Ballard’s former aquavit distillery and Nordic cafe, Old Ballard Liquor Co., has completed its quick transition to Nordic bar, reopening over the weekend with the likes of Swedish sangria and dirty dill martinis, beet-pickled eggs, and lutefisk handpies. Yes, lutefisk is mashed here with potatoes and peas, in a nod to one traditional preparation, then stuffed in a flaky rye crust as a sort of edible Trojan horse for anyone skeptical of the infamously pungent lye-cured whitefish. The dish, low on fishiness and high on comfort, is bound to inspire new lutefisk lovers.
Owner Lexi says all of the recipes on the new food menu, from lamb and cabbage stew to Swedish meatballs to spiced pork sausage, are classics rather than originals, unlike the distillery’s previous cafe, which mostly avoided typical dishes like meatballs. It’s all made in a tiny open kitchen in full view of about 16 seats.
Lexi is also running the food program at Adam McQueen’s anticipated upcoming Ballard beer hall Skal, whose kitchen is even tinier. She’s hoping Old Ballard will be busy enough on the weekends to pay for its use as a commissary kitchen for both establishments the rest of the week. Skal’s menu will be a little less traditional, more focused on skewers or rotisserie game meat like rabbit and elk.
The five cocktails on Old Ballard Liquor’s Co.’s reopening menu include a warmly spiced Swedish sangria, a dirty dill martini, made with vodka, dill aquavit, brine, and pickles, and a Kir or Kir Royale, available still or bubbly with a shot of raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, or cassis liqueur from Kent’s excellent Sidetrack Distillery. There are no taps but there are a few beers, from Carlsberg Pilsner to Counterbalance IPA, as well as a red and white wine and nonalcoholic sodas made with spiced fig, cranberry, or rhubarb shrub. And, while supplies last, some of Old Ballard’s aquavit is still available, too.
For now, the menus accompany a note explaining some of the changes to customers, including that “all our serviceware is compostable” and “our food is all handmade, but this isn’t a fine dining establishment,” so there’s no table service. The company’s website suggests some of the reasoning behind the change from distillery to bar: “The distillery closure was directly caused by Washington State legislation hostile to small, independent distilleries. A detailed analysis of the laws and industry impacts will be available as soon as the owner has time to sit down and write it.”
Overall, the small space looks as industrial as it did before, minus the stills: A few high-top blond wood tables and a few low ones have black metal chairs, some twinkle lights are strung up for ambiance, and screened in tools hang on the wall to the right of the entrance. The sign out front still reads “Distillery & Tasting Room,” and may do so for the foreseeable future to save the money a new sign would cost. Hopefully the surging interest in Nordic cuisine, aided by the impressive new Nordic Heritage Museum nearby and its cafe, Freya, will help draw fans to the revamped cocktails and food being served in this unique neighborhood bar and restaurant.
The full menus and explanatory note follow.