Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Aalborg Akvavit

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.


I'm fully aware that the only thing more tiresome than the mandatory cheesiness of Valentine's Day is whining about the mandatory cheesiness of Valentine's Day, so it is with deep regret that I ask you to pull up a pillow and prepare to sleepread through another cranky rendition of "But flowers are expensive and they die, and no adult needs more pink things or candy."

I actually like gift-giving and I love revelry, but I'd prefer to do both at my own pace. I fancy myself an inspired thing-slinger and day-commemorator, so I hate resorting to cliché garbage at the last minute when the muse declines to visit in time to appease the tyrants at the calendar factory. This presents a particular problem on Valentine's Day, because by the middle of February my thoughtfulness reserves have been depleted by all the regular winter holidays plus Emily's birthday, which her parents recklessly decided to stage on February 7.

Emily's birthday has become one of my favorite days of the year. This year I managed to stick her with the tab for oysters and mezcal drinks before rushing home to watch basketball and eat take-out Thai, which I'm pleased to report is exactly the celebration she'd resigned herself to wanting. There was a scary minute there where it looked like I'd have to go downstairs to meet the delivery guy, which I'd totally have done on account of it was her special day, but I managed to avoid that by saying, "I hate meeting the delivery guy downstairs, will you please do it?"

But even though I've grown to love Emily's birthday, this year it just about wiped out my capacity for merriment, which had already been weakened by honoring Thanksgiving, Larry Bird's birthday (12/7), Christmas, New Year's, our engagement, Groundhog Day (thanks for guaranteeing six more weeks of drunken surliness, stupid groundhog!), and the Super Bowl (make that seven more weeks, stupid Patriots!).

The one recent holiday that I found to be not only fun but also downright restorative was Martin Luther King Day, which was an interstate bar crawl that began at one of our favorite New York restaurants, Vandaag. I've never eaten much more than bread and nuts and pickled sausage there, but I've had several outstanding drinks, my favorite of which is called the Radler.

The most basic traditional Radler recipes call for a wimpy 50-50 mix of lager and lemonade or lemon-lime soda. This is apparently because Radler is the German word for "cyclist," and drink-prone Bavarian bikers at the turn of the last century required something mellow to keep them upright through a long day of beering and riding. I like bikes and beer and good origin stories, and I'm a triple-sucker for a combination of all three, but I still don't want a Sprited-down beer. What I want is the akvavited-up beer they serve at Vandaag.

Akvavit is the traditional booze of Scandanavia, where they respect not only bicycling culture but also honest drinking culture and therefore realize that you can't charge $10 for a common shandy with a cool name. Akvavit is a spirit distilled from grains in most countries but potatoes in Norway, and it's usually clear at the lower, unaged end, which is of course where we wallow here on the Bottom Shelf. After distillation, akvavit can be flavored with all manner of herbs and spices and oils, though European Union guidelines call for caraway or dill to be the primary flavorings. Most producers seem smart enough to go with the caraway.

Seventy percent of the akvavit I have consumed has come in radlers from Vandaag. Twenty percent has been in my not-bad-at-all homemade versions, and the remaining tenth was just now downed as a chilled research shot so as to give me the first tiny clue what the hell I'm talking about with this here review of Aalborg Akvavit, which, at $15 per 750 mL, was the least expensive of the six available at Boston's best liquor store.

Caraway indeed! This strange stuff smells like mediocre rye bread, which smells better than just about everything except better rye bread. I detect very little by way of other odors, and I suspect that at the lower end of the price spectrum, akvavit is basically caraway vodka in the same way that cheap gin is juniper vodka. This simplicity sits fine with me in both cases.

Aalborg tastes as rye as it smells, though there's a bit of fennel or anise in there too. I'm not a huge fan of licorice liquors in general, because I think there are too many of them. Licorice is a fine flavor, but it just seems like every time a serious booze geek tries to turn me on to a new-to-me liqueur, it tastes like Jagermeister with a better pedigree.

But Aalborg akvavit is better than that, because I'm more drawn to its story, true, and also because it's lighter and cleaner than the smell led me to believe. This is a very honest, direct drink, not at all the muddled mess I feared.

I will keep looking for different and potentially better akvavits to perfect my Vandaag-lifted radler as the biking season approaches, but I'll be perfectly content to use Aalborg if I can't do better for a reasonable price. Any ideas what brand to try next, or what else to do with akvavit in general?