Akvavit or aquavit (/ - -/,; also akevitt in Norwegian) is a distilled spirit that is principally produced in Scandinavia, where it has been produced since the 15th century. Akvavit is distilled from grain and potatoes, and is flavoured with a variety of herbs. It is also popular in Germany.
Akvavit gets its distinctive flavour from spices and herbs, and the dominant flavour must (according to the European Union) come from a distillate of caraway and/or dill seed. It typically contains 40% alcohol by volume or 80 proof (U.S.) The EU has established a minimum of 37.5% ABV for akvavit to be named as such.
The word aquavit derives from the Latin aqua vitae, "water of life." Compare the words whisky or whiskey, from Gaelic uisce beatha, which has the same meaning. Likewise, clear fruit brandy is called eau de vie (French for "water of life"). A story holding that the term really means "water from the vine" – from a conflation of the Latin vītae (genitive of vita) and the Italian term vite (meaning grapevine) – is no more than a picturesque piece of folk etymology.
Akvavit is an important part of Nordic drinking culture, where it is often drunk during festive gatherings, such as Christmas dinners and the Midsummer celebration, and as an aperitif. In Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany aquavit is chilled and often drunk in a single gulp from a small shot glass. This is usually attributed to tradition. It is not generally chilled in Norway, but enjoyed slowly. In Sweden commonly the aquavit is consumed immediately following a song, called a snapsvisa. The most well-known song is Helan Går. In Finland and Sweden, aquavit consumed from a shot glass is also commonly associated with crayfish parties, which are traditionally held during late August. In Denmark aquavit is called snaps or akvavit, and is primarily consumed in December during Christmas lunches or around Easter during Easter lunches. It is consumed year round though, mainly for lunches of traditional Danish dishes where beer is also always on the table. Drinking it without food or at a bar will be considered a little strange. In Norway, where most aquavit is matured in oak casks, the drink is served at room temperature in tulip-shaped glasses or shot glasses. Aquavit arguably complements beer well, and its consumption is very often preceded by a swig of beer.
Akvavit is distilled from either grain or potatoes. After distillation, it is flavoured with herbs, spices, or fruit oil. Commonly seen flavours are caraway, cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel, and lemon or orange peel. Dill and grains of paradise are also used. The Danish distillery Aalborg makes an akvavit distilled with amber.
The recipes and flavours differ between brands, but caraway is typically the dominant flavour. Akvavit usually has a yellowish hue, but this can vary from clear to light brown, depending on how long it has been aged in oak casks (Norway) or the amount of colorant used. Normally, a darker colour suggests a higher age or the use of young casks, though artificial caramel colouring is permitted. Clear akvavit is called taffel, meaning table aquavit. Taffel aquavit is typically aged in old casks that do not colour the finished spirit or it is not aged at all.
Origin and traditional variants
Dear lord, will your grace know that I send your grace some water with messenger Jon Teiste which is called Aqua vite and the same water helps for all his illness that a man can have internally.— Lord of Bergenshus castle, Eske Bille
The earliest known reference to "aquavit" is found in a 1531 letter from the Danish Lord of Bergenshus castle, Eske Bille to Olav Engelbrektsson, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Norway. The letter, dated April 13, accompanying a package, offers the archbishop "some water which is called Aqua Vite and is a help for all sort of illness which a man can have both internally and externally".
While this claim for the medicinal properties of the drink may be rather inflated, aquavit is popularly believed to ease the digestion of rich foods. In Denmark, it is traditionally associated with Christmas and Easter lunches. In Norway, it is drunk at celebrations, particularly Christmas, Easter 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 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 aquavit 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 rib of lamb (pinnekjøtt). The spices and the alcohol are said to help digest the meal, which is very rich in fat.
Among the most important brands are Løiten, Lysholm and Gilde from Norway, Aalborg from Denmark and O.P. Anderson 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, making them generally darker in colour. While members of all three nations can be found to claim that "their" style of aquavit 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.
Peculiar to the Norwegian tradition are Linje Aquavits (such as "Løiten Linje" and "Lysholm Linje"). Linje Aquavit is named after the tradition of sending oak barrels of aquavit with ships from Norway to Australia and back again, thereby passing the equator ("linje") twice before being bottled. The constant movement, high humidity and fluctuating temperature cause the spirit to extract more flavour and contributes to accelerated maturation.
Norwegian aquavit distillers Arcus has carried out a test where they tried to emulate the rocking of the casks aboard the "Linje" ships while the oak barrels were subjected to the weather elements as they would aboard a ship. The finished product was, according to Arcus, far from the taste that a proper linje aquavit should have.
Therefore, to this day boats loaded with "Line Aquavit" set sail from Norway to Australia and back again before they are tapped on bottle and sold as part of the Norwegian Christmas traditions.
Outside the Nordic countries
Aquavit is seldom produced outside of the Nordic countries, although there are domestic imitations of it in some countries, especially in areas that have a large community of Nordic immigrants, such as the United States. An exception, however, is Northern Germany, and in particular the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which was part of Denmark until the 19th century (see: History of Schleswig-Holstein) and still has a notable Danish minority. Among the most important German brands are Bommerlunder from Flensburg, Kieler Sprotte from Kiel and Malteserkreuz. The latter brand has been produced in Berlin since 1924 by a subsidiary of Sweden's Vin & Sprit AB (now Pernod Ricard), the producer of many Swedish akvavits, and can be considered a German imitation of the Nordic aquavits, since it is based on an original Danish recipe. Brands from Schleswig-Holstein, however, often have a long history, comparable to their Nordic counterparts. Bommerlunder, for instance, has been made since 1760. Aquavit is also an important part of the traditional cuisine of Schleswig-Holstein. German aquavit is virtually always distilled from fermented grain, and generally has an alcohol content of 38% by volume, marginally less than Scandinavian aquavits.
Psychopomp Microdistillery in Bristol, England, started producing an aquavit (termed 'Aqvavit' due to EU regulations) in 2017. In Canada aquavit is produced by Crosscut Distillery Sudbury, Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery, Island Spirits Distillery, Long Table Distillery, Spirit of York Distillery Co. in Toronto, Ontario, and Sheringham Distillery on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Small distilleries in the United States also produce aquavit, especially in parts of the country with high populations of people of Nordic heritage, such as the distilleries in Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, Oregon, New Hampshire and Washington. See List of Akvavit Producers in the United States for specifics. In Newfoundland, Canada The Newfoundland Distillery Co. produces aquavit from barley, honey and juniper-smoked peat from Newfoundland.
- Danish: Akvavit, Snaps, Brændevin or Dram
- Norwegian: Akevitt or Dram
- Swedish: Akvavit, or Kryddat brännvin
- Dutch: Aquavit
- English: Aquavit or Akvavit
- Faroese: Akvavitt
- Estonian: Akvaviit
- Finnish: Akvaviitti
- French: Aquavit
- German: Aquavit, Kö(ö)m
- Icelandic: Ákavíti
- Italian: Acquavite
- Polish: Okowita
- Portuguese: Aquavit
- Ukraine: Оковита
- Brännvin, a more general term that includes unflavoured brands
- Poitín, an Irish distilled spirit occupying a similar place in the culture
- Lichine, Alexis. Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), pp. 80–81. ISBN 0394562623
- EU spirits regulation (PDF) Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 January 2008 on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 1576/89, Appendix II No. 24, Retrieved 2014-02-09.
- Nickles, Jane (2015). Certified Specialist of Spirits Study Guide. Society of Wine Educators. p. 92. Archived from the original on 2016-01-18.
- Blue, Anthony Dias (2004). The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 42. ISBN 0-06-054218-7.
- "Traditions – Nordstjernan". www.nordstjernan.com.
- Philbrick, Hope S. (2008-08-08). "Drink to your health the Scandinavian way – with aquavit". SFGate. Retrieved 8 August 2008.
- "Akvavit". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2010-01-10.
- A transcription of the original letter can be found here: Diplomatarium Norvegicum – XI p. 630, Date: 13 April 1531. Place: Bergenhus.
"[...] Kiere herre werdis ether nade wiide att ieg szende ether nade nogit watn mett Jonn Teiste som kallis Aqua vite och hielper szamme watn for alle hande kranchdom som ith menniske kandt haffue indwortis. [...]"
("[...] Dear lord, will your grace know that I send your grace some water with Jon Teiste which is called Aqua vite and helps the same water for all his illness that a man can have internally and externally. [...]")
- "Psychopomp Microdistillery". www.microdistillery.co.uk.
- "Aquavit Archives". Okanagan Spirits.
- "Our Spirits". Long Table Distillery.
- "Spirits". Sheringham Distillery.