The easiest way to describe this spirit is to loosely compare it to gin. What juniper is to Gin, caraway is to aquavit. The American Distillers Institute categorizes Aquavit as “a distilled spirit that derives its main characteristic flavor from caraway or dill and bottled at less than 42% ABV.” Commercial examples can use a variety of fermentables to create alcohol, a variety of botanicals, and can be barrel aged or unaged.
The first aquavits were made from distilling wine into a spirit. Since little to no grapes are grown in Scandinavia, all grapes had to be imported from other countries. This made aquavit expensive, and in turn, used sparingly, mostly for medicinal purposes. From the start of aquavit’s production it has always been infused with local herbs and spices, maybe for health, maybe for flavor. As time went on distillers learned to use grain rather than grapes as fermentables. With the use of grain aquavit grew in popularity and availability, but grain was also not an ideal distilling substrate because of the short growing season and harsh winters in Scandinavia. Governments had to frequently prohibit distilling to avoid grain shortages.
There is some argument over where aquavit came from, with both Sweden and Denmark claiming to be the founder. The first Swedish license to sell aquavit was granted in 1498. The Danes aquavit heritage can be traced to the 1400’s also; culminating in King Christian III of Denmark establishing a royal aquavit distillery in 1555.
By the mid 1700s grain shortages were becoming more and more prevalent in aquavit producing areas. In 1760’s, a Norwegian minister started to educate the public on the benefits of potato cultivation in the area. Potatoes are easily grown, inexpensive and have consistent quality. It wasn’t long before these tubers saw widespread use in aquavit production.
With this new way to make aquavit, production and popularity bloomed. In Norway it is stated that there were small distilleries in every small farm, village, and manor house. In 1800 there were 2500 aquavit producers in Denmark, 273 in Copenhagen alone. By 1920 most of these small distilleries in Denmark had been absorbed into a large Danish distiller’s conglomerate that is now responsible for half of the world’s supply of aquavit.
Aquavit from different regions of Scandinavia have different characteristics that make for somewhat different versions. Many different versions exist in these areas. These are merely generalizations.
The Danes prefer a clear spirit with a strong caraway aroma. The liquor is grain based, and usually has some dill and coriander to compliment the caraway.
Swedish aquavit is Grain based, and slightly sweeter than other versions. Anise and fennel are in the mix with caraway. Some examples have a light straw color from some short barrel aging.
Popular versions from Norway are usually aged in sherry barrels that imparts an amber color to the spirit. Because the growing season is so short here, potato is usually the substrate of choice. Caraway is ever present but sometimes cumin and citrus are used.
One of the most popular Norwegian brands of Aquavit was created by accident. Barrels of aquavit were sent on ships to Indonesia to be sold, but unfortunately, they didn’t sell. These barrels were loaded on a ship and brought back to Norway. Once arriving home, it was found that with this long barrel aging the aquavit had taken on a new flavor that was smoother and more appealing. The brand was named “Linie” (Norwegian for equator) and to this day is aged in sherry barrels that are loaded on ships for four and a half months, crossing the equator twice, before being bottled in Norway.
Serve alone in chilled shot or stemmed spirits glass. Also added to hot beverages such as Kaffepunch and Glogg.
Similar to Gin with the infusion of botanicals such as Caraway, Dill, aniseed, Citrus Peel, Cardamom, and fennel.
Aquavit is generally consumed ice cold, straight up in a small glass. It also can be accompanied with a beer, or as a meal paring during Easter or Christmas festivities.
If consumed with a group, most will participate in this Scandinavian social drinking ritual: Aquavit is served in small glasses ice cold. The host of the gathering raises his/her glass, which spurs all other guests to raise their glasses and make eye contact with all in attendance. The host then exclaims “Skål!” to which everyone sips, followed by more eye contact. The glasses are then set down until the host starts the ritual again. It’s not uncommon for a guest to drink 3-4 shots in a setting such as this.
In colder months Aquavit is also mixed in hot beverages. Two of these such beverages are Kaffepunch and Glögg.
Kaffepunch is a Danish Christmas coffee cocktail. The original recipe instructs the maker to put a silver coin into a mug, add hot coffee until the coin in the mug can’t be seen, then add enough aquavit until the coin can be seen again.
Glögg is a heated red wine beverage popular in Norway. To make Glögg, red wine is gently heated with a variety of mulling spices and sugar. Once flavor is extracted from the spices, and the sugar is dissolved, a healthy dose of aquavit is added to the mix. The Glögg is usually transferred to a punch bowl, where a garnish of raisins and almonds are added, then ladled into glasses to serve.
A modern cocktail use of aquavit is to substitute for gin or vodka in classic drinks where a more savory character profile is desired. Some popular cocktails are: Martini, Negroni, Tom Collins, and the fabulous Bloody Mary.