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Interview: Mike McCarron of Gamle Ode Aquavit & a review of Holiday Aquavit

Posted on by Eric Burke

I know this is a bourbon blog. I mean it says it right there in the header. It says it because I love bourbon. And because of that, among my friends at least, I am known as Eric: the Bourbon Guy. What it doesn't say is that although bourbon is my favorite spirit. I'm interested in others as well. I'm especially interested in craft spirits. I stop in at every craft-distiller I come across and can honestly credit my love of whiskey to one particular craft-produced one. In the spirit of that intense interest, I've decided to start what I hope will become a series of interviews with craft distillers who are producing a wide range of products. One thing they all have in common is the passion they put into what they produce. 

Today I'd like to introduce you to Mike McCarron, owner of Gamle Ode: a brand of US-produced Danish-style Aquavit. I met Mike for the first time about a month ago through a mutual friend. We got to chatting, I tried some of his product, I liked it and I asked him if he'd be willing answer a few questions for the blog. He very graciously said yes. Disclosure: He also gave me the bottle I'm reviewing at the bottom since I enjoyed it so much. So let's get into it.

Eric: Tell me a little about Gamle Ode.

Mike McCarron: I started this business to help with solving two things—one: the problem of the lonely bottle of aquavit on the shelf, and two: the lack of heritage, community and sharing traditions that drinking was suffering from.  My goal is to produce quality aquavit people can enjoy sipping and pairing with traditional Scandinavian or other ethnic dishes.

E: Speaking of starting, how did this get started? What made you decide to produce Aquavit? 

MM: It has taken me a lifetime of experience to prepare for this opportunity. I never imagined myself in the spirits business at anytime prior to two years ago when I suddenly found myself researching it . And it was only after gaining a mature level of patience and understanding of myself, and practical experience from my career in creating and executing large projects, that I was prepared to handle the mental strain of creating a business.

As for the core inspiration, it began when I returned from Iceland ten years ago determined to pass along to my family and friends the aquavit & smorrebrod experience I had shared one night with my Danish friends; however here I learned that great big America had virtually no aquavit, and the only public Scandinavian cooking was found in ethnic Danish, Swedish, Norwegian clubs and only if you were lucky enough to live near one.

Before the craft brewing and small distilling movements, the American drinking scene had been taken over by the youthful party and sports-focused crowds, where all marketing was targeted to young drinkers being in almost exclusively immature settings. Our culture (movies, TV, personal social) say ten years ago, would mainly have people telling stories about drinking which almost always involved one or more of the following:  

  • multiple shots dumped into some sports drink 
  • bar fights over something stupid 
  • projectile vomiting 
  • public urination
  • waking up in your clothes wondering how they got home.

And this would be involving thirty plus year old people, not just college-aged beer parties.

As a parent of young adults, I was saddened by the devolution that occurred over time whereby it seemed drinking wasn't fun unless people were getting blotto and waking up with regrets. We had forgotten how to have fun. We had forgotten how to appreciate a good drink. And we had forgotten how to appreciate each other (whether friends, family, or even fellow bar-mates). As for what we were drinking ten years ago, let's face it, for the most part it was meaningless and forgettable. there's little wonder that the drinking goal became quantity since there was so little quality to savor and enjoy. And discuss with friends later.

E: Sadly, I remember participating in that debauchery more than I care to admit. So you are a brand owner, not a producer. I've talked to a lot of producers, but I'm less familiar with this. I'm assuming it is still a full time job?

MM: It is full-time because it is all I have going, and it's a startup business, and it is my passion that gets me up each day. Add in the fact that I'm trying to reconnect a disconnected liquor to a disconnected heritage to an unaware consumer base in a business that has no shortage of competition for people's attention and dollars...This is a bit like trying to change the world. Also I'm on a small budget so I can only afford a few key contract employees.

E: So, give me a run through of your typical day.

MM: It is blessed.  In general, I get up when I want, walk to work, work at my own pace, and interact all day with people who are interested in producing and selling a quality product while putting on first-class events that feature them.  But the pace is accelerating and it needs to if I'm going to build a brand that produces enough for me to live off it.

On the surface, it sounds easy, almost slacking, but this is my business and being the sole employee means if anything needs to be done, I have to do it or at least arrange for someone else to do it.  I'm constantly deciding whether or not I have the skills and time needed for a task or if I need to hire someone.  I try to keep a regular schedule, up at 7am, working by 9am, working off and on all day until the achievable work is done.  The entire day is spent researching or planning or visiting my producer, distributor, or retailers to build or maintain working relationships.  

Off time is spent keeping up online--twitter, facebook, and the www--building that relationship with the world at large.  In other words, there is no off-time...but don't cry for me, because that's how every new business is built, we're all trying to gain some ground on the established markets by running toward the future as fast and smart as we can.

As I mentioned beginning, it is a blessing to be in this opportunity and for me to not give it all is to risk wasting the gift.  I try to do it on my terms...walking to the coffeehouse, riding my bike in the summer to my favorite bar w/wifi to work in the afternoon; allowing for an occasional lunch with friends where the goal isn't to visit a retailer...but I haven't had a vacation (even one to visit an aquavit distillery) since I started this business.

E: Tell me about the biggest challenge you've faced so far.

MM: It is me. The fears and doubts, many very legitimate and business crippling, have all had to be faced down. I've had several very key friends and several very fateful moments (often small and unintentional/missed by others around me) that have kept me going. As for the biggest doubt, it was a year ago when we were trying to scale the recipe and were unable to do so while retaining the dill flavor we had experienced and loved in our small scale batches.  We had done all we could do and failed, and Paul had doubts and I had doubts, and emotions were running a bit...until it occurred to me one idea we hadn't considered.  I'll not bore you with the details, but we ran with that idea and it happened, we got the flavor we needed in that batch and we were off and running again. (Editor's note: Paul is the owner of 45th Parallel Spirits the producer of Gamle Ode spirits) 

All told, it lasted 5 months...5 months of failure where nothing was produced but expenses and fears...that was tough, and it forced me to face my decision to say 'I am all-in'.  It is one thing to say 'all-in' for a single moment that is there and gone, where you move on the next morning; but it is entirely different when each morning for 5 months you have to get out of bed filled with doubts and climb back into it again that night to push those same doubts away so you can try to get some sleep.  I suppose if that last idea had not worked, I probably would have been done and wouldn't be answering these questions...thankfully it worked.

E: That's quite a challenge. Ok, so tell me the best thing about operating your own spirits brand.

MM: Seeing the looks on most people's faces when they taste the dill aquavit for the first time.  It's better than words.  I even read one person's blog comment once saying he noticed me smirking when that happened, because yes I have seen that look before and each time it creates this silent exchange.  They might be saying something and I might be answering back, but it is the non-verbal exchange that is doing the real communicating.

On a larger sense, I love the idea of producing something that truly adds some value to the economy.  The vast majority of my business career was spent in office jobs where I was an expense, where my asset was to analyze risks and streamline business processes, essentially hidden value, therefore my accomplishments were mostly hidden.

Now, I hire local farmers to grow crops to include in my products which are sold at retailers, where producers, distributors, and retailers all make some profit due to my product.  It's gratifying to know that in an economy that has been shedding jobs, that if I continue to grow then I will create some, it probably won't happen in 2013 since my production is still too small, but if I maintain growth then likely 2014.

E: What's been you're biggest surprise?

MM: That the aquavit idea is working, pretty much exactly as I planned it.  Not in the timeframe I planned. Literally everything has taken more time than planned. But I planned that it would be a hit with the Scandinavians first, then the foodies second, then the craft cocktail scene third, and then as people heard more about it the general public would warm up to the idea. On paper, those plans always look great. But when it actually happens, it is like hitting a full court shot in basketball. Of course you were aiming and put your best effort into making it, but it is still a shock when it splashes into that net and I'm not so cool as to fake my surprise.

E: Any advice for readers who might be interested in following in your footsteps?

MM: Tough one, really tough, because in as many ways as I planned to succeed, I still haven't succeeded and it's been 2 years now.  Paul at 45th just handed me my first check from aquavit sales. How many people can go 2 years between paychecks?  We endured a year of recipe development, most of it unplanned delays. How many people can absorb a year delay in reaching the market?  At the same time, look at our screwed up world economy—people can't afford to sit back and wait for the economy, they have to do something themselves to spur things forward.

So, my advice is this. First, think small and stay local. Second, find a product that is under-served and of a meh-corporate quality. Third, learn that product inside and out, find the people who do it, live it if you can as an apprentice/mentee. And finally, plan toward replacing that product while doing your best to avoid or minimize bank debt.

Don't re-invent the wheel, but find where we lost the wheel that was better quality.  Literally, after thousands of years of life, everything that people need has been done. But in our 70 year quest to be modern or hip (or just via corporate buyouts) we've tossed aside a lot of great things that now are completely new to a new generation of people.  We are seeing it in granolas, chocolates, donuts, breads, beers, liquors and on and on.

E: Anything new on the horizon?

MM: I'll start here since I've only been around 7 months, I'm still new on the horizon.

The Dill Aquavit is my only product in the marketplace.  It has been selling well, I'm almost out of stock in the warehouse and I only have distribution in MN and now WI (they just took their first order last week).

Though the Holiday Aquavit wasn't out for the holidays, it finally was approved. It still needs MN registration approved (should happen this week). No one has ordered it yet, but it has been selling at 45th Parallel.  My feeling is 'every week should have a Holiday' so I'm selling it now.  Where the Dill is unaged, clear spirit, the Holiday is aged 6 months into a brown good, and a tasty balance of dill, caraway, juniper, mint, allspice, and orange.  This is a limited production of  roughly 600 bottles and when it is gone, there won't be another Holiday batch until next November.

The Celebration Aquavit was also approved, but needs MN registration yet and needs finishing.  It is still in barrels for another 2-3 weeks as we are hoping to get a golden color to accompany it's smooth, balanced flavors of dill, caraway, juniper, coriander, citrus (lemon/orange) and star anise.

E: Where can we buy your products?

MM: Minnesota and soon Wisconsin. I use the mainstream 3-tier marketplace, the couple online retailers carrying Gamle Ode are all Minnesota retailers who ship to the various states that allow it.  My recommendation is for people to visit their favorite local retailer and let them know you are interested in this crazy new Gamle Ode aquavit.

That does two things: first, it lets the retailer know more about you as their customer (better stores are happy to order a product you ask for, they just need to know at least one bottle will sell), and second it lets the retailer know times are changing in aquavit.  If I as brand owner or my distributor go to a store, then of course they expect us to push the product. Yes, I know the product is good, and yes they might find the product appealing; but they will have doubts about their customers knowing about this product (that up to now has never been asked for) and being willing to pay for it. That is where you asking for it is much better.

E: Plug time: Where can people connect with you online? Website? Twitter? Facebook?

MM: Sure, I have all three.  But let me plug the people who maintain these accounts as they are working for scratch.  I can't afford to pay them what their skills are worth, so I've sold them a cut of the dream.  Meaning it is like the classic internet startup and if Gamle Ode manages to get big, they will get a payout and more to reflect the investment of their talents; but if I fail, then we might all be living in Gamle Ode cardboard boxes down by the river. 

(Editor's note: Mike's website is http://gamleode.com, his twitter handle is @GamleOde and you can find him on Facebook at: facebook.com/GamleOde)

E: Ok anything else you'd like to share that we've missed?

MM: You know how watching the awards shows when each award recipient gets up and thanks everyone and God for their moment of waving this hunk of gold on the stage...now I get it.  For as much isolated planning and research and pondering and multitasking and worrying I did, I was still dead in the water without key people signing on to help me with this venture.

There are visible people like Bittercube and 45th Parallel that without them I'd be little or nothing, certainly no awards would be forthcoming.  There are semi-visible guys like the bloggers Jacob Grier in Portland and Harry Sheff in NYC, who embraced the product early on when there was nothing in it for them. They just happened to find it interesting.  And of course similar to you, but don't let me influence your comments.

Then there are invisible people like the old Danish guys of the DAC I was giving early taste testing with, who were so kind and encouraging.  Guys like Paul Jahn who bought his own bottle to take down to his sister's house for the holidays, tweeting out the purchase and the tasting, and adding photos online.  And people on twitter or facebook who make positive comments. It is all part of the community any new product needs to gain some traction, and without which a product just slips away into being just a fad.

And just like the classic award speech...I will shut up before properly naming all the people who matter so much: my girlfriend Kim who has lost me to this business venture, my kids who have to trust me not to fritter away their inheritance and not to end up in boxes by the river, etc.  I can never do this justice, but I thank them all, named and unnamed.

E: Thanks again Mike.

And now onto the review. Once again, this was a gift from Mike. But I did drink it with him for an afternoon before I realized it was for me. So...

Gamle Ode Holiday Aquavit

Bottle says this is 42% ABV and was infused with dill, caraway, juniper, mint, allspice and orange. Mike clarified that it was redistilled after that. Then aged for 6 months in (full size) used bourbon barrels.

Nose: I get the dill, allspice and mint that was promised on the bottle, I also get just a hint of the orange. Not much of anything else though.

Mouth: The dill is there, but it is muted. There is some juniper and mint. A bit of allspice. The flavors are very well balanced. They meld into one another to make a savory whole

Finish: Just a hint of burn. Then the mint comes through to cool. It's the type of finish that refreshes the mouth to ready you for another sip.

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Overall: I like this. Which, honestly, surprised me. I'd tried the dill completely unprepared for the onslaught of dill flavor and it freaked me out a bit. So when I was asked to try this, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew I was getting together with a friend and a friend of a friend so that was good enough for me. But once I tried it, I was pleasantly surprised. The well-balanced flavors won me over.

If you believe the genealogical websites I'm descended from Kings of Denmark and farmers of Norway and Sweden. Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising that I enjoyed this.