There’s a lot to like about aquavit. Scandinavia’s traditional spirit has a long, interesting history. The first mention of it dates back to 1531. It’s a versatile, tasty drink that makes a perfect gin alternative. But it’s never quite had the terminal velocity to take off outside its home. Now, however, that may be about to change.
Introducing: Nuet Aquavit
Having already made a splash in its native Norway, Nuet Dry Aquavit officially launched in the UK on 17 May – a Norwegian national holiday – with a series of week-long events across London. I was fortunate enough to enjoy some of these festivities, tasting Nuet’s signature spirit in an array of cocktails while learning all about its creation and, more importantly, its ambition.
Nuet promotes itself as the ‘world’s first premium aquavit’. Having seen traditional spirits with a sense of a place and/or heritage such as mezcal, Tequila, gin, and rhum agricole step up in recent years, founders Morten Pharo Halle, Benjamin Lee, Johannes Vang, and Martin Andersson Egenæss wondered why aquavit was still a well-kept Scandi secret. Sensing an opportunity, they decided to create a brand that would burn the rulebook and forge a new identity.
Not your typical aquavit
How? First, by developing a unique recipe in their hometown Oslo. It took over eight months and more than 100 test runs to get there. The base spirit is made from Norwegian potatoes (aquavit must be made from grain or potato). Nuet also sources its botanicals from locally. According to EU law, caraway or dill (or both) must be the star botanicals, like how juniper is for gin. Lee, the product developer, opted to use just caraway. He also felt the spirit would benefit from ditching classic spices like fennel and anise seeds, and using more modern and fresh ingredients like grapefruit peel, blackcurrant leaves, and crushed cubeb pepper.
These botanicals are cold-soaked then gently macerated for 24 hours before being distilled in copper pot still, with a vapor basket employed for added botanical extraction to maximize the delicate notes. The aquavit is ready to be bottled at 43% ABV (the legal minimum is 37.5%) after a few weeks resting in steel tanks. No aging. Much like London dry gin, nothing is added after distillation. Halle explains the profile of the aquavit needed to work with tonic and in a Dry Martini. “These are honest cocktails. You need quality spirits for them to taste good. To our knowledge, there were no aquavits that did both. Most aquavits are also quite heavy on sugar, whereas Nuet Aquavit has none of it. This is part of what makes it so well-suited to cocktails like these”.
Halle says that their creation brings something different to the table compared to traditional aquavits. “The heat from the alcohol does not burn at all. Typically aquavits tend to produce a burning sensation thanks to a combination of strong spices like fennel and anise seeds,” he explains. “We wanted to change this, and give it a smooth finish, without making it dull and tasteless. Ingredients like angelica seed, rosé pepper, orris root, and many more help bring that complexity without compromising the smoothness”.
Swapping gin for Nuet aquavit
Nuet pitches its signature spirit as an alternative to premium gins. Nuet actually picked up a silver medal at the Nordic Spirits Awards 2021, making it the first and only aquavit ever to win an award in the gin category of an international spirits competition. Halle thinks the goal should be to reach for the same stratosphere as gin globally. “Aquavit has the versatility, the profile. You can play around with the botanicals and the base spirit. You can make different aged and unaged varieties,” he says.
It’s an incredibly ambitious aim and Helle recognises the roadblocks. “Making aquavit accessible to the wider consumer base is tricky. It’s an acquired taste. And we’re a small company pioneering a whole new style of an already a very niche category. So we have a lot of educating to do. But this is why we made Nuet. To show the world what aquavit can be. We think we can have a real impact there”.
One demographic Helle is counting on is the youth of today. He remarks they’re more open to trying new products and seem to prefer to “drink less of a premium quality product instead of drinking a lot of lower quality products”. He also thinks they’ll appreciate the brand’s message. Nuet translates as ‘the now’ and the marketing champions the idea of living life in the moment. “We Scandinavians believe luxury is more about the moments we experience rather than the things we own. We believe in balance. Rewarding yourself after a long hike in the mountains with a treat afterward. What better way to treat yourself is there than with Nuet?”
How to appreciate aquavit
What everybody will appreciate about aquavit is how well it pairs with food. Nuet Dry Aquavit is already on the menu at several Michelin star restaurants in Norway and the chefs even use it in the cooking of some meals. Traditionally, aquavit is an integral part of any big celebration, Halle says. “Christmas. Easter. Midsummer. You name it. People drink it even if they don’t like the taste of it. I think that in itself is all you need to know. It has a real emotional bond with us Scandis”. So the typical Nordic dishes you’ll see at events like these, such as pickled herring and smoked salmon, will make the perfect food pairing.
Neat and slightly chilled is the way most will drink aquavit in its home countries. But Helle also recognises that a lot of people will mix Nuet Dry Aquavit, as they do gin. He recommends starting easy with a premium dry tonic and a slice of grapefruit. I can also say from experience that Martinis (dry, with a lemon peel garnish) and Negronis are also good options. “Whatever gin-based cocktail you like, try it with Nuet Aquavit instead. It really adds a whole new level,” is Helle’s advice. Then there’s the Nuet Spritz, the signature cocktail that mixes two measures of aquavit with four of cloudy lemonade topped with your choice of bubbles and garnished with a slice of grapefruit and a rosemary twig. “We made it to show people just how easy it is to make a fantastic, fresh, beautiful cocktail that can be enjoyed all year round”.
Once you start to understand the appeal of aquavit, a traditional drink with strong cultural roots and a unique profile, you realise it really shouldn’t be flying under the radar anymore. Things are at least starting to move in the right direction. At MoM Towers alone, aquavit sales blossomed by 27% in 2019. Nuet has a good chance as any of utilizing this momentum. The spirit is crisp, refreshing, and has a lovely oily viscosity as well as beautifully developed citrus and spice notes. The design is elegant and simple. And its message is clear and appealing, framing aquavit as gin’s deep and mysterious Scandi cousin. It’s ready to seize the now.