Norwegian Wood

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A drink featuring Aquavit paired lovingly with Applejack, this is a quintessential fall drink.


“‘Letters are just pieces of paper,’ I said. ‘Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.'”

– Haruki Murakami in Norwegian Wood

To most people, the name Norwegian Wood would invoke the Beatles.  To me, it invokes two things: a wonderful novel by Haruki Murakami, and this cocktail.  The drink, made by Jeffrey Morgenthaler is a few years old now, but still is a fantastic fall potation. Created as an experiment and response to a challenge by a brand representative, the drink pulls out the best flavors of the Aquavit, specifically the anise and fennel, and pairs it lovingly with Apples, making it somewhat like an apple tarte tatin in a glass.  The use of the sweet vermouth cuts back the harshness, and helps give it a nice rounded flavor.  For the longest time, I had searched for a satisfactory cocktail that uses Aquavit, which is not necessarily a good spirit with which to mix.  Morgenthaler’s drink fits the bill, and is fantastic.

I’d like to think that the quote above, by Haruki Murakami, about memory and artifact works just as well for a cocktail.  Cocktails, as libations, can invoke nostalgia as well as demonstrate cultural capital and class distinction.  In that the cocktail, as an artifact, is short lived and but only in the moment, the act of enjoying the drink provides it a sort of symbolic value in terms of its quality.  Likewise, if the drink is bad, and is not consumed, then it will just cease to be a part of your cognitive thought processes and past.  And quite often, the choice to determine whether a drink is good or not is not just the quality of the beverage, which does play an important objective role in addition to processes of distinction making, but also the company or atmosphere in which the drink is imbibed.

If you look at the proportions for the drink, it reaffirms that certain volumes and ratios just work better than others.  The drink is rather reminiscent of a Vieux Carre, with substituted ingredients.  But in the end, most drinks are the same, and merely are variations on what has already been created, in order to produce new flavors and experiences.

In case you are not aware of what aquavit is, think of a variation on gin produced in Norway and the Scandinavian regions, in which the juniper is replaced with caraway (or sometimes dill, which is from the same family of herbs).    Like most spirits, the name translates to water of life.  Grain based, it has other herbs, quite often fennel and anise, and in some cases, lemon or orange oils.  The color of Aquavit is quite often of a yellowish hue, but can be clear or darker, depending on how long it has been aged; in the case of clear Aquavit, there is a specific nomenclature, that being taffel.  Because of the caraway, the spirit is sometimes thought to have medicinal properties (like many spirits), and can help ease the digestion of heavier or richer foodstuffs, making it work well as a digestif.

In Norway particular, there is a tradition of sending Aquavit across the equator and back again on ships, as a means to age the liquor.  Known as Linje Aquavit, the spirit is constantly churned in the casks on the boat, and experiences changing temperatures and higher levels of humidity, which cause the spirit to age across a wide spectrum of environments, making the journey humidity levels.  Denmark and Sweden tend to have Aquavit which is not aged as long as the Norwegian styles, and do not feature anything as spectacular as shipping the spirit around for aging.

While Morgenthaler, and others, call for the use of Applejack, I personally find this works better in some respects with a Calvados.  Applejack makes the mixture taste as if it has been reduced to a spirit, while on the other hand an aged Pays d’Auge Calvados produces a fantastic flavor in the drink, combining and adding to the spice notes that are present in the yellow Chartreuse.  Of course, this is personal preference, and I would recommend a Pays d’Auge because of the fact they are double distilled, while in many cases certain other Calvados could be column distilled, which does not lend itself to having the level of complexity that one might find in an alembic controlled distillation.  Plus, to me, the heavier vanilla flavor usually associated with American oak aged spirits (like Applejack), doesn’t seem to work as well as the addition of other flavors characteristic of French oak.  For instance, to some individuals, French oak is believed to give more of a tannin character to the aging liquid: the inclusion of tannins into this drink helps make this libation fantastic because it augments the mouth-feel in a way that works well to make it savory winter cocktail.

Norwegian Wood:

1 ounce applejack
1 ounce aquavit
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse
1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a large twist of lemon peel and serve.