Long Road Distillers

Long Road Distillers Announces New Honors from Seattle International Spirits Competition

Grand Rapids distillery awarded 6 new medals, including 2 Double Golds, for locally made spirits.

Seattle, WA – Grand Rapids-based Long Road Distillers has announced a handful of new honors for their line of locally crafted spirits, including top honors for two of their products. At the Seattle International Spirits Competition, held earlier this month, Long Road Raspberry Liqueur and Long Road Original Aquavit were awarded Double Gold Medals. Other awarded spirits were Long Road Gin (Gold), Long Road Wheat Whisky (Gold), Long Road MICHIGIN (Silver), and Long Road Old Aquavit (Silver).

Hundreds of spirits from around the world were entered into the competition from regional, national and international producers. The double-blind competition was based on a 100-point scale with the goal of recognizing and celebrating world-class spirits with consumers, enthusiasts and industry professionals. Samples were evaluated in category flights and scored individually, with judges casting their votes for Double Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze for each qualifying category.

“We’re extremely excited to receive this recognition for our portfolio of spirits, but especially eager to share the accolades for our Raspberry Liqueur,” said Jon O’Connor, co-owner and co-founder of Long Road Distillers. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to enter it into competition. Taking home a Double Gold certainly re-affirms our decision to begin crafting this line of seasonal spirits with West Michigan-grown agriculture.”

Long Road Raspberry Liqueur was made with raspberries grown by DeLange’s Redberry Farm in nearby Hudsonville, MI. It is the first in a line-up of seasonal liqueurs the distillery is releasing this summer. Long Road Cherry Liqueur and Blueberry Liqueur will be released in the coming months, followed by their popular Nocino in the fall.

“We’re fortunate to find ourselves in the epicenter of some of the world’s best agriculture,” said Kyle VanStrien, co-owner and co-founder of Long Road. “It only makes sense for us to utilize and highlight the ingredients we have just miles from the distillery. We look forward to continuing our work with local farmers to bring the West Michigan flavors we love so much to other parts of the state and beyond!”

Long Road’s line-up of internationally recognized spirits is available for purchase at the distillery on Grand Rapids’ west side, and at over 900 specialty retailers, bars, and restaurants throughout the state of Michigan. To find a retailer near you, visit www.longroaddistillers.com/spirits-finder/


About Long Road Distillers:

Long Road Distillers was born from the belief that making world-class spirits means never taking shortcuts along the way. After becoming the first craft distillery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Long Road Distillers formed relationships with local farmers to bring that mission to Grand Rapids’ West Side neighborhood. Each spirit produced at Long Road Distillers is milled from locally sourced ingredients, fermented, and distilled on-site. The result is an uncompromised lineup of spirits including Vodka, Gin, Whisky and more. Their spirits, along with a handcrafted collection of cocktails and a wide variety of food can be enjoyed at their tasting room on Leonard Street. www.LongRoadDistillers.com

About the Seattle International Spirits Competition:

The Seattle International Spirits Competition is the Pacific Northwest’s largest and most comprehensive distilled spirits and liqueurs awards program. It brings together distilled products from local, regional, national and international producers to recognize and celebrate world-class spirits with consumers, enthusiasts and industry professionals. The Third Annual Seattle International Spirits Competition was held at The Swedish Club in Seattle, WA.

Long Road Distillers

In Part 4 of our “What is Bourbon” series, we dig into the final requirement for a spirit to be considered bourbon – the aging process – and how that can impact not only how a bourbon tastes, but also how it is labeled.

First, as a bit of a refresher, recall that the legal definition of bourbon whisky, according to the TTB, is:

Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.


For those new to whisk(e)y or unfamiliar with the process, it’s often a surprise that it all comes off the still clear. It’s only through the aging process in a barrel that the spirit gains it’s familiar caramel or amber colors. The barrel also contributes many of the flavors and aromas we’ve come to expect from our favorite whiskies.

This portion of the definition really covers two details: the storage in a barrel and a limit on the alcohol by volume during said storage.

Before we jump into both details, it’s fair to ask: why is whisky barrel aged at all? The answer is a practical one. Back when whisky was first distilled, the best way to store and ship the finished product was in wooden casks. As we touched on in Part 1, Bourbon whisky, in particular, was shipped down the Ohio River to New Orleans in wooden barrels marked for Bourbon Street. Most spirits of the day would have been stored in barrels, but only over time did people realize the benefits of barrel aging.

American Oak must be used in the making of bourbon barrels. Oak has a unique physical and chemical nature that allows it to be manipulated into a barrel, but also has a tight enough grain that it will not leak while still allowing oxygen to move in and out of the spirit.

Beyond these physical characteristics, though, the oak offers three effects on an aging spirit:

  1. It adds to the taste and aroma of the spirit, such as vanillins, lactones, and wood sugars
  2. It acts as a filter, removing undesirable elements from the spirit such as sulfur compounds
  3. It converts unpleasant compounds, such as acetic acid, into more organoleptically desirable elements, like fruity esters


Essentially, the chemical breakdown of the wood sugars contributes flavors that are desirable, while the wood and char combine to contribute spice and toast characteristics.

The second half of this section relates to the proof/abv during the aging process. The Standards of Identity from the TTB requires that the spirit enter the barrel at no higher than 125 proof or 62.5% alcohol by volume. One reason for this is tradition. Early distillery equipment likely didn’t distill the spirit to a very high proof.

The second reason to maintain an upper limit on proof is to keep the level of extraction from getting too out of hand. If you’ve tasted a lot of whiskies, chances are that you’ve run across a whisky that was “over-extracted”. By this, we mean too oaky and on the verge of tasting like a stale cigarette. The higher the proof of the spirit in the barrel, the more quickly it will pull flavors from the barrel and the less time it will have to mellow out and interact with the char, providing the filtering effect.

The length of time the spirits rests in a barrel impacts the final characteristics, too. In general, the longer a spirits rests, the more mellow it will become. Nearly all whisky that is aged less than two years requires a statement of age on the label. This gets into some of the different indicators you can look for on a bottle of bourbon. For example:

Straight Bourbon – must be aged a minimum of two years.

Bottled in Bond Bourbon – must be aged a minimum of four years, distilled in a single season, and bottled at 100 proof.

Finally, the size of the barrel has an impact on the aging process, flavors, aromas and finish of a whisky as well. The smaller the barrel, the greater the surface area-to-volume ratio there is between the wood barrel and the resting whisky. In turn, the smaller the barrel, the faster the aging process and the more flavor will be pulled from the wood. Many start-up distilleries will use 5, 10, or 15 gallon barrels to age their first-release whiskies more quickly, versus opting for a traditional 53 gallon barrel. While this does speed up the process, a distiller also runs the risk of overextraction of tannins, oak, and undesirable flavors, without allowing time for mellowing.

For our Straight Bourbon Whisky, we have used 53 gallon Independent Stave Company (ISC) barrels with a #3 (medium) char and light toast. The whisky was aged for over 2 years, with other barrels still hanging out in the warehouse for a later release.

We’re excited to share this special release with you beginning at 4pm on Tuesday, April 10. Stay tuned for more information about finding it at bars, restaurants and retailers beginning in May!

Long Road Distillers

For Part 3 of our “What is Bourbon” series, we look at the ingredients that make bourbon bourbon. It may seem straight forward, but when you really dig into the Code of Federal Regulations (and the Beverage Alcohol Manual from the TTB, in particular), you learn there are 42 different “types” of whisky, all with different defining characteristics – but many that are VERY slight.

First, as a bit of a refresher, recall that the legal definition of bourbon whisky, according to the TTB, is:

Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.


So, why corn? The simplest answer is “corn is what was available”. When the early bourbon distillers of Kentucky began making whisky, corn was cheap and easy to come by. Once bourbon became popular, though, many people tried to pass their blended whisky or neutral spirits off as bourbon. To help guide the industry, the Federal government made several decisions around the end of the 19th century like the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 (to separate straight whiskies from blended whiskies) and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (that first regulated what could be called Bourbon). And in the 1909 “Decision on Whisky”, President Taft determined that Bourbon Whisky must be made from a majority corn. But, it wasn’t until the fall of Prohibition that the government finally laid out the Standard’s of Identity for Distilled Spirits (SIDS) – which is part of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Part 5 – a chapter we as distillers refer to nearly every day. First adopted in 1935, the SIDS is where we get the definition above and the mandate that bourbon must have not less than 51% corn in the mash bill.

Although corn must be the predominant ingredient in a bourbon’s mash bill (recipe), most bourbon contains two or three other grains as well. Wheat and Rye are often used as “flavoring” ingredients in bourbon, and Malted Barley almost always makes up a percentage of the mash bill to offer enzymes that aid in fermentation and flavor development. Wheated Bourbon is known to hold up better over long stretches in a barrel. Bourbon with heavier doses of rye in the mash bill will have a bit more spice characteristic. Once you know the 51% rule, you can more easily define other whiskies, too. Rye whisky must contain not less than 51% rye. Wheat whisky must contain 51% or more wheat. And so on.

As a new distillery with new equipment and lots of ideas about mash bills for our whisky, the Long Road team decided to offer a series of experimental whiskies that we call the Wayfarer’s Whisky Series. These whiskies were small batch (some as small as a single 30 gallon barrel) and span several different class/types of whiskies. Over the past few years, we’ve released Wheat Whisky, Rye Whisky, and Malt Whisky, all milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled 100% on-site from locally grown ingredients.

With our Bourbon, we wanted to try a few different mash bills to determine what we liked best and what we wanted to invest in heavily for decades to come. Our team landed on four unique mash bills:

    • 63% Yellow Corn
    • 17% Rye
    • 13% Red Winter Wheat
    • 7% Malted Barley
    • 81% Yellow Corn
    • 12% Rye
    • 7% Malted Barley
    • 65% Yellow Corn
    • 28% Red Winter Wheat
    • 7% Malted Barley
    • 81% Yellow Corn
    • 12% Red Winter Wheat
    • 7% Malted Barley

Each mash bill provided incredibly distinct flavor profiles, aromas, and finishes. The high wheat offered lots of vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel flavors. The high rye was more earthy with peppery spice notes.

After experimenting with these different mash bills, we scaled two of them to store in 53 gallon barrels for several years.

On Tuesday, April 10, we’ll be releasing the first batch of Long Road Straight Bourbon – the result of years of work, fine-tuning, and waiting.

At Long Road, we’re proud to use all Michigan-grown corn, wheat, rye and barley, and handcraft every one of our spirits from scratch on-site. By partnering with farmers like Denny Heffron (Heffron Farms, Belding, MI) and Byron Center-based Pilot Malt House, we are able to create spirits that have a sense of place – offering uniquely Michigan characteristics that you won’t get anywhere else.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of the “What is Bourbon” series: “…and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers,” where we’ll explain the barrel aging process and its purpose!  

Long Road Distillers

Today, we wade into a lesser-known part of the definition of Bourbon, which also means it’s a bit less controversial.

First, as a bit of a refresher, recall that the legal definition of bourbon whisky, according to the TTB, is:

Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.


The phrase “Alcohol by Volume” (ABV), when associated with a percentage, is quite literally what it sounds like: the measure of the content of ethanol (alcohol) in an alcoholic beverage by volume. It is required by the Code of Federal Regulations for distilled spirits labels to include the ABV on the front of the bottle.

The term “proof”, while not required on spirits labels, is often included, particularly when it comes to whisk(e)y. The history of the term dates back to the 16th century and involves gun powder, taxes, and rum – a fun history indeed, but something for another blog post! The easiest way to understand proof in the United States is simply twice the ABV of an alcoholic beverage. So, a 100 proof whisky has an ABV of 50%.

This part of the definition has to do with the ABV/proof of the spirit as it comes off the still. Distillers are able to change the conditions in the still to control the ABV/proof during distillation, including the amount of heat applied to the mash, the amount of plates the alcohol vapor comes in contact with, or the amount of cooling water in the condensers that will cause reflux and re-distillation, just to name a few. The mandate here is to keep the spirit coming off of the still at or below 80% alcohol or 160 proof.

The question one could ask is: why limit this?

The answer: Taste and aroma.

The process of distillation is really a process of volume loss. To offer a rough example, we take 500 gallons of 6% mash/wash, distill it up to 45% ABV and between the heads cut, tails cut, and what’s left behind in the still, we lose most of our volume, yielding approximately 80 gallons of spirit. We’ll then distill that a second time to a higher ABV and lose even more volume. Essentially, we’re pulling the alcohol out into higher and higher concentrations, leaving behind water, grain, and yeast.

In this process, we’re not only leaving behind water, but flavor compounds, congeners, and impurities.

By definition, vodka must be distilled up to or exceeding 190 proof or 95% alcohol. The process of distilling something to 190 proof will theoretically leave it “odorless and tasteless”. The alcohol was concentrated and water and compounds were left out.

So, by requiring Bourbon to be distilled at or below 80% alcohol or 160 proof, more flavor is maintained. Now, we can’t say that maintaining flavor is the reason the Federal Government mandated this limit, but what they were trying to do was create a recognizable, familiar type and class so consumers could understand what they’re getting in a bottle. By mandating a maximum proof at distillation, the hope is that bourbon whisky produced in this manner will then have the “taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to” this type of whisky.

If you want to experience this phenomenon in person, stop in to the distillery and taste the difference between our unaged Corn Whisky, distilled to only 152 proof, and our vodka, distilled to 191 proof. While the mash bills (recipes) are different, you’ll still begin to understand the difference “proof at distillation” has on a spirit. The Corn Whisky has loads of flavor, even a bit of bite, while the Vodka flavors are much more soft and subtle.

At Long Road, our experienced team of distillers takes great care in crafting a unique product with robust flavors in a consistent manner. We’re proud of the fact that we worked with Vendome Copper and Brass, arguably the best whisk(e)y still manufacturers in the world (not many people will argue this fact), to create a custom 500 gallon copper pot still that allows us to handcraft our bourbon both precision and a touch of artistry. And, we’re eager for you to taste the difference when you Take the Long Road!

Stay tuned for Parts 3 & 4 of “What is Bourbon?” coming over the next few weeks!

Join us Tuesday, April 10 between 4 pm and midnight for the release of Long Road Bourbon!

Straight Bourbon Long Road Distillers

If you ask 10 whisk(e)y drinkers to define bourbon, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. That seems to be due to a variety of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings surrounding one of America’s favorite whiskies.

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or the TTB), the branch of the U.S. Department of the Treasury that regulates and oversees the distillation, sale, and taxation of distilled spirits, Bourbon Whisky is:

Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.


As we prepare for the release of Long Road Straight Bourbon Whisky, on Tuesday, April 10, we thought it might be helpful to clear up some of these misconceptions with a series of four blog posts, pulling apart the definition piece by piece, and offering explanations for the where, what, how, and why of Bourbon.

Today, we start with the “where”: “Whisky produced in the U.S….”

One of the most common myths about bourbon is that it has to be made in the state of Kentucky. There are many reasons why people may have heard or think this, not least of which is the fact that the term “bourbon” became associated with whisky in Kentucky as early as the 1820’s and consistently used to describe whisky made and distributed from Kentucky by the 1870’s. There is some debate on the inspiration of the term, though. Some suggesting it had to do with the county, Bourbon County, in Kentucky where bourbon whisky was allegedly first made (this is heavily disputed, and it seems to us, based on research, that it probably was NOT first made in Bourbon County). Others argue that the term “bourbon” was more likely inspired by Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Whisky was one of the largest exports (and still is) from the State of Kentucky, and many barrels were marked “Bourbon Street” and sent down the Ohio River to Louisiana. Over time, people began asking for it in New Orleans as simply “Bourbon”.

The other reason many folks assume Bourbon must come from Kentucky is the sheer volume that comes from the State. As of 2014, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association reported over 5.5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky – outnumbering the people in the state by over 1 million! And, in terms of global production, Kentucky makes 85% of the world’s bourbon.

Some distilled spirits, by legal definition and international treaties, have geographically protected names. Scotch must be made in Scotland; Tequila must come from certain regions of Mexico; Irish Whisky has to be manufactured in Ireland. Bourbon doesn’t have such protection.

The legal definition of Bourbon Whisky from the TTB mandates that it must be made in the United States – anywhere in the United States.

As the number of distilleries in the U.S. rises, so too does the number of bourbons being produced outside the State of Kentucky.

At Long Road, we’re proud to offer the first Bourbon ever milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled 100% in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We’re excited to add our whisky to the rich heritage of distilleries and distillers that have come before us. And, we can’t wait for you to taste what we’ve been working on! Take the Long Road!

Stay tuned for Parts 2-4 of “What is Bourbon?” coming over the next several weeks!

Join us Tuesday, April 10 between 4 pm and midnight for the release of Long Road Straight Bourbon!

Raspberry Liqueur Long Road Distillers

From our friend Nick Britsky on Nick Drinks:

“I got a sneak peek of the Long Road Distillers Raspberry Liqueur release (happening tomorrow). It’s a slam dunk. The spirit is full of Michigan Raspberry flavor and while it is sweet it is way drier than most liqueurs. This allows you to control the sweetness in your cocktails and still have that raspberry flavor. Bravo. Pick this up ASAP because, if it sells like the Nocino, it will be gone fast.

Recipe: Swipe Right
– 0.75oz Dry Gin
– 0.75oz Raspberry Liqueur .
– 0.75oz Rose Hip Syrup
– 0.75oz Lemon Juice .
– Top with Sparkling Wine
– Shake everything except wine with ice and strain into flute then top with Wine.

[Photo Credit: Nick Drinks]

Long Road Distillers

Long Road Distillers to Release Raspberry Liqueur as Part of Valentine’s Day Celebrations

Limited-Release of Long Road Michigan Raspberry Liqueur Available Beginning Wednesday, February 14

Grand Rapids, Michigan – Grand Rapids-based Long Road Distillers will release a new, limited-release liqueur on Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 14, beginning at 4 pm. The release of Long Road Raspberry Liqueur coincides with several other special offerings at the distillery for the holiday, including cocktail and chocolate pairings, and featured food and drinks.

Long Road Raspberry Liqueur is made with Michigan raspberries from DeLange’s Redberry Farm in nearby Hudsonville, Michigan. It will be available in limited quantities at the distillery in Grand Rapids next week, and at select retailers and restaurants beginning at the end of the month.

“We’re beginning to experiment more and more with liqueurs and other specialty spirits,” says Jon O’Connor, co-owner of Long Road Distillers. “With the diversity and abundance of agriculture that we have access to all around us in West Michigan, we have plenty of opportunities to partner with local farmers to try something new.”

For the Valentine’s Day release, Long Road will be offering half-off pours of the Raspberry Liqueur, in addition to half-off cocktails featuring the new spirit, all evening. Visitors will also have the opportunity to bring a bottle home with them.

“The timing for this release worked out perfectly,” according to Kyle VanStrien, co-owner of Long Road Distillers. “We can’t imagine a better spirit to highlight on Valentine’s Day and to pair with the chocolates we’re featuring that evening.”

In addition to the release of Long Road Raspberry Liqueur, the distillery is hosting a Cocktails, Chocolates and Spirits Pairing featuring Mokaya chocolates that were handcrafted using Long Road Spirits. Two seatings are available – at 7:00 and 8:30 pm – and the event will be hosted in the Rickhouse, the second floor special events space at the distillery. Mokaya chocolates will also be available to purchase in 4-packs to bring home, or as a pairing with your food and drinks in the restaurant.  To register for a seating, please visit: https://longroaddistillers.com/event/chocolate/


About Long Road Distillers:

Long Road Distillers was born from the belief that making world-class spirits means never taking shortcuts along the way. After becoming the first craft distillery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Long Road Distillers formed relationships with local farmers to bring that mission to Grand Rapids’ West Side neighborhood. Each spirit produced at Long Road Distillers is milled from locally sourced ingredients, fermented, and distilled on-site. The result is an uncompromised lineup of spirits including Vodka, Gin, Whisky and more. Their spirits, along with a handcrafted collection of cocktails and a wide variety of food can be enjoyed at their tasting room on Leonard Street.www.LongRoadDistillers.com

Long Road Distillers

  JAN 19, 2018

When you come in from the frigid temperatures we’ve been experiencing, mixing up an ice cold cocktail might not seem the best way to end the day. What you really want is something warm.

Tammy Coxen of Tammy’s Tastings says that’s why we have the hot toddy.

“The hot toddy is one of those recipes that really adapts to whatever you have around,” Coxen explained.

You can use any spirit you like, although a whiskey or an aged spirit is traditional. The next ingredient should be something like hot water or hot tea. Then add some sort of sweetener and some sort of citrus.

Be as creative as you like!

Tammy’s “Michigan Hot Toddy” uses Long Road Distiller’s Wheat Whisky. She adds a bit of lemon juice, a Michigan maple syrup as the sweetener, and instead of hot water or tea, a Michigan apple cider goes into the mix.

“The wheat whiskey, while I love it, is very lean. It doesn’t have that sweetness that a bourbon has. It’s a much drier flavor,” Coxen said.

She decided the drink needed some extra flavor sweetness, and that’s why she chose the apple cider.

This is a warm drink, but you don’t have to heat all of the ingredients. Warming the apple cider in the microwave or on the stove is enough to bring up the temperature of the rest of the ingredients.

“This is one of the easiest drinks to make. This is what we call ‘building a drink.’ That’s where you just put the ingredients in your glass and then you’re ready to go and drink it,” Coxen noted.

Coxen chose to build her drink in a snifter because she could warm up her hands while holding the drink. She says you could simply use one of your favorite mugs if you prefer.

Michigan Hot Toddy

4 oz apple cider
1-1/2 oz whiskey (we used Long Road Wheat Whisky)
1/2 oz maple syrup
1/2 oz lemon juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Heat apple cider in microwave or on stove. Add remaining ingredients, stir.

SOURCE: Michigan Radio – http://michiganradio.org/post/cheers-michigan-hot-toddy

Long Road Distillers

Get in the holiday spirit by counting down the days to Christmas with 25 holiday-inspired cocktails you can make at home!

Follow along as Long Road team members make 25 drinks leading up to Christmas – then try your hand at making them at home and impressing all your friends and family over the holidays!

We’ll post a new cocktail and recipe each day, but you can see the whole list on our website at: https://longroaddistillers.com/25-cocktails-of-christmas/

Long Road Distillers


The Case for Drinking Like a Viking

Find out why you should be drinking the Nordic spirit aquavit, which is finally getting some traction in the U.S.

It’s a weekday afternoon, and the wife and I are doing shots.

We’re enjoying thimble-sized glasses full of chilled liquor, accompanied by slices of smoked sausage, pickled herring, and bite-size chunks of bagel with lox spread. In between sips, I’m smacking my lips in savory delight. But we’re not drinking tequilavodka, or even my beloved whiskey.

With that kind of spread and the spicy smell of caraway in the air, it can only be one thing we’re drinking: Aquavit.

No need to be embarrassed if you don’t know anything about aquavit. To be honest, before I started working on this piece, I didn’t know much about the Scandinavian spirit, either. The name comes directly from the Latin term for alcohol, aqua vitae, which means “water of life.” Aquavit is a throwback to the earliest distilling era, when rough, raw booze was spiced with a variety of herbs and seeds to make it more pleasing to drink. In this case, the main flavoring is caraway seeds. Seriously, caraway seeds.

“We always like to explain aquavit to folks as the Scandinavian cousin to gin,” says Jon O’Connor of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His aquavit won Best of Show at the American Craft Spirits Association competition last January. The big difference, of course, is that the dominant flavor of gin is juniper instead of caraway in aquavit.

And that’s where things get a bit interesting. According to the so-called U.S. Federal Standards of Identity, what makes a distilled spirit legally aquavit in America is caraway flavor.

But as Lexi, the mononymous founder of the Old Ballard Liquor Company in Seattle, put it, “there are hundreds of aquavits in Scandinavia, with vastly different flavors, styles, and applications. For straight shots, the aquavit should be lighter in flavor and well balanced. For food pairing and cocktailing, it should be more robust with an aggressive spice bill or wood to compliment the other ingredients.”

Talk about a perfect storm of opportunity for American distillers. Aquavit easily slots into gin or vodka cocktails that are already popular, like the Bloody Mary. “Why anyone would use any other spirit for that drink in particular is beyond me,” wonders Alan Bishop, the distiller at Spirits of French Lick in Indiana, who makes a pleasantly oily aquavit that does, indeed, taste great in a Bloody Mary.

Most importantly, though, aquavit is a spirit that most Americans know next to nothing about. “It’s a blank slate, a tabula rasa,” says Christian Krogstad, founder of House Spirits in Portland, Oregon, which produces Krogstad Festlig Aquavit. “You make a gin, and they may say, ‘I only drink Tanqueray.’ You make a brandy, and they only drink Hennessy. Aquavit… even if you look at the traditions, they’re so varied.”

Dean Browne, the one-man show at Rowhouse Spirits in Philadelphia, agrees. “It’s really a new thing,” he says. I’ve known Browne for years and he’s the only distiller making aquavit within a two-hour drive of my house. “It’s an exciting category for us. All you need is caraway,” he says. “The rest is up to you. Think of where you can go.” His Nordic Akvavit is made with caraway, dill, fennel seed, and orange peel.

I talked to a new aquavit maker, Robyn Cleveland, who is planning on producing his Norden Aquavit in Michigan early next year. He’s been drinking aquavit for about 14 years, got hooked on the unique flavors, and thinks it could be the next big thing. “We want aquavit to be seen in the same light that gin is currently,” he says. “It’s a spirit with a rich history that should be shared and revered the world over.”

Aquavit could be a big thing, if only people got to know it. It’s an almost uniquely food-friendly spirit, and savory in its own right, with a history and tradition that people can take or leave. The food traditions are particularly appealing with the Scandinavian hygge phenomenon enjoying a mild surge of popularity in America. Lexi is on top of that; Old Ballard isn’t just a distillery, it’s a Nordic deli, where they make their own butter, and cure their own gravlax.

If you’re going to try aquavit, you should probably start with a real Scandinavian one. The most familiar is Aalborg, and that’s what my wife and I were day-drinking: clean-tasting caraway-forward stuff that really did make pickled herring appealing. We had some Linie too, the Norwegian stuff that’s aged in sherry barrels, first in a warehouse and then shipped out to Australia and back to cross the equator (the Linie, the “line”) twice. It was smoother, a bit creamy, but still has a caraway hit.

“If someone has never had aquavit, it’s fun to introduce it to them,” says Krogstad. But “if they’ve never had aquavit, chances are they’ve never had pickled herring.” Krogstad grew up with both, and when he found the market temporarily bare of aquavit about 10 years ago (a perfect storm of importer re-sets and re-positioning took all the imports out at once), it seemed natural for him—a distiller by trade—to make some. How else are you going to enjoy your pickled herring?

“You shouldn’t eat pickled herring without aquavit,” Krogstad insists, straight-faced, as he pours some of his eponymous spirit.

In addition to cured fish, in Scandinavia there is actually a whole aquavit protocol. “The standard way is to pour a small glass and toast among friends,” instructs Jacob Grier, the U.S. ambassador for Aalborg and Linie. But there’s a twist, “there is no clinking of glasses. Instead, each person makes eye contact, says, ‘Skål!,’ drinks the aquavit, and makes eye contact again.” And then, presumably, they have a bit of herring.

Grier is also the founder of Aquavit Week, which runs from Dec. 3 through 9. There are events planned in Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, Chicago, and D.C. I know I’ll be drinking along with, of course, my smorgasbord spread.

SOURCE: The Daily Beast, Lew Bryson

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