What do the countries of Scandinavia have in common? For one thing, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland are some of the happiest places on Earth. Every time a new study comes out attempting to quantify "life satisfaction," these countries hold court in the top ten, trading off the number one spot. Denmark seems to have a slight edge. Something else they have in common? Aquavit. This traditional Nordic spirit has been prescribed as a cure-all since the 15th century, it is an integral part of holiday celebrations, and it can be found in any bar in the region. In the rest of the world, it enjoys the popularity of reindeer meat.
When we are tempted to jump to easy conclusions, like "drinking Aquavit makes you happy," our internal voice of reason steps in. It is the voice of Sam Waterson, or, more precisely, D.A. Jack McCoy. He knits his impressive eyebrows and points out that correlation is not the same as causation. Just because the relatively small group of people who drink the stuff are the same ones who consistently report that their lives are brimming with joy doesn't mean Aquavit is some kind of magical elixir. Still, we are more than willing to give it a try.
Actually, we want to try everything on the cocktail menu at Square One Brewery (1727 Park Avenue, Lafayette Square; 314-231-2537). Sure, they have a dozen of their own microbrews on tap, including a handful of seasonals, but brewpubs are a dime a dozen these days. We are much more intrigued by the distillery side of the operation, where, under the brand name Spirits of St. Louis, they make their own whiskey, vodka, gin, an American tequila and three rums.
Their cocktails incorporate these and some weirder stuff, too: Mello Cello, like limoncello made with blood oranges, Vermont Night Liqueur, whiskey-based with clove, vanilla, cinnamon and maple syrup, and something called Hop Schnapps. Determined to try several of them, yet equally determined to not drive home with one eye closed, we convince our companion, who would have preferred to drink beer, to order the Dark & Starry.
He seems happy enough with the spicy mix of housemade root beer and Square One's own Starry Night Absinthe, although if he didn't like it, he probably wouldn't say anything. Whether this comes from an innate easygoing personality or a lifetime of acquiescing to the demands of his bossy older sister, at this point it's hard to tell.
Though our ancestral mix is the same -- a neutral German base with a little Czech and some Swede mixed in for color and flavor -- they express themselves very differently in each of us. Drink of the Week, dark-haired, dark-eyed and prone to moodiness that can empty a room, shows the Slavic side a touch more. Younger brother, tall, blonde, broad-shouldered and skilled at woodworking, bears out our Scandinavian lineage. Despite these leanings, he does not immediately take to the Aquavit we're sipping.
Perhaps we should have warned him that the distinctive spirit, strongly flavored with caraway, lemon peel, cumin, cardamom and dill, would be a stark contrast to the sweet vanilla and black licorice of his drink. He scrunches up his nose, "It's very... savory." He's right. It belongs to those drinkers who like a smoky Scotch or a dirty martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives. Square One puts it to good use in the place of vodka in their Bloody Mary.
The sociologists who study such things attribute the Scandinavian joie de vivre to their high standard of living. Our distant relatives in Sweden have figured out how to embrace capitalism and social welfare at the same time. The state lavishes them with universal health care and months-long maternity leave while their blue and yellow flag spreads out in all directions atop IKEA's empire of sprawling, six-stories-high monuments to efficiency and economy of scale that put Wal-Mart to shame.
We prefer to think it's genetic. If so, then a tiny bit of that predilection for joy is in our veins, even if the only Swede we bear any resemblance to is an eccentric wooden spoon-wielding chef/Muppet. The man across the table from us may have inherited the lion's share of strength and stoicism from our Nordic bloodline, but we are happy just the same. It's something we get from our family.