Aquavit: Water of Life

12 December, 2013

Aquavit is Scandinavian flavoured vodka or a Nordic version of gin. Christian Davis explores his roots

Dear lord, will your grace know that I send your grace some water with messenger Jon Teiste which is called aqua vite and the same water helps for all his illness that a man can have internally.”

This letter, sent in 1531 from a Danish lord, Eske Bille, lord of Bergenshus castle, to Olav Engelbrektsson, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Norway is reckoned to be the earliest known reference to ‘aquavit’.

As most people in the alcoholic drinks industry will know ‘aquavit’ comes from the Latin aqua vitae, or water of life. Similarly the French eau de vie is the same and whisky comes from the Gaelic equivalent, ‘uisage beatha’. 

Aquavit, aquavit or akevitt is the spirit of Scandinavia. It is distilled from either grain (Sweden, Denmark and Germany) or potatoes (Norway, Denmark, Sweden). It is then flavoured with herbs, spices or fruit oil. Just as the predominant flavour component of gin should be juniper, with aquavit it should be mainly caraway or dill but can and does include cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel and lemon or orange peel. Alcoholic strength is usually around 40% abv.

Aquavit varies from clear to light brown. The Norwegians favour brown aquavit so use younger casks that impart more colour and age it. The use of caramel for colouring is permitted. Clear aquavit is called ‘taffel’ – it is typically unaged and possibly put in old casks that do not colour.

While the lord’s claim for the medicinal properties of the drink may be over-optimistic, many still believe that aquavit eases the digestion of rich foods. The Danes traditionally drink ‘snaps’ with their ‘koldtbords’ (cold table, similar to a Swedish smorgasbord). Served ice cold out of the freezer and poured into small shot glasses, it goes particularly well with the typical Danish marinated herrings served on buttered rye bread with raw onion rings. The Danes ‘chase’ their aquavit or snaps with beer. The Swedes drink their aquavit or ‘Nubbe or Kryddat brännvin’ in a similar way to their Danish neighbours. The Swedes major on their traditional midsummer celebrations. They say aquavit helps the fish swim down to the stomach.

In Norway, it is drunk traditionally at celebrations, particularly Christmas, Easter or May 17 (Norwegian Constitution Day). As the Norwegians’ aquavit tends to have, if not the most distinctive character, then at least the most overpowering flavour and deepest colour due to the ageing in sherry oak casks, the spirit is drunk at room temperature and is as likely to be served in tulip-shaped glasses as shot glasses.

In Scandinavia it is common to call aquavit ‘snaps’. Nordic ‘snaps’ is fundamentally different from German and Austrian schnapps. The latter is more likely to be made from maize and fruit with alcoholic strengths ranging from 20% to 38% abv.

Because the German region of Schleswig-Holstein was regularly fought over by the Danes and the Germans, like Alsace between the Germans and the French, there is a tradition in northern Germany of drinking aquavit.

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