The Old Ballard Liquor Co. makes local aquavit that’s not at all like Pine-Sol, while its cafe serves lovely Scandinavian food, hold the Swedish meatballs.
The Old Ballard Liquor Co. is only four years old, yet its name feels earned. The distillery specializes in aquavit, the favored liquor of the neighborhood’s Scandinavian fishermen and -women of yore. The setting, in the middle of dock-and-warehouse-nowhere near the Ballard Bridge, feels far from the neighborhood’s shiny new bars, condos and crowds. Owner Lexi (she goes by no last name) has a brook-no-fools attitude that old-timey Ballardites would appreciate — she’s banned the raucous patrons of the newfangled pub-crawling Cycle Saloon from the premises. And The Old Ballard itself has a cheerful, patched-together pioneer spirit, with the 12-seat cafe sharing a room stacked to its high ceiling with distilling apparatus, in use and in waiting — a riot of tanks, tubes, racks, jars, bins, barrels and more.
Lexi was raised in the Skagit Valley and Seattle; later, she lived in Sweden, and fell in love with the food and culture.
Is she Scandinavian? “I’m white, and the Vikings got around, so probably!” she laughs.
The Cafe at the Old Ballard Liquor Co.
4421 Shilshole Ave. N.W., Seattle,
While she wants the “drunk party-bike people” to get off her metaphorical lawn, Lexi’s generous and funny, and she loves to share her apparently endless knowledge. Things you might learn sitting here: what a caperberry is, why some aquavit tastes like Pine-Sol, a condensed history of Scandinavian food, the distinction between nutmeg and mace. You may sit for a while — a half-full house constitutes a rush at this tiny operation — but samples of the distillery’s nuanced work make it a respite. If you go soon, you might get the seasonal spruce aquavit, made with spring’s sweetly piney new growth from a Ballard tree; it smells and tastes like a forest dream.
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The menu: Lexi aims to expose people to Scandinavian food they haven’t had, starting with a “herrings bord”: five different herring preparations, each vastly superior to the familiar, pungent jarred version. The creamed ones taste rich, but not bludgeoningly so; subtle flavors might include plum or sage; and thin slices of fruit or tiny herb leaves make for pretty presentations.
Charcuterie and cheese boards are on offer as well, but Lexi prides herself most on the handful of changing weekends-only entrees, usually rife with seasonal ingredients, as is true to both old-fashioned and fancy new Nordic cuisine. Recently, her “tomato bushes were going crazy” — hence, a luscious, thick roasted heirloom tomato soup, with buttered rye croutons immersed inside, topped with melted Swedish caraway cheese and fresh dill. A salad looked like a party: blueberries, tomatoes, nasturtiums, sorrel, rocket and more. And a räkmacka — a simple, beautiful Swedish open-faced sandwich — possessed a huge pile of shrimp for just $10.
Don’t miss: The house-made rye crispbread has a marvelously nutty flavor and lavish crunch, while the butter they churn here is fabulously smooth and lush. Otherwise, Lexi knows what’s best, and she’s happy to tell you!
What you won’t get: Swedish meatballs — a pedestrian stereotype, Lexi says. “No meatballs! Never!”
Prices: A herring board ($13), tomato soup ($10), seasonal salad ($6) and shrimp sandwich ($10) was arguably too much for lunch for two, adding up to $39 before tax and tip.