Why Is Minneapolis Obsessed with Aquavit?

A new generation of Scandinavian-Americans is bringing homegrown aquavit to the Twin Cities.

The noontime sun hangs high as the cool light filters through the clouds; blonde, blue-eyed people converse with a distinct lilt while I sip a Bloody Sven: tomato and beet juices mixed with aquavit. It’s the summer solstice, a particularly celebratory time in Nordic countries. But I’m not in Sweden or Finland; I’m at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. It’s one of the many parties going on across town to celebrate the change in season and the city’s heritage. The aquavit is made by Skaalvenn Distillery, one of a growing number of local places that has turned the larger sibling of the Twin Cities into the epicenter of Minnesota’s aquavit boom.

In the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War, émigrés from all across Scandinavia landed in the Upper Midwest thanks in part to the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised free land to anyone who agreed to cultivate it for at least five years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Minneapolis is still home to the greatest number of Scandinavian-Americans in the country, but the spirit of their native region had all but dried up by the start of the 21st century. Importers and distributors gradually stopped bringing it to the U.S., says Harry Sheff, a Twin Cities native who has closely followed aquavit availability for years, cataloging much of it on his blog Cocktails & Cologne.

Things started to change after a 2011 provision in the “Surly bill” sharply reduced distillery license fees for small distillers. In 2014, another bill gave distillers permission to serve craft cocktails made with liquor produced on-site. (It didn’t hurt that, unlike whiskey, aquavit can be made with little or no aging time, making it instantly sellable for these upstart businesses.)

Mike McCarron, owner of distillery Gamle Ode, was one of the first to identify a market for locally-made aquavit. Looking for a career change in 2011, he contracted 45th Parallel Distillery, across the river in New Richmond, Wisconsin, to manufacture and distribute Gamle Ode. The first bottles of Dill Aquavit hit shelves a year later in 2012.

That debut bottling from Gamle Ode, distilled from corn and infused with locally farmed dill, isn’t a strict interpretation of classic Scandinavian aquavit, which, according to EU regulations, is flavored with caraway or dill seed (not usually the fresh leafy part of the plant). But dill has become McCarron’s calling card, especially among bartenders. “He would drive up to the distillery with his Prius stuffed full of dill,” recalls Marvel Bar general manager Peder Schweigert. (“It’s the best air freshener I ever had in my car,” McCarron says.)

Today, McCarron is no longer Minneapolis’s sole maker of aquavit. He has plenty of company, from lively distillery bars to tasting rooms where gin or vodka may be the top sellers—but making the spirit that his Nordic ancestors quaffed is a point of satisfaction.

That’s the case at Tattersall Distilling, a cozy, woodsy space with comfy leather seating, a patio and a huge horseshoe-shaped bar situated beneath an ornate antique chandelier. Co-founded in 2015 by former bartender Dan Oskey, they produce nearly 25 bottlings, including liqueurs and a vermouth. Tattersall’s top sellers are gin, orange liqueur and vodka. But their oak-aged, caraway-forward aquavit is showcased in popular drinks like the Northside (like a Southside, but with aquavit instead of gin, plus jalapeño) and the Phil Collins (an aquavit Collins).

About a five-minute drive away, Norseman Distillery added the Scandinavian spirit when it opened in 2013. Although aquavit doesn’t figure among the top sellers here, either, Norseman sells two bottlings: a barrel-aged traditional aquavit laced with star anise, coriander and fennel that tastes like warm rye bread, as well as a Danish version, Danske, an unaged, almost gin-like spirit with plenty of dill, plus sprightly hints of lemon and lavender.

Compared to other cities, Minneapolis bars are more likely to feature aquavit-spiked cocktails, too. Following the trend for navy-strength gins and rums designed to mix, Skaalvenn Distillery rolled out a 100-proof “Viking Strength” aquavit. Like the flagship version, a lightly oak-aged version flavored with caraway and orange peel, the bottling is available only in Minnesota. “Aquavit is not our biggest seller,” admits Tyson Schnitker, co-owner of the distillery, which is camouflaged within a suburban office park 20 minutes outside Minneapolis. “But it’s the one we take the most pride in.”

The Scandinavia-Midwest mash-up highlights the roots of local aquavit makers, as well as the hyper-local “grain-to-glass” furor that has become a hallmark of the craft spirits movement. Yet, those all-important spices and flavorings that distinguish aquavit from other spirits reflect other regions as well, observes Emily Vikre, owner of Duluth’s Vikre Distillery. That aspect often gets lost when talking about aquavit’s identity.

Vikre’s malty Ovrevann bottling, for example, is designed to conjure up Scandinavian baked goods by exuding cardamom, caraway, peppercorn and citrus peel. Vikre can’t help but reflect on the fact that these ingredients don’t grow well in Minnesota—or Scandinavia, for that matter. Yet it’s still a key to heritage in both places—a meandering, centuries-long journey that ultimately lands in a Midwestern city where producers are still proudly making aquavit their own.

“The whole story,” she says, “vikings, sailors, people moving around and taking flavors with them different places, and then immigrants from Scandinavia coming to Minnesota and bringing flavors with them here is such an interesting part of our story and who we are.”

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