Akvavit, or snaps, in Danish and Swedish; akevitt or nubbe in Norwegian; akvaviitti in Finnish; and ákavíti in Icelandic—all are derived from the Latin aqua vitae, meaning ‘water of life.’
This flavored spirit has been an intrinsic part of Nordic culture for centuries. It even has its own EU law, stating that to be named aquavit, it must contain a minimum of 37.5% alcohol (although typically it is 40%), and that the main spices should be caraway and/or dill.
The process involves distilling either grain (in Denmark and Sweden) or potatoes (in Norway, where it is also rested in Sherry casks), and then flavoring it with herbs, spices or fruit oil. While caraway is the most prominent flavor (originally due to its plentiful supply and medicinal properties as a remedy for indigestion), you’ll also find aquavits spiced with anise, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander, cloves, citrus peel or guinea pepper.
While Danish and Swedish aquavits are clear spirits and light in color, Norwegian aquavits stand out for having the deepest colors—and strongest flavors—due to an aging process that sees them matured in Sherry oak cask for one to 12 years. Usually the longer it's aged, the darker the color; although that is not completely true, as taffel (aka ‘table’ aquavit) is clear, and is aged in older casks that don’t impart a color.
The earliest recorded mention of aquavit can be traced back to April 13, 1531 in a letter sent from the Danish Lord Eske Bille to the Archbishop of Norway, Olav Engelbrektsson. It accompanied a bottle, offering "some water which is called aqua vite and is a help for all sort of illnesses which a man can have both internally and externally."
To this day, the spirit is believed to aid the digestion of rich foods, and it pairs particularly well with traditional Nordic staples such as pickled herring, fermented fish, heavy meat dishes and pungent cheeses—with the various herbs and spices used in the distillation process pairing nicely with different dishes.
Many national days and midsummer celebrations, as well as Easter and Christmas, call for this regional drink, and while each country drinks it differently, they all agree on one thing—it should be drunk straight. In Denmark and Sweden, it’s enjoyed as a chilled shot, served in small stemmed tulip glasses so that the drinker’s hand doesn’t warm it up; it’s often served at the same time as appetizers and accompanied by a beer chaser. In Norway, on the other hand, aquavit is served at room temperature and is usually sipped more slowly, allowing more time to appreciate its barrel-aged qualities.
Norway also boasts a unique range of Linie Aquavits.
These were originally created by chance during the early 19th century, when five oak barrels filled with aquavit were shipped abroad for sale and later returned on the same ship, as the merchant was unable to find a buyer. It was then that the Norwegians discovered that the continuous rolling movement of the waves, amplified by the humidity and the temperature fluctuations accelerated the maturation process and improved its flavor. Today’s Linie Aquavits are sent on a journey from Norway to Australia, twice crossing the equator (‘linie’), and every bottle is labeled with the dates of the voyage and the ship that it travels on.
Photos by Sue Ravn.