A few years back, you may recall that I took a little trip to Oslo and found myself at Himkok, one of the best bars in the world, sampling their house made aquavit infused with seaweed. I went on to enjoy an aquavit and celery sour with cracked pepper at Bar Albatross, and later in the in week I followed a traditional meal with a traditional digestiff: aquavit. So many ways to enjoy the spirit of Scandinavia!
Since you are clearly a craft booze aficionado, perhaps you can can answer a little bar trivia: what is aquavit?
Ok Ok fine, I know it’s my job to answer that question for you and then some–so let’s jump in the metaphorical fjord and answer the question: just what is aquavit?
A Brief History of Aquavit
Originally a medicinal beverage, the word “aquavit” or “akvavit” comes from the Latin aqua vitae, meaning “water of life.” Now Aquavit isn’t the only spirit whose name carries such profound implications, both the original Gealic name for whiskey (uisce beatha) and eau de vie (yep that’s French for unaged brandy) translate to the exact same phrase, while vodka literally comes from the Slavic word for little water.
Aquavit’s first written reference is widely traced to its appearance in 1531 in a letter from Danish Lord Eske Bille of Bergenhus castle, to the Norwegian bishop Olav Engelbrektsson. In the letter, Lord Eske includes a bottle of spirits said to “help for all sorts of illness which a man can have both internally and externally.” The spirit itself shows up in Scandinavia in the 1400s, most likely brought by German traders, who used it both as medicine and gunpowder.
Instead of using the spirit as fire power, the whole of Scandinvia embraced aquavit and each country made it their own! Both Norway and Sweden have geographic protections for their national style of aquavit, but outside of those countries, the styles vary as widely as the botanical components of gin!
Ready To Drink Some Aquavit?
Order our March SipScout Aquavit & Easter Mixology Kit anytime in the month of February 2024, while it’s here! We’ll be tasting through craft aquavit and making our reader-favorite Bunny Mary cocktail, which is perfect for Easter Brunch!
Ok, so what IS aquavit?!
According to the EU, aquavit 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 base distillate, botanical structure, and aging guidelines vary by country, as does what it is commonly called.
Initially in the US, “the TTB’s Distilled Spirits Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) specified that only spirits possessing the flavor of caraway could be labeled aquavit. After receiving correspondence from an aquavit producer, which explained that Norwegian law allows aquavit to retain the flavor of caraway, dill or both, they amended the entry for “aquavit” on pages 4-13 to read: ‘A caraway and/or dill flavored distilled spirits product.'” Beverage Master
In easy to imbibe terms: aquavit is essentially an infused vodka that must contain a few key botanicals, and in that regard it is closest to gin.
Neutral base + caraway +/- dill = aquavit
Other botanicals can be added such as citrus, star anise, fennel, orris root, black pepper–the sky is the limit really. But just like gin typically has a noticeable flavor of juniper, aquavit will typically have a noticeable flavor of caraway and/or dill.
You with me?
Great, now let’s talk details.
Aquavit By Country
In Norway, the base spirit must be distilled from potato, 95% of which must come from Norway and, depending on the classification type, must be aged in barrels for at least six or 12 months. The Norweigans also like to send their aquavit or akevitt barrels on ocean voyages, (across the Equator and back) and prefer Sherry barrels for aging these line aquavits.
Iceland also favors the potato to distill their base spirit, although they flavor their aquavit or brennivín heavily with cumin and caraway and they do not add sugar or anise. Brennivín is also refered to as “Black Death,” a hold over nickname from the partial repeal of their Prohibition (1915-1988) in the 1930s, during which time the government legalized spirits and placed black labels on the bottles.
While Finland is the largest producer of caraway in the world, the country only really started producing aquavit or Akvavit for retail in the last ten years so the category is pretty wide open. The first distillery in Helsinki opened in 2014.
In Sweden, aquavit is known as brännvin or snaps. In the 1400’s, the Swedes were using aquavit to light their gunpowder! The beverage took off like, well, wild fire and by the late 1800’s the country was producing 33 times the amount of aquavit as there were people living in Sweden. That’s lit. It is typically unaged and contains more anise and fennel, the latter of which must be included by law in Swedish aquavit. As a style, Swedish aquavit tends to be milder and sweeter than others in the region, due to their water source.
In Denmark, aquavit is also called snaps (but not all things called snaps are aquavit, confusing – I know). It is typically distilled from grain and unaged. It tends to be crisp, assertive, and clear and also light on the caraway. There is a long history of home distilling in Denmark, mainly to avoid taxation by the crown.
Which brings me to the good old U S of A, where aquavit is known as aquavit… but is it known at all? What is aquavit in the Untied States? The TTB’s loose ruling on the category has left it pretty open to interpretations, our bases range from grain to potato to the base of our national spirit: corn. As a category, US aquavit is pretty new: only begining in Portland, Oregon in 2007 thanks to a pause in imported Scandinavian sprits and one determined distiller who was waiting for his whiskey to age. Crafty, Mr. Krogstad, very crafty…
So just how do you drink Aquavit?
In every Scandinavian country, aquavit is traditionally enjoyed chilled and neat, and it usually accompanies celebrations like Christmas, midsummer, and Þorrablót, an Icelandic midwinter feast. Hákarl, Iceland’s infamous dish of fermented shark, is traditionally washed down with a shot of brennivín during the aforementioned midwinter festival. Yum. The Danes prefer to enjoy their snaps with beer or just with a meal, unless it is winter, in which case the aquavit is served with coffee as kaffepunch. In Sweden, aquavit is usually enjoyed with a snapsvior, or “drinking song.” In case you were curious, there are over 10,000 of these “snap songs.” In Norway, I had aquavit post taco-Friday, they typically drink their barrel aged aquavit at room temp out of tulip shaped glasses.
Here at The Crafty Cask, we like to use use craft aquavit to make (you guessed it) cocktails! Our Bunny Mary features New Alchemy Distilling’s Fyllengst Aquavit, which is distilled from wheat and rice, alongside zesty carrot juice and spice. The herbal qualities in aquavit make it perfect for cocktail exploration! Looking for an easy starting point for aquavit cocktails? Try it in a classic sour cocktail!
You could even write your own snapsvior while you’re at it!
We’re Team Crafty Cask
we like aquavit in our glass
add a shaker just for fun
now the ice
gee that’s nice
Tippler Nation shakes it up
and pours the aquavit cocktail in the cup!
Ok Ok…we’ll stick to cocktails! Tell us about your adventures with aquavit in the comments below or grab our March SipScout kit to try some of our favorite aquavit yourself, learn how to make the Bunny Mary, and chat with us and the makers about this exciting and growing category live!
Jena is an event host & contributing writer for The Crafty Cask, as well as an award-winning bartender, cocktail educator, Cicerone Certified Beer Server, and Executive American Whiskey Steward. Based in NYC, Jena has been working in the craft alcohol world for the last 15 years with recipes appearing in Manhattan restaurant/bars & multiple publications. She is the 2019 Nikka Perfect Serve Global Runner Up and a 2020 Cognac Connection winner.