Scandinavia isn’t known for cocktails, but its herbaceous spirits are bringing new depth to classic cocktails. 

Aquavit. The elusive bottle of aromatics collecting dust on back-bar shelves might finally make its way to the forefront as Scandinavian cuisine continues to rock on and bartenders experiment with pairings and these lesser-known spirits.

“The Scandinavian or Nordic cocktail scene has had little to no publication, probably because Claus Meyer’s new Nordic cuisine manifesto and the entire restaurant scene took the spotlight,” says Lauren McDougall, beverage director at The Bar at Great Northern Food Hall in New York City.

Per McDougall, batches of gløgg (warm, spiced red wine), punsch (Batavia Arrack, lemon, cardamom, clove, and tea leaves), or snaps (spice-infused vodka) are frequently mentioned, but there are no noted cocktails—versus liqueurs and wines—attached to Scandinavian cuisine.

When it comes to Nordic cocktails in particular, McDougall notes that she develops her creations using the principles of Nordic cooking, which use fewer elements, letting each ingredient play a bigger role, while also focusing on fresh additions like herbs and vegetables.

“These secondary ingredients often play a bigger role in terms of flavor profile than the actual liquor used in the cocktail,” she says.

When it comes to Scandinavian liquor, aquavit (the official spirit of Sweden) is often used as the base spirit in place of more recognizable bases like gin or vodka. Presentations are often minimalistic and with simple but flavorful like berries and herbs and other aromatic plants including sea buckthorn and lovage. Past cocktails on The Bar menu have included a Nordic Negroni, Aquavit Vesper, and Not Your Average Long Goodbye—a riff on the gimlet. The Across the Equator features Linie aquavit for a fresh take on the extra-frothy Ramos Gin Fizz.

The mellow, herbal nature of aquavit naturally pairs well with smoked salmon, curried herring, and other Scandinavian eats like smørrebrød (Danish open-faced sandwiches), McDougall says. It can also help cut the richness of certain foods.

Aside from aquavits, McDougall also reaches for Icelandic snaps and Nordic-based, American-made spirits such as Far Nørth Spirits’ aromatic gin, rum, and bourbon. Birkir Snaps, made from Icelandic birch, stands in for whiskey, yielding a Nordic version of a boulevardier, complete with sweet vermouth and Campari.

The Bar’s sister restaurant, Agern, features a cocktail menu with many herbal infusions, like the Last Call with Dorothy Parker gin, celery, whey, and dill; the No. 8 with Neversink gin, arctic thyme, and mead wine; and The Flood with McKenzie rye, absinthe, sea fennel, and honey.

Further upstate, At Roundhouse in Beacon, New York, general manager Joshua Elliot offers cocktails made with Hetta Glögg, a Swedish-inspired, bottled dessert sipper produced in the Hudson Valley with brandy, port, cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel, and raisins. It’s traditionally served warm but can be poured over ice in the summertime.  Of course, there’s always good old-fashioned Swedish gløgg, traditionally made by steeping bourbon or whiskey with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves over gentle heat.

In Rockford, Illinois, The Norwegian has featured riffs on a bloody mary using a snit of Danish Carlsberg beer; a Morgenfrisk Mule with vodka, orange, rhubarb, and ginger beer; New Fashioned with rye, simple syrup, Curaçao, Swedish lingonberry juice, and angostura bitters; and an aquavit cocktail called Sauna Jumper with Amaro dell’Etna, gin, and elderflower liqueur.

In downtown Chicago, Danish-inspired Elske pairs aquavit with butterfat and maple for a spice-forward, slightly sweet twist on a sazerac.

Although there might not be a classic Scandinavian cocktail other than a simple aquavit pairing, bartenders these days are safe to follow suit on the heels of new Nordic and Scandinavian cuisine chefs to offer simple yet flavorful, fresh, and modern drinks.

Bar Management, Beverage, Feature