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Cheers! Unlocking spring with a cask matured Michigan aquavit

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Some of the ingredients in the Unlocking Spring.

There was a Cheers! episode back in 2018 which featured a new Michigan version of an ancient Scandinavian spirit called aquavit. (See the story here.) Since then, Norden Aquavit has received a lot of attention and a lot of significant awards. A lot of retailers in Michigan and beyond carry the clear spirit.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Robyn Cleveland is the co-owner and head distiller of Norden Aquavit.

The head distiller and co-owner of Norden Aquavit, Robyn Cleveland, has come up with some innovative twists. For National Breast Cancer Month, he concocted a very popular pink aquavit.

But the bottle of Norden Aquavit on Tammy Coxen’s (of Tammy’s Tastings) table wasn’t filled with a clear liquid and it wasn’t pink. I was about to be introduced to a cask matured version.

“In the U.S. there's all sorts of weird rules, like they can't actually call this an ‘aged’ aquavit or give it an ‘aged statement’ for amount of time. So it is called a cask matured, traditional botanical spirit,” Tammy explained.

Norden is blending aquavit that’s been stored for 12, 16, or 18 months in former rye whiskey barrels.

In the U.S. there's all sorts of weird rules, like they can't actually call this an ‘aged’ aquavit.

The drink Tammy came up with to feature this version of Norden Aquavit, named Unlocking Spring, is actually a twist on the gimlet that was mixed for Cheers! in the 2018 episode.

“Gimlet is very classic gin, lime juice, simple syrup and Norden makes it with their Aquavit and kind of puts an Aquavit spin on it. And it was delicious. We loved it,” Tammy reminded me (as if I needed to be reminded; it was so good).

“Typically, when we think about aged spirits, we think about using lemon juice rather than lime juice,” Tammy said, adding that the drink has an ounce and a half of the cask Aquavit because it is a higher proof spirit. Then she added three quarters of an ounce of lemon juice, and half an ounce of honey syrup into her shaking tin. See the full recipe below.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Tammy Coxen shaking up the drink Unlocking Spring.

While she was mixing things, I asked for a sip of this new version of the aquavit to understand how the taste was different than the original. It was definitely that aquavit I’ve come to really like, but those rye barrel tannins came through and Tammy and I agreed it was a little more mellow despite being a higher proof.

When I tasted the Unlocking Spring drink, the first sip was all lemon and honey to me. I even suggested it might need another half ounce of the aquavit. But, I’ve learned I often need to take a second sip to explore the taste more thoroughly. When I did, I picked up on the aquavit and decided it really was a very balanced drink.

But, why did Tammy name this drink “Unlocking Spring?”

“A friend of mine sent me a quote from Kurt Vonnegut. He said it at a commencement speech that he gave and he talks about the seasons,” Tammy said.

Vonnegut argues there aren't actually four seasons; there are six seasons.

“So, we have  fall, but then November and December, they're not really winter, but they're not fall either. January and February, now, that's winter. And now here we are in this March, April period where it's not really quite spring. I can still see snow outside, even though it's a warm day. And so he calls that November, December period ‘locking.’ And this period now, March and April is ‘unlocking,’” she explained.

So, cheers to Unlocking Spring!

Unlocking Spring

1 1/2 oz Norden cask-matured aquavit

3/4 oz lemon juice

1/2 oz honey syrup

1/4 oz Amaro Montenegro

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a coupe or martini glass.  

Honey Syrup

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup hot water

If honey is fluid, stir until thoroughly combined. If honey is crystallized, heat on stove until completely dissolved. Let cool, and store refrigerated. Yield: 5 oz

Tammy Coxen and Lester Graham are the authors of Cheers to Michigan: A Celebration of Cocktail Culture and Craft Distillers from the University of Michigan Press. The book is based on the Cheers! episodes heard on Michigan Radio.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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