- Swedish and Danish: akvavit,
- Norwegian: akevitt,
From Medieval Latin aqua vitae, "water of life", also spelled aquavite, or akvavit, also called snaps in Denmark.
A Scandinavian flavoured, distilled liquor, ranging in alcohol content from about 42 to 45 percent by volume, clear to pale yellow in colour, distilled from a fermented potato or grain mash, flavored with caraway seeds or cumin seed, others that may be used are lemon or orange peel, cardamom, aniseed, and fennel.
Like vodka, Aquavit 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. Aquavit usually has a yellowish brown hue, but is available in many other shades of brown, depending on the amount of time it has been aged in oak barrels. 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.
The earliest known reference to Akvavit is to be 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." According to Alcohol Aficionado's History of Aquavit, Archbishop Engelbretsson went on to introduce the Norwegian public to the strong form of aquavit that exists today.
While this claim for the medicinal properties of the drink may be rather inflated, it is a popular belief that aquavit 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.
"The Fresno Bee Republican", 11th September 1968
"In Norway, aquavit comes in 13 varieties, flavored with such herbs as caraway, anise, star anise, guinea seed, fennel and coriander. In Denmark people add a yellow flower called pericum, tinting the normally colorless aquavit a light orange."
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 tradition 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.
How to drink Aquavit
There are several methods of drinking aquavit. 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. Aquavit connoisseurs, on the other hand, tend to treat akvavit like fine whisky, sipping slowly away and delving into flavours and aromas.
Aquavit arguably complements beer better than many other spirits, and in a drinking situation, any quantity of aquavit 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.