, also known as aquavit
, is a Scandinavian distilled beverage
of approximately 40% alcohol by volume. Its name comes from aqua vitae
, the Latin for "water of life".
Akvavit, like vodka
, is distilled from either potato
. It is flavoured with herbs such as caraway
, and grains of paradise
. The Danish distillery Aalborg
makes an akvavit distilled with amber
. The recipe and flavors differ between brands, but typically caraway is the dominating flavour. Akvavit usually has a yellowish hue, but can vary from clear to light brown, depending on how long it has been aged in oak casks. Normally, darker colour suggests higher age or the use of young casks, though artificial colour (caramel - E150
) is also permitted. Clear akvavits called Taffel
akvavits (taffel is the name of the dining part of a traditional Scandinavian dinner party) are typically matured in old casks which do not colour the finished product.
The word akvavit derives from Medieval Latin aqua vītae, "water of life." An apocryphal story holds it actually means "Water from the Vine," a picturesque folk etymology derived through the confusion of Latin vītae (genitive of vita) with Italian vite, "vine." The Gaelic word whisky is derived from the same Latin source .
Origin and traditional variants
The earliest known reference to akvavit is found in a 1531 letter from the Danish Lord of Bergenshus
castle, Eske Bille to Olav Engelbrektsson
, the last Archbishop
of Norway. The letter, dated April 13, accompanying a package, offers the archbishop "some water which is called Aqua Vite and is a help for all sort of sickness which a man can have both internally and externally."
While this claim for the medicinal properties of the drink may be rather inflated, it is a popular belief that akvavit will ease the digestion of rich foods. In Denmark it is traditionally associated with Christmas lunch. In Norway it is particularly drunk at celebrations, such as Christmas or May 17 (Norwegian Constitution Day). In Sweden it is a staple of the traditional midsummer celebrations dinner, usually drunk while singing one of many drinking songs. It is usually drunk as a schnapps during meals, especially during the appetizer course— along with pickled herring, crayfish, lutefisk or smoked fish. In this regard it is popularly quipped that akvavit helps the fish swim down to the stomach. It is also a regular on the traditional Norwegian Christmas meals, including roasted rib of pork and stickmeat (pinnekjøtt). It is said that the spices and the alcohol helps digest the meal which is very rich in fat.
Among the most important brands are Løiten, Lysholm and Gilde from Norway, Aalborg from Denmark and O.P Andersson from Sweden. While the Danish and Swedish variants are normally very light in colour, most of the Norwegian brands are matured in oak casks for at least one year and for some brands even as long as 12 years, making them generally darker in colour. While members of all three nations can be found to claim that "their" style of Akvavit is the best as a matter of national pride, Norwegian akevitt tend to have, if not the most distinctive character, then at least the most overpowering flavour and deepest colour due to the aging process.
Particular to the Norwegian tradition is the occurrence of Linje akvavits (such as "Løiten Linje" and "Lysholm Linje"). These have been carried in oak casks onboard ships crossing the equator ("Linje") twice before it is sold. While many experts claim that this tradition is little more than a gimmick, some argue that the moving seas and frequent temperature changes cause the spirit to extract more flavour from the casks. Norwegian akvavit distillers Arcus has carried out a scientific test where they tried to emulate the rocking of the casks aboard the "Linje" ships while the casks were subjected to the weather elements as they would aboard a ship. The finished product was according to Arcus far from the taste that a proper "Linje" akvavit should have, thus the tradition of shipping the akvavit casks past the "Linje" and back continues.
Akvavit outside of Scandinavia
Akvavit is rarely produced and consumed outside Scandinavia, although there are domestic imitations in some countries, especially in areas with a large community of Scandinavian immigrants. An exception, however, is Northern Germany
and in particular the German state
which was controlled by the Kings of Denmark until the 19th century (see: History of Schleswig-Holstein
) and still has a notable Danish minority. Among the most important German brands of Akvavit are Bommerlunder from Flensburg
, Kieler Sprotte Aquavit from Kiel
and Malteserkreuz Aquavit. The latest brand is produced since 1924 in Berlin
by a Subsidiary of Sweden's Vin & Sprit AB, the producer of many Swedish akvavits, and can considered a German imitation of Scandinavian akvavits since it is based on an originally Danish recipe. Brands from Schleswig-Holstein, however, often have a long history, comparable to its Scandinavian counterparts. Bommerlunder, for instance, is made since 1760. Akvavit is also an important part of the traditional cuisine of Schleswig-Holstein. German akvavit is virtually always distilled from grain and generally has an alcohol content of 38% alcohol by volume, marginally less than Scandinavian akvavits.
Some small local off-licences in the northeast of England have been known to sell Norwegian akevitt occasionally. The drink tends to be popular amongst older generations.
Akvavit drinking culture
There are several methods of drinking akvavit. It is surprisingly often shot a glass at a time, and although this is usually attributed to tradition, it is suspected that it has something to do with the fact that some people have problems with the spirit's "special" taste. Akvavit connoisseurs, on the other hand, tend to treat akvavit like fine whisky, sipping slowly away and delving into flavours and aromas.
Akvavit arguably complements beer better than many other spirits, and in a drinking situation, any quantity of akvavit is usually preceded (or succeeded) by a swig of beer. Enthusiasts generally lament this practice, claiming that the beer will ruin the delicately balanced flavour and aftertaste.