The aquavit label, produced before Long Road Distillers even had a name, now sports recognition of its international awards. Courtesy Long Road Distillers
Among the first four labels Kyle Van Strien and Jon O’Connor made was for an aquavit.
The label was produced before the business partners even had their Long Road Distillers name, but the traditional Scandinavian spirit is now bringing them international recognition.
In the past two months, Long Road Aquavit has won three Double Gold Medals at international spirit competitions, including the Denver International Spirits Competition, San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the American Distillers Institute Awards.
The recognition is overwhelming for the pair and their team of distillers led by Brian Pribyl, and it’s not something they were expecting in the first year of operation, O’Connor said. One of the goals for Long Road was to make products unique to the United States, and with just one commercially available aquavit and fewer than two dozen distilleries making the spirit in the country, there was an opportunity.
“When we set out, we knew we wanted to make a few products unique to the market,” O’Connor said. “We really liked the taste of the very few we had access to and thought we’d just make our own. We know we try to make every spirit as high quality as possible, and the recent recognition in the spirits world is a real validation that we’re making a spirit that’s exciting for drinkers across the board.”
Aquavit is a spirit native to Scandinavian countries and made with caraway, cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel, citrus peels or dill.
Like its vodka, Long Road’s aquavit starts with West Michigan red winter wheat, which is then redistilled with a botanical maceration of select herbs and spices.
The U.S. government recognizes the spirit so, unlike regionally protected products like tequila or scotch, Long Road can make it and call it aquavit. Van Strien said unless you live in a region of the U.S. with a large population of Scandinavians such as Minnesota or the Pacific Northwest, most haven’t explored aquavit yet.
“It’s a spirit we can make and we are excited to take on the opportunity to create something that has deep traditions and put our unique spin on it,” he said. “There are a lot of traditional spirits that haven’t been here for whatever reason, so all these spirits haven’t really had a market presence.”
Lesser known spirits have yet to catch on with young distilling operations because most focus on the spirits that have large market segments, much like craft breweries during the 1990s. It wasn’t until fairly recently that many of the more than 4,000 breweries began saturating the market with IPAs and experimenting with wild fermented and other specialized beers.
Van Strien said Long Road wants to create great vodka, gin and whiskies, but also experiment with the lesser known spirits.
“There hasn’t really been an opportunity to have distillers exploring new spirits from around the world because they’ve been focused on traditionally popular spirits like whiskey, vodka and gin,” Van Strien said. “While we want to make those, we (also) want to explore some things we really enjoy, things that are underappreciated with unique flavor profiles.”
The uniqueness of aquavit’s flavor profile was a reason Long Road pursued the spirit less than a year into operation — in part because Van Strien and O’Connor enjoy it but also because bartenders across the city called for a local version.
Helping influence the growing cocktail culture of Grand Rapids is something O’Connor believes aquavit — and the rest of the Long Road portfolio — can do, both in the Long Road tasting room at 537 W. Leonard St. NW and at bars across West Michigan.
“We’re in a unique position to present our spirits in cocktail form and that’s part of the consideration of the new profiles we look for out of spirits,” O’Connor said.
Having won medals in international competition, Long Road ramped up its allocation of resources for aquavit to keep up with demand in state. Calls are coming from out of state now, as well, Van Strien said. At this time, Long Road can’t accommodate the out-of-state requests, but in the future they have high expectations for that market.
The owners hope a product with a small but growing market share and limited competition will lead consumers to the other brands in their portfolio.
“While I think our vodka is unique and interesting, it’s a crowded marketplace,” O’Connor said. “It doesn’t make sense to put gin in the Chicago market, but it makes sense for aquavit because it is such a small presence but it stands out. It fills a hole in the market that hasn’t been saturated.”
The choice to make aquavit goes back to early discussions about distilling Old World-style spirits. For most consumers, vodka made in the U.S. is largely astringent with alcohol burn, but Old World vodka generally carries the residual flavor of the grain with which it was made.
There no other aquavit made in Michigan. Although Holland's Coppercraft Distillery makes a genever, a spirit Long Road hopes to make soon, it's still just as rare.
“It’s a very refined product, but we question if that refinedness is the real flavor of what genever should taste like. We want to know where that point is so we can deviate from the taste point intentionally so it has a profile that respects what it is and gives it our twist,” O’Connor said.
“We want to make things people can appreciate, respect the craft, and honor the journey and traditions we’re trying to bring to Michigan.”