What is Akvavit?

From the far northern reaches of Scandinavia comes akvavit. Encompassing the countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, and occasionally Finland and Iceland, depending on who you ask, these northern nations each produce a version of akvavit. Given that such a large area and the fact that several countries are covered, it’s no surprise that the flavored Scandinavian liquor varies slightly from nation to nation. First, let’s take a look at the basics.

What’s in a name? In this case, a whole lot of history. Akvavit aka aquavit derives from the Latin aqua vitae. Like the French eau de vie or Gaelic uisge beatha, akvavit was dubbed “water of life.” It dates back to the 15th century when it was first developed, like so many other spirits, for medicinal purposes. Akvavit is cousin to vodka, a half-sibling to gin, made from grains or potatoes and flavored with caraway. Caraway comes from the same family of herbs as fennel and cumin called Apiaceae, and guess what? Both are frequently used alongside caraway to flavor akvavit. All these herbs have long been used in traditional medicines, again, hearkening back to the spirit’s origins. According to the records, Denmark was the first to make akvavit and the tradition still carries on to this day.

It’s produced much in the same way as other neutral grain-based spirits; in Norway, they typically use potatoes while in Sweden and Denmark grain is usually preferred. It’s distilled then flavored with botanicals, like gin. By the end of the process, the final result is a spirit that clocks in around 40 percent ABV, ranging from brilliantly clear to shades of pale yellow, depending on its aging treatment. Most akvavit is unoaked, unaged, and gin-clear, but in Norway, they like to age the stuff in barrels, giving it a softer, more mellow flavor. Unique to Norway is linie akvavit, a cask-aged version which is matured at sea, not unlike Madeira prior to the modern era.

All those hard to pair dishes that come from the far northern regions of Scandinavia go beautifully with akvavit. The savory spice of the caraway and company complement rather than clash with the likes of pickled herring, gravlax, and the fixings you’ll find on a smorgasbord. It’s drunk chilled out of small glasses, occasionally accompanied by a rousing verse or two and a traditional toast. Drinkers cheers with skål! – a throwback to the drinking vessels used by the Vikings.

So while many of us have never had the pleasure of trying akvavit before, we have more opportunity than in the past to give it a go. You can find examples of it stateside and some American distillers are making their own, particularly in the Midwest which has its fair share of Scandinavian roots. It’s even making its way into the odd cocktail.

Get yourself down to your local watering hole and have the bartender dust off the bottle of akvavit from the back bar and give it a try. If you like your gin or simply enjoy a delicious, well-made spirit, akvavit definitely deserves a place on your dance card.


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