The journey of Norden Aquavit
The story behind the Akvavit from Michigan
Robyn Cleveland’s fascination with aquavit is a long journey. From convincing the public that it even belongs in a cocktail to distilling his own spirit – Norden Aquavit.
The journey is full of discoveries and coincidences – but most importantly very interesting. You could have tasted Norden at last year’s Spirikum Festival. In case you didn’t have a chance to talk to Robyn then, we interviewed him for you:
Can you describe your journey with aquavit?
I first experimented with aquavit 16 years ago in Copenhagen but I didn’t think much of it until I started bartending at a higher level. It was about 10 years ago when I started to focus a lot on cocktails and as every bartender, I was looking for exciting ingredients that weren’t common. That’s how I rediscovered aquavit.
How was the first reception of those drinks?
It’s about 7 years ago when I came up with my first aquavit-based cocktails, but the reception wasn’t great. People weren’t willing to take a step into the unknown, so I only served these drinks to adventurers and their reaction was positive. But most people back then had no clue what’s going on.
So what eventually changed the market?
About three or four years ago bars and restaurants in the bigger cities started using aquavit. And once people see it in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, they follow. Long Road Distillery from Grand Rapids put their aquavit out because they saw an opening on the market and that was the start (check out three of Robyn’s own aquavit based recipes here).
What was your trigger for getting into aquavit production?
We don’t import so much aquavit into the States, most of the locally-available product is made here. I was missing something that was close to my idea of aquavit so I started distilling on my own but only on a very small scale. Then my wife left her job after 17 years and our first thought was to open a Scandinavian themed bar, so we booked an inspiration trip to Copenhagen. Coincidentally, Spirikum was happening and we made a lot of contacts.
I also gained some confidence in my aquavit, even though it still had a long way to go. There is no aquavit culture over here, we don’t focus on food pairings and we are under the influence of trend-setting cities. The cocktail scene has its own rules though, so we started to do a lot of things locally and these days there are some places pairing food and aquavit in Detroit. So we decided to scrap the bar idea and produce our own aquavit. We developed the recipe here in Michigan and wanted to produce locally, which we managed. We started distributing in July last year.
How do you choose the botanicals for Norden?
We have ten botanicals in the recipe. It wasn’t really my choice, it all added up together. I wanted a big carraway note, something that doesn’t kick the teeth too much. I was also looking for a big citrus note, something floral and naturally sweet. So we started with around 40 different botanicals and paired them differently to create amazing combinations.
The hardest to figure out was the citrus. We tried everything – lemon, bitter orange, sweet orange, blood orange from Florida, blood orange from California, but nothing worked. Then I tasted a dried clementine peel that I was saving from Christmas for bitters and it was perfect! Sweet but still very fresh and citrusy.
Are you trying to source your botanicals locally?
We would love to but it’s extremely difficult. The only local botanical is the staghorn sumac. The rest is sourced from all over the world for various reasons. We only found organically grown carraway in Finland, wild sage only in Albania and there is just one importer for the US. The benefit is that we are getting a consistent product, even though we still sample new things all the time.
How do you get your base spirit?
That was quite a journey. I always wanted an organic base spirit grown in the States but there are only a few grain alcohol distillers and most of them are not organic. Then I found out about a couple of farmers in Minnesota but they never sold to Michigan so we took three months to sort out all the licensing problems and now it’s easy. We’re getting a super clean neutral spirit that allows for the flavors to come only from the botanicals.
What was the response of your local community?
The focus on local products is trending all over the world and Michigan is no exception. We have a strong agricultural background, despite the lack of diversity – it’s mostly corn, soy, and wheat. But there are a lot of small farms, farmer’s markets are booming and restaurants in urban centers create awareness about the importance of local sourcing.
Did you have an easier time getting Norden on the shelves through your bartending background?
Yes, starting the IBA Chapter in Detroit helped me create a very strong network, which is basically a cheat code for getting your product to influencers. There was still some element of risk but if your friends don’t appreciate it, it truly sucks. But fortunately it was a success and today we are in bars, restaurants and trying to get into retail. We’re growing every month and we recently won Best Brand Launch in Michigan, which was only because of our patrons. We rely on creating strong personal relationships rather than a big promotional budget.
What do you think about the future of aquavit?
There is a lot that can happen. I personally think Michigan might be ready for dill-based aquavit but that’s far in the future. Right now we have to realize and embrace the fact that aquavit-sipping culture in the States is almost non-existent and the general public has no idea about the history behind the spirit. There should definitely be at least one bottle of aquavit behind every bar but even that is still not the case. It is a long way to go, but we are staying positive.
Download our free ebook on aquavit cocktails to explore further and let us know if you got some killer recipes for aquavit based cocktails we should look into!