Aquavit gets a star turn at the Swedish American Historical Museum in Philly

A couple with Aquavit glasses and bottle, circa 1960.

While the New Nordic cuisine has been the darling of the food world in recent years, much less attention has been paid to old-fashioned Scandinavian fare and its traditional boozy companion, aquavit. With a pronounced caraway flavor, this potent “water of life” spirit can smell and taste like rye bread in a bottle.

Aquavit, along with Scandinavian beer and ale traditions, gets its due at the Swedish American Historical Museum in a new exhibit that recently opened and runs through September. The show, “Skål,” is named for the traditional Nordic toast (pronounced skoal). Skål translates as “bowl,” and the exhibit features many examples of these communal drinking vessels.

Yet the exhibit goes beyond the history of libations in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It examines their role in immigrant life, from the joys of Chicago’s Swedish taverns to the scourge of alcoholism, said Tracey Beck, the museum’s executive director. The local museum is one of six institutions contributing artifacts to the traveling exhibition, coordinated by the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa.

Skål is one of the few words from Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish that’s survived through many generations since immigration, and most of these words have to do with hospitality,” said Tova Brandt, the curator of the Iowa museum. Brandt will speak Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Philadelphia museum in a program that includes tastings curated by Arcus, a Norwegian distiller. Arcus markets 75 different aquavits, only two of which reach our shores: Norway’s Linie and Denmark’s Aalborg. But new boutique distilleries in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest have filled the gap in those regions’ liquor stores. In Pennsylvania, a handful of State Stores carry Minnesota’s Vikre Ovrevann, with a few others available through special order and online. In New Jersey, larger stores carry Linie.

Among the local artisan distillers, only Dean Browne’s Rowhouse Spirits produces aquavit. With his Nordic Akvavit, he follows the Danish tradition in both production and spelling  (the Swedes spell it identically, but in Norway it’s Akevitt). The unaged spirit, with subtle caraway, dill, and fennel flavors, can be purchased at the Kensington distillery, housed in a former service station at 2440 Frankford Ave.

Despite the growth of domestic product, the most widely available nationally remains Linie. Its history begins in 1805, when a trading firm shipped aquavit in old sherry casks to the East Indies, but with no buyers, the spirits returned to Norway. Turns out, rolling seas and varying temperatures during the two trips over the equator (“the line”) altered the product, rounding and deepening the flavor.  Nowadays, it is shipped via Australia, and every bottle bears the name of the vessel that carries it to Australia and back, to acheive the same result.

Norway’s barrel-matured aquavits are best sipped neat at room temperature like fine whiskey. Danish and Swedish aquavits are usually unaged and served icy cold from the freezer when consumed straight. They make ideal mixers and can easily replace gin or vodka in many cocktails, as can domestic aquavits, which tend to have stronger flavors. Those with dill and coriander accents make superb Bloody Marys.

Scandinavians pair different aquavits with different foods, from one meant to accompany rakfisk, an odious fermented trout, to Christmas bottlings designed for seasonal fare like pinnekjott (dried mutton leg). Clear taffel (banquet) aquavits with strong caraway flavor like Aalborg match well with herring and other cured fish. Others are distilled with shellfish in mind.

"Skål" runs through Sept. 17. Guided tours of the exhibit, with aquavit tastings, will be held monthly.

Swedish American Historical Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave., Philadelphia. 215-389-1776,

Gravlax with Mustard Sauce

16 serving(s)


For the gravlax:

2 one-pound salmon filets, skin on

½ cup kosher salt

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons crushed black peppercorns

Zest from one lemon

Dill, one bunch, chopped

¼ cup Aquavit

For the mustard sauce:

¼ cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

½  cup oil (canola or other neutral oil)

2 tablespoons chopped dill


1. Have your fishmonger remove the pin bones from the salmon.

2. Chop dill, setting aside 2 tablespoons for later use in mustard sauce.

3. Mix salt, sugar, pepper, dill and lemon zest in small bowl.

4. Place a large piece of plastic wrap on the bottom of a baking dish or other container large enough to accomodate the length of one filet. Place the first filet on the wrap, skin side down, sprinkling about half the seasoning mix over both sides. Sprinkle remainder of seasonings on both sides of the other filet, then place it over the first filet, flesh-to-flesh. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, using more if necessary. Place a plate or small wooden board over the packed fish with a weight on top (canned tomatoes work well) and place in refrigerator.

5. Once or twice a day, unwrap the fish and baste it with the juices; rewrap and place back in refrigerator under weight.

6. After three days remove the fish and scrape away any remaining seasoning mix. Slice thinly on the bias and served with mustard sauce.

7. To preapre the mustard sauce, mix mustard, sugar and vinegar in a bowl. Then whisk in drizzles of the oil, as if making mayonnaise. Stir in dill. Can be used immediately or kept in refrigerator in airtight container for up to five days.

From Robert Libkind

Per Serving: 157 calories; 12 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 25 milligrams cholesterol; 944 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.

Cured Meat

Makes 10-12 servings as an appetizer


2 pounds sirloin beef steak

3 tablespoons salt

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

2 teaspoons dried thyme

¾ cup Linie Aquavit


1. Trim meat of any membrane, tendon and fat.

2. Rub meat with mixture of dry ingredients, place in a dish and pour aquavit on top. Cover with foil and leave 4-5 days in refrigerator, turning daily.

3. Slice thinly for serving.

Arcus, the Norwegian distiller

Per Serving (based on 12): 165 calories; 23 grams protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 5 grams fat; 68 milligrams cholesterol; 1,295 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.