor an entire bottle of vodka. The true Bäverhojt process—involving a simple steeping of the sacs for two weeks followed by their removal—was far gentler than my heavy-handed bumbling. The mellower version still recalls an attic full of musky leather saddles soaked in sweat.

Despite its polarizing flavor profile, Bäverhojt has gone on to become one of my most recognized and beloved tonics by friends near and far. Occasionally, however, I am reminded that, like a strong Islay scotch, Bäverhojt is not for everyone. I bumped into Anthony Bourdain, who would certainly fall into the intrepid category, soon after giving him a bottle and asked what he thought.

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t put it on my cornflakes,” he replied.

Baron Ambrosia is an Emmy Award-winning food television personality and explorer. Through such programs as Bronx Flavor and Cooking Channel’s Culinary Adventures he has celebrated America’s hidden ethnic enclaves through their food traditions. As Culinary Ambassador of the Bronx he uses food culture to break down racial and cultural barriers encouraging everyone to have a seat at the global table.

FROM AROUND THE WEB