Alcohol cannot be enjoyed in a vacuum; it needs context. That includes both social context (with whom are you drinking?) and gastronomic context (what are you eating?). Given satisfactory answers to both of those questions, it rises from being a mere intoxicant to a social bond.
Most of the world’s nations and regions have their signature social lubricant, and what you drink says as much about you as what you eat. In much of America, conversations are often anchored by a cold beer. In France or Italy, it’s wine. In Russia, vodka. And in Scandinavia, aquavit.
This herbal spirit is a natural soul mate for the region’s rich foods. The smokey, briny, salty, herbed, and often rich and pungent flavors of Scandinavian fare that speak to a marriage of the North Sea and a frigid climate demand substantial meals. Often dominated by an assertive note of caraway, aquavit comes in a rainbow of different varieties throughout Scandinavia (and to a much lesser extent, the rest of the world), always ready to aggressively slice through a hearty cream sauce or gallantly echo and lift a delicately herbed entree to a higher plane.
Enter Gamle Ode, the first American-made dill aquavit. It’s produced by Minneapolitan Mike McCarron in concert with the crew at 45th Parallel Spirits, a micro-distillery in New Richmond, WI. McCarron worked as a ski instructor in Iceland, and it was there, over a traditional Scandinavian meal, that he discovered and became captivated with the flavor of dill aquavit. His spin on the beverage is a premium beverage in both price (about $30 a bottle) and flavor — it has none of the acrid, lacerating, heavily spiced notes that some of its rougher cousins present, instead breathing out a sweet cloud of dill that smells garden-fresh. It does not need to be stored in freezer; it can be sipped at room temperature.
In short: It’s perfectly positioned to ride shotgun with the burgeoning trend of clean, bright, light New Nordic flavors at restaurants such as The Bachelor Farmer and Fika at the American Swedish Institute.
“It’s a very unusual beverage,” says McCarron. “There are only two other brands [of dill aquavit] that I’m aware of in the whole world, one in Denmark and one in Norway. To me that was an opportunity, instead of trying another rum, or another whiskey.”
The dill character of Gamle Ode (or “Old Ode” in English) is predominant — the sweetness imparted by the corn-derived base of the spirit cradles the herb’s fresh, fragrant flavor. Other spices, including a touch of juniper and caraway, prop up the dill and provide it with depth, but dill speaks first and last on the palate and lingers — pleasantly — for minutes after your last sip.
“I had no real understanding of the depths of dill,” says McCarron. “At first, [45th Parallel] said, ‘Let’s just work with dry dill — it’s easier to get ahold of and work with. We’ll start there.'” Dry dill was a bust. “Every time we tried a recipe with that dry dill, the flavor wasn’t there,” McCarron says. “Even the aroma wasn’t there.”
“I finally convinced them it has to be fresh. Immediately the flavor came alive,” he adds. Each 528-bottle batch of Gamle Ode calls for 50 pounds of fresh dill grown by a Decorah, IA-based organic farmer.
We tasted Gamle Ode against three other aquavits that McCarron brought along with him and were intrigued by how different all four beverages ultimately tasted.
The Chicago area’s North Shore Aquavit brought an aggressively spiced caraway-heavy orange-zest evocative bomb of almost acrid flavor to the party. Star anise-infused Krogstad from Portland, OR-based House Spirits tasted like a sophisticated spin on black licorice, evocative of an anisette. Norway’s fabled Linie Aquavit crosses the equator twice as it ages, shipside, in sherry casks. Its flavor was buttery smooth and evocative of a cognac — the spices take a back seat.
McCarron has two future versions of Gamle Ode in the works. The first is a holiday version aged out for 5-6 months in sherry casks. The other will receive a flavor pop from a palpable hit of coriander.
At the moment, Gamle Ode can only be found at South Lyndale Liquors [UPDATE: 08.27.12: and Lake Wine and Spirits], but McCarron says he expects it to arrive at Surdyk’s in the near future. Eat Street Social is planning to work with the liqueur as a cocktail base, and The Bachelor Farmer is slated to receive bottles from McCarron’s Minnesota distributor, Vinocopia.