Scandinavia is a vast region. You’d think it would be difficult for so large an area to agree on a unifying drink.
But aquavit can be found plentifully from northern Germany to the most remote stretches of Finland. There’s something special about this centuries-old Nordic spirit.
When you look closely, aquavit’s not so different from your favorite vodka or gin. Its mysterious aura is easily unveiled when you discover its distinct, yet familiar botanical and delve into its fascinating customs. Set out a plate of pickled fish and pour a glass of Scandinavia’s signature spirit.
1. Calling all caraway lovers.
If you believe nothing compares to a quality loaf of rye bread, chances are you’ll love aquavit. A neutral spirit distilled from grain or potato (much like vodka), aquavit is most commonly flavored with caraway as its dominant spice. Styles of aquavit vary and often include a range of other spices as well, such as dill, fennel, coriander, citrus and anise.
2. Aquavit is the national spirit of Scandinavia.
Heading to Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Finland? It won’t be long before you’re presented with a glass of aquavit. Caraway has long been a common flavor in the region and was originally considered a cure for indigestion. That signature spice gives aquavit an overarching savory character that pairs well with hard-to-pair foods, namely traditional Nordic fare like pickled herring, smoked fish and pungent cheeses.
3. In its earliest days, aquavit was believed to have healing powers.
Aquavit is derived from the Latin aqua vitae, meaning “water of life.” In the 1300s, a Spanish alchemist believed he had discovered a healing liquid after distilling a batch. The spirit supposedly helped ward off disease and old age, and it appears that it was commonly used as medicine during the Black Death period. By the 15th century, aquavit was (ironically) considered a cure for alcoholism, and today, it’s still believed to help digest rich food.
4. Learn how to toast like a Viking with aquavit.
The Old Norse toast associated with aquavit originated with the Vikings. Skaal (or skoal) is now the standard toast that’s shouted when drinking aquavit, a cheers that references a small drinking cup or bowl that the Vikings used. When lifting your glass to give a skaal, it’s traditional to maintain eye contact. This custom stems from the Viking sensibility of keeping your eye on others (and potential threats) at all times, even during a celebration.
5. Aquavit’s a bit of a party animal.
Though aquavit is enjoyed year-round in Scandinavia, it’s especially prevalent during special occasions and holidays. For Norwegians, May 17 is Constitution Day, a holiday that’s celebrated with parades, parties and all the aquavit you can drink. In Sweden and Denmark, it’s drunk socially during midsummer dinners to the tune of raucous drinking songs. There are currently 200 drinking songs dedicated to aquavit (or schnapps/snaps as it’s also called) recorded at the Historical Museum of Wine & Spirits in Stockholm, and an annual competition challenges locals to continue writing new ones.
6. Aquavit varies depending on the region.
The specific herbs and spices used to flavor aquavit are determined by local preference and cuisine. Swedish and Danish aquavit is usually distilled from grain, while Norwegian aquavit is traditionally made from potatoes. Danish aquavit leans heavier on dill, coriander and caraway and is enjoyed as a quick chilled shot at midday lunch. Swedish aquavit features more anise and fennel flavors, but is also downed in one go, often followed by a beer and meal of pickled herring. It’s quite different in Norway, where aquavit is meant to be sipped slowly to experience its barrel-aged quality and diverse aromatics like cumin and citrus peel.
7. Norwegian aquavit is especially well-traveled.
Denmark and Sweden consider aquavit a clear spirit, but in Norway, there’s a strong tradition of cask-aging. Norwegian aquavit matures in sherry oak casks that give the spirit a golden color and full-bodied character with hints of vanilla. Linie Aquavit is one of Norway’s most famous because of its unique aging process that was accidentally discovered in the early 19th century. Linie means “line,” as its oak barrels are loaded onto ships that cross the equator twice, supposedly enhancing the spirit’s flavor and smoothness due to the barrels’ constant rolling on the ocean and temperature fluctuations.
8. Everyone’s got a signature aquavit drinking style. What’s yours?
Scandinavians take their aquavit straight up. Sure, it could be a shot thrown back straight from the freezer or a glass sipped leisurely alongside a meal, but it’s rarely mixed. One exception happens in Copenhagen during winter, when aquavit is served with coffee as kaffepunch. The drink is prepared by putting a coin in the bottom of a cup and pouring in enough coffee to cover the coin, then adding enough aquavit to make the coin visible again. In the US, bartenders are more likely to use aquavit in cocktails, often as a substitute for vodka or gin in classic drinks like the Bloody Mary, Negroni and French 75.
9. Aquavit is starting to make a splash in the states.
Want to get your hands on a bottle? In addition to imported offerings like Norway’s Linie Aquavit and Denmark’s Aalborg Aquavit, domestic distillers are also starting to experiment with aquavit. Krogstad Aquavit from Portland and North Shore Aquavit from Chicago are becoming well known with bartenders for their richly savory caraway notes. Seattle’s Sound Spirits is also turning out a traditional style aquavit, while Wisconsin’s Gamle Ode offers three different styles: Dill, Celebration (the most traditional version) and Holiday (infused with orange peel, mint and allspice).
10. Fancy a glass? You can make your own aquavit at home.
Make like a true Scandinavian and DIY your aquavit. It’s surprisingly easy. A useful starter recipe begins with vodka infused with caraway seeds, fresh dill, star anise, fennel seeds and lemon zest. Let it steep for a few days and you’ll be rewarded with aromatic at-home aquavit, ready to be mixed into Bloody Marys or more adventurous options like the Barents Sea Collins or Spring 2014. Just make sure to try it straight-up first.