"How strong is this?" I squeak out as my lips burn, eyes squint and a shiver runs through my body after an accidental guzzle of Swedish schnapps. “Not that strong,” says distiller Claes Wernerson with a humored grin.
I’m in West Sweden at Qvänum Mat & Malt; a humble farmhouse that Wernerson and his wife refurbished into a microbrewery in 2004, then in 2006, added a distillery dedicated to Sweden’s specialty spirit.
Referred to as brännvin in Sweden, schnapps (or snaps) is the country’s preferred distilled liquor from potatoes or grains. Drinking it is a right of passage woven into the Nordic country’s history, particularly given the idyllic growing conditions for barley, rye and wheat, rather than grapes.
Dating back to the 14th century, the distilled alcohol was introduced to Sweden via gunpowder. “It didn’t take long before people discovered they could drink it,” Wernerson tells me. At first it was consumed as an aid against disease, then in the 16th century, was reportedly introduced to the military by King Gustaf Wasa to promote confidence in soldiers pre-combat. It wasn’t until the 1800s that schnapps became less fusel and more drinkable as distillers across the country began infusing the spirit with caraway, dill, elderflower, bog-myrtle and honey, creating recipes distinct to their locale.
“Now, when people sip on a schnapps, perfectly matched to the food or to the occasion, they taste the flavors and not the alcohol,” says Wernerson, shattering some of the misconceptions most already have on the spirit.
Admittedly, I fell victim to being the tourist who sipped a little too much schnapps the first time around. So I try again. This time I experience a crisp tingle on the sides of my tongue, rather than a harsh burn on my throat. Aniseed and juniper rise to the nose. And my chest warms comfortably, not all at once.
These aromas are typical of aquavit; a category of schnapps that is always flavored and typically recognizable by its darker coloring. Whether flavored or flavorless, such as with vodka, today, schnapps are the preferred accompaniment to traditional Swedish smorgasbord like gravlax and pickled herring, as well as a staple in countrywide celebrations like the crayfish celebrations (kräftskiva) in August and Christmas table (Julbord) in December.
I spoke with Wernerson to learn more about the history of schnapps, its modern role in Swedish society and what the spirit means to him.
This interview is edited for clarity and length.
What is your opinion on schnapps?
I think schnapps is a perfect match to a lot of food. Alcohol is a fantastic thing to increase a flavor. Just sip and let it play together with food in the mouth and one will find a lot of new aromas. If it is a flavored schnapps, drink it at room temperature or chilled to 10–12˚ Celsius [50–54˚ Fahrenheit], in small amounts.
How do you enjoy schnapps?
I prefer it at room temperature, served in a beautiful hand blown crystal clear 3-4 cl [1-1.5 oz] glass, among good friends singing songs to each sip.
Do you have a favorite schnapps recipe?
Not really, it’s more what I intend to eat with schnapps. An aquavit flavored with caraway and fennel seeds is really nice with shellfish. A schnapps with bog-myrtle pairs with mild sausage and mustard, mashed potatoes and butter you have melted in the pan until a nutty aroma, and some lingonberries stirred with a few drops of Cognac. A schnapps flavored with juniper is a good pairing to game like moose, reindeer and hare.
What do you think it pairs best with?
Most often, pickled herring and cheese. Additionally, a barrel-aged aquavit combined with dark chocolate is fantastic.
Where is your favorite place to drink schnapps?
Anywhere I find good food and a good assortment of schnapps.
Can you debunk any common misconceptions or fables of schnapps?
People too often think schnapps has to be drunk like a shot. The tradition of singing and looking at each other around the table, keeping your glass just below your throat before one drink is a Swedish tradition that people from other countries find a bit odd, but still enjoyable.
Another misconception, I read in a New York City guidebook: A Swedish schnapps is so strong it would color the whole heating system in the Empire State Building cherry red. It is not that strong . . .
Images courtesy of Tina Stafrén/Visit Sweden.