Review: Vikre Vodka, Gin, and Aquavit Lineup

vikre spruce white bkgrdDuluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, is the home of Vikre Distillery, which takes a localvore approach to making a wide range of (mostly white) spirits, using local grains, herbs, and water from the lake next door to make its craft spirits. The six spirits below — 1 vodka, 3 gins, and 2 aquavits — represent the bulk (but not all) of Vikre’s production. Who’s ready to take the plunge into the production from this neighbor from the Great White North?

Join us.

Vikre Lake Superior Vodka – Distilled from malted barley. Very mild, clean, and fresh. The nose is gentle but hints at hospital notes. On the palate, light sweetness starts things off, but the overall impression is surprisingly clean and pure. Only on the finish do some secondary notes start to emerge… a dusting of bee pollen, some thyme and rosemary, and a pinch of cinnamon. Surprisingly well done and nearly perfect in its balance. 80 proof. A / $35

Vikre Boreal Juniper Gin – Purportedly a traditional dry gin, including standard (local) botanicals plus rhubarb. One whiff and this is anything but traditional — quite sweet on the nose, at offers heavily fruity notes and an intensely floral/rose petal undercarriage. The body hones in on that sweet-and-sour rhubarb, confectioner’s sugar, a mild slug of juniper, and chocolate notes on the finish. I know what you’re thinking: What a random collection of flavors. And so am I. Calling this a “Juniper Gin” leaves me a bit bewildered. 90 proof. C / $35

Vikre Boreal Spruce Gin – Spruce is the primary botanical here, as you might expect. The overall impact is a lot closer to a traditional gin than the Juniper Gin above, though again it carries with it a sweetness that is unexpected. Piney notes mingle with brown sugar and, again, more indistinct florals and perfume notes. Here, the balance is a bit more appropriate, as the spruce character is brought up to where it needs to be, and the sweeter elements are dialed back. Still, it’s an unconventional gin that will need the right audience. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin – This one was fun because I’m allergic to live cedar, so I was excited to see if I would break out in hives from drinking a gin flavored with cedar wood (along with wild sumac and currants). I didn’t, and I wasn’t in love with the gin, either. The nose is much different than the two above gins — musty and mushroomy on the nose, with a medicinal note and some evergreen beneath that. Again, the body is quite sweet — the currants are distinct — with a slurry of notes that include ripe banana, fresh rosemary, and some nutty characteristics. Pumped up evergreen on the body tends again to give this a more balanced structure, but the overall character is, again, a little out there. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Ovrevann Aquavit – It’s actually Øvrevann Aquavit, but I have no idea if that’s going to render properly online. Caraway, cardamom, and orange peel are infused into this traditionally-focused aquavit, which is a more savory, herbal meditation on gin. Appropriately Old World, it layers exotic, caraway-driven, Middle-Eastern-bazaar notes with touches of licorice, juicy citrus, seaweed, and light sandalwood notes. Credible on its own, but it probably works best as a substitute for gin, cutting a profile that was probably along the lines of what Bombay Sapphire East was going for. 88 proof. B / $35

Vikre Voyageur Aquavit Cognac Cask Finished – The above aquavit, finished (for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give the spirit a gentle yellow hue) in used Cognac casks. I like the combination a lot. The nose features a fruitiness that Ovrevann doesn’t have, plus a touch of barrel char that adds mystique. This leads to stronger licorice notes on the nose, plus notes of cloves, raisins (a clear Cognac contributor), menthol and spearmint, and a lingering, herbal finish. The Cognac balances out the sweet and savory notes in the spirit, giving this a well-rounded yet entirely unique character that’s worth exploring. 86 proof. A- / $57

Tasting the Spirits of Sweden’s Spirit of Hven

Hven Organic Winter Schnapps HR

The Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn Distillery, or simply “Hven,” can be found on a small island wedged between Sweden and Denmark (it’s part of Sweden). Hven, pronounced “venn,” was established in 2008 as part of the new guard of Scandinavian distilleries, where it produces a variety of white and brown spirits, including some seasonal schnapps (for which Swedes go ga-ga).

At present, Hven’s products aren’t distributed in the U.S., but you can have them exported to you by our friends at Master of Malt, if you’re game to give them a try. The conical bottles alone are conversation pieces.

We sampled six of the company’s offerings. Thoughts follow. (Note: All prices are for 500ml bottles.)

Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka – Organic grains are pot distilled, then matured in oak barrels, then distilled again, resulting in a clear spirit. I’m not sure this unique production method would qualify as “vodka” in the U.S., but such is life. As vodka goes, it’s very different and unusual, with a nose of pineapple jam, menthol, orange peel, and slight oily fuel notes reminiscent of Pine-Sol. It’s all very strange, but the body is fortunately cleaner, with brighter lemon notes, sweet nougat, and a clean finish. The overall impression is closer to gin or genever than vodka, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re expecting. 80 proof. B / $53

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin – Made with the same process as the vodka (including oak aging and secondary distillation), plus the addition of fresh botanicals, which include vanilla, cassia, juniper, cardamom, calamus root, Sichuan pepper, aniseed, and Guinea pepper. Strongly herbal on the nose, with notes of lemon peel and licorice atop juniper. On the tongue it offers some sweet vanilla notes to counter the juniper, anise, and slight pepper character. The creamier body, brought on by the oak aging, works well with the gin, giving it a rounder, more mouth-filling character. Exotic yet also quite easy to drink on its own or as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B+ / $54

Spirit of Hven Organic Aqua Vitae – This unique aqua vitae — essentially a flavored schnapps — is oak matured twice, both before it is distilled and after it is distilled in copper pot stills. Flavored with lemon and orange zest, along with caraway and St. John’s wort, this is a moderately gold spirit with a nose of dried herbs. A seemingly mix of random spice cabinet selections leads to a surprisingly delightful little concoction on the tongue. Lots of vanilla and caramel notes, with hints of gingerbread, hot chocolate, and marshmallows, leaving those herbal hints on the nose far behind. A bit of honey is added to this aqua vitae as well, which gives the spirit a unique but welcome touch of sweetness. All told, it’s a unique little spirit. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, the results are surprisingly delightful. 80 proof. A- / $58

Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Schnapps (2011) – Presumably this changes from year to year, given the vintage date on the bottle, although most of the bottles I see online do not have a date indicated. This schnapps is flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, elderflower, and apples and mixed with locally harvested botanicals before barrel aging to a modest amber. If you’re familiar with the Scandinavian essential spirit Aquavit, you’ll find these Summer Schnapps familiar. The nose offers a bittersweet rhubarb/cinnamon character, with a bit of a musty root beer note and a touch of dark chocolate. The body has more sweetness, at least at first, with orange and apple notes at the forefront. That sweetness turns bitter with more of that root character — licorice is a hefty here — and a wood oil, musky finish. Not bad for Aquavit, but nothing I’d drink during the summer. 76 proof. B- / $56

Spirit of Hven Organic Winter Schnapps – No date on this, but the fine print says it was produced in 2012. Produced as above, but flavored with oranges, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then oak-aged. Fruitier on the nose, with more sweetness and distinct cinnamon notes. On the body, considerable a apple cider character emerges, tempered by wood notes. Very Christmasy… the cloves emerge as strong contenders after the spirit opens up in the glass. But as with the summer version, the bitter finish is powerful, almost amaro-like in its intensity. Curious stuff. 76 proof. B / $56

Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 1 Dubhe Single Malt Whisky – A much, much different animal than all of the above. Named for a star in the Big Dipper, this first in a series of single malts (6 more are planned) is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, though no age statement is offered. The nose is classic malt whisky — the base grain, lumber, and coal fires. Rustic, but pleasing. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly delightful. The grain gives way to lightly sugared toast, orange peel, sesame seeds, and light nougat and even butterscotch notes, emerging in classy, layered fashion. Most curious of all: The moderate smokiness on the nose totally fades away on the tongue, ultimately revealing a young spirit that nonetheless displays amazing refinement. Released March 2013, 10,250 bottles made. 90 proof. A- / $154

Making Our Own Aquavit with Spiced Spirits

The ZingyAquavit is a flavored Scandinavian vodka that has as many variations as there are countries in Europe. Finding aquavit stateside is difficult, though. The few bottlings imported here are mass-produced stuff that is, unfortunately, usually not very good.

Why not make your own, then? Sounds good, but the number of spices required will probably fill a shopping bag — if you can find them — and empty your wallet. And, again, you’ll need to roll the dice when picking a recipe.

Isn’t there an easier way!? to the rescue, aquavit fans. This website does one thing and one thing only: It sells bags of pre-mixed spices that you dump into spirits to flavor them. While it offers ale and mead spices, it’s the vodka ones you’re probably looking for. (You can also put them into rum.) At present, eight varieties are available (plus an option to add oak chips). The names range from “The Crazy” to “The Symphonic” — and each offers its own approach to aquavit. (You can learn more about each one on its website.) Total price, $6 to $9 a pack. (Shipping is $3 to anywhere in the world!)

SpicedSpirits sent us three to try out. We followed the instructions — 7 to 14 days of steeping required, depending on the variety you buy — then sampled the resulting concoctions. Thoughts follow, but overall this is a great way to go if you want to experiment with spicing your own vodka at home.

The Sweet – Made with lemon peel, juniper, cinnamon, and “secrets.” Inspired by an Italian recipe. Lovely gingerbread character on this, touched with allspice… plus a hearty dose of juniper underneath it. I could have done with less juniper character (which gives the finish a bitter edge) and more cinnamon and ginger notes, but overall this is a festive and surprisingly sippable beverage. B+ / $8

The Zingy (pictured) – Made with ginger, peppermint, and “22 secrets.” One of those secrets is clearly caraway, which floats to the top of the aquavit and ends up in your first few glasses. (Filter this one for best results.) Not as much depth in this one, but a little mint on the nose and the finish is what earns this product its name. But the primary character here is more akin to licorice, with a slightly weedy finish. A bit more classic stylistically when placed in the aquavit canon. B / $7

The Symphonic – 25 secret herbs and spices, dang! The company calls it “hard to describe,” and that’s somewhat fair. It has light sweetness, some orange notes, and a bit of that licorice note, too. It’s not nearly as sweet as “The Sweet,” but it does offer better balance, with very light bitterness — akin to a very mild amaro — on the finish. Frankly, I’m not one to drink much aquavit, but if I am going to get all Scandi and go to aquatown, well, this is a pretty good one to visit. B+ / $9

Review: Lysholm Linie Aquavit

In 6 years of Drinkhacking, this is actually our first review of an aquavit. I say that to illustrate a couple of things: 1) that I’m hardly an expert in aquavit and you should consider this an amateur review of the stuff at best, and 2) no one drinks aquavit.

If you’re a novice, here’s a lesson in the stuff. Aquavit is a Scandinavian liqueur flavored with a variety of herbs but predominantly with dill or caraway. Many of the same ingredients used in gin are also used in aquavit. There are as many variants in aquavit as there are in gin, with many of those tweaks coming from the way the spirit is aged. Some aquavits aren’t aged at all. Some can be aged for more than a decade. Different types of casks are used, too, making things even more complex.

Linie’s story is this: It hails from Norway. It is distilled from potatoes. It is mainly flavored with caraway, plus dill, anise, fennel, and coriander (among others). And it is aged in oloroso sherry casks (fairly unique for aquavit) for one year. And during the aging, it is shipped overseas — from Norway to Australia and back — a lengthy trip that takes the spirit across the equator (“the linie”) twice over the course of 4 1/2 months. Why? Because the motion of the ship and the exposure to the salty sea air is supposed to do great things to the aquavit. Caramel color is added.

So there you have it.

Linie has a nose somewhere between gin and Jagermeister, heavy on licorice notes and, yes, caraway. The body is milder than you might expect, a lighter take on licorice with a strong caraway flavor. The sherry casks provide some sweetness (as does the caramel, I believe), but not a whole lot. This is still a moderately bitter spirit best experienced as a digestif. The finish is long and lasting, with a spice rack full of bitter herbal character that lingers for quite some time. Fair to good, but not something I’d turn to on a regular basis over an amaro or Fernet.

83 proof.

B- / $30 /