Aquavit is a Scandinavian distilled spirit primarily flavored with caraway and other herbs and spices, offering a taste most familiar in rye bread. Though it's been around for centuries, aquavit is receiving renewed attention worldwide and becoming more popular than ever. It's also no longer produced strictly in northern Europe.
Traditionally, aquavit is enjoyed straight, either chilled or at room temperature, depending on the country. It is also finding its way into cocktails as bartenders discover the spirit's versatility. It's often likened to both vodka and gin, so it appeals to a variety of drinkers.
The Many Names for Aquavit
The name aquavit (or aquavite) stems from the Latin aqua vitae, or "water of life." The phrase is commonly used for any strong alcoholic beverage, though aquavit is one of the closest derivations.
Aquavit is primarily distilled in Scandinavian countries, as well as northern Germany, so it goes by a number of names. In Sweden, it's akvavit, while Denmark uses either that name or snaps (similar to schnaps). Norway prefers akevitt, though you'll find the word nubbe; in Finland, it's akvavitti; Iceland translates it to ákavíti.
The History of Aquavit
Like many liquors, aquavit was first created centuries ago as a medicinal tonic. Some reports place it in the 13th century, credited to a Spanish alchemist.
The first written record dates to 1531 in a letter from Danish Lord Eske Bille. When explaining the spiced liquor to the Norwegian Archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson, Bille wrote, "... is a help for all sort of illnesses which a man can have both internally and externally." Aquavit was even touted as a cure for alcoholism and today continues to be used as a digestive aid and enjoyed as a digestif.
In Nordic countries, alcohol has long been flavored with local ingredients, often following the seasons, in order to make the alcohol easier to drink. Caraway was a natural choice because it's a signature spice in Scandinavian cuisine.
Small distilleries made these spirits for many years and over time, aquavit held out as a favorite, with each country developing their own style. The distilling process was refined as technology advanced during the 1800s and commercial production slowly took the place of small, personal stills.
How Aquavit Is Made
Aquavit is produced very much like vodka or gin. A distillate of neutral grains is commonly used; in Norway, potatoes are preferred. The flavoring ingredients are then infused into the spirit.
While caraway is the signature spice of aquavit, dill is also very common. The European Union (EU) law requires that caraway and/or dill are included, though other herbs, spices, and citrus flavorings are used as well. Among those are anise, cardamom, citrus peels (orange, sometimes lemon), clove, coriander, cumin, and fennel.
Aquavit is typically not barrel-aged, leaving a clear-colored spirit that features the unadulterated taste of the spices used to flavor it. Norway, once again, offers the exception and often ages aquavit in used sherry casks, leading to a golden color.
Most famous among the aged Norwegian brands is Linie Aquavit, which claims to be the oldest aquavit in the world. The spirit is actually aged on ships sailing the seas. It's a tradition that started by accident in 1807 when a ship carrying the potato aquavit returned from a voyage to the East Indies after being unable to find a buyer at its destination. The practice continues today, with a four-month round trip from Norway to Australia after spending one year aging on land. It's said that the rocking from the oceans' waves imparts a unique taste to the aged aquavit.
Aquavit must be bottled at a minimum of 35 percent ABV (70 proof), though most often reaches 42 percent to 45 percent ABV (84 to 90 proof).
The Different Styles of Aquavit
Aquavit has a dry profile—it is a liquor, not a liqueur because it is unsweetened. The regional differences in the production of aquavit result in various flavor profiles. Though each is dominated by caraway (or dill), the background often focuses on a secondary spice.
- Danish aquavit often has a stronger dill and coriander flavor. Aalborg is the most popular brand.
- Swedish aquavit has a pronounced anise and fennel flavor. It's the largest aquavit producer with around 20 brands.
- Norwegian aquavit leans toward a cumin and citrus peel profile. The aging not only mellows the spirit, but also imparts a vanilla undertone.
- Finnish aquavit has a cinnamon tone that's quite unique.
- Taffel is "table" aquavit which is aged in casks that are older than what is typically used. Oddly enough, this results in an aged spirit that remains colorless.
How to Drink Aquavit
Aquavit is traditionally taken in straight and there are cultural differences here as well.
- In Denmark and Sweden, it's most often a chilled shot served in stemmed liqueur glasses so it's not warmed by your hand. Swedish drinkers enjoy it with a beer chaser.
- When drinking Norwegian aged aquavit, room temperature is preferred in order to fully appreciate the flavor nuances imparted by the barrels.
- In Denmark, aquavit is also enjoyed in a coffee drink called kaffepunch, which uses a coin in the glass to measure the ingredients.
The cocktail scene is breaking from tradition and bringing aquavit into mixed drinks. It's most often being used as a substitute for gin or vodka in very well-known cocktails, including the martini, Negroni, and gin (or vodka) and tonic. It also makes a fascinating background in the bloody Mary, which originally started out with a gin base.
Aquavit Food Pairings
If you've had a hard time finding good drinks to pair with the distinct flavors of Scandinavian food, aquavit is your answer. It's often served alongside appetizers and the caraway-dill profile is a good pairing for preserved fish favorites, including lutefisk. The region's cheeses are perfect for aquavit as well, even the most pungent such as gammelost (old cheese) and the super-stinky gamle ole.