A bottle and glass of Linie brand akvavit. Akvavit, also known as aquavit or akevitt, is a Scandinavian distilled beverage of typically about 40% alcohol by volume. Its name comes from aqua vitae, the Latin for “water of life”.
Like vodka, it is distilled from potato or grain. It is flavoured with herbs such as caraway seeds, anise, dill, fennel, coriander, and grains of paradise, among others. The recipe differs between the different brands, but typically caraway is the dominating flavour. Akvavit usually has a yellowish hue, but is available in many colours, 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, but this may also come from the use of artificial colour (caramel – E150). Clear akvavits called Taffel akvavits are typically matured in old casks which doesn’t colour the finished product.
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 Engelbretsson, the last Archbishop of Norway. The letter, 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 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 snaps 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 Gilde and Løiten from Norway, Aalborg from Denmark and Skåne 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. 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 tratidion is the occurrence of Linie akvavits (such as “Løiten Linie” and “Lysholm Linie”). These have been carried in oak casks onboard ships crossing the equator (“Linie”) 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 “Linie” ships while the casks were subjected to the weather elements as they would aboard the same ship. The finished product was according to Arcus far from the taste that a proper “Linie” akvavit should have, thus the tradition of shipping the akvavit casks past the “Linie” and back continues.
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.