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Akvavit gets its distinctive flavour from spices and herbs, and the main spice should (according to the European Union) be caraway or dill. It typically contains 40% alcohol by volume. The EU has established a minimum of 37.5% ABV for akvavit to be named as such.
The word aquavit is derived from Latin aqua vitae, "water of life." The word whisky is derived from uisge beatha, the Goidelic equivalent of this phrase. Likewise, clear fruit brandy is called "eau de vie" (French for "water of life"). An apocryphal story holds that aquavit actually means "water from the vine," a picturesque folk etymology derived through conflation of Latin vītae (genitive of vita) with the Italian vite (wine grapes - used as poetic synonymous with "wine").
Aquavit is an important part of Scandinavian drinking culture, where it is often drunk during festive gatherings, such as Christmas dinners and weddings. In Sweden, Denmark and Germany aquavit is cooled down and often sipped slowly from a small shot glass. This is usually attributed to tradition. In Norway where most of the aquavit is matured in oak casks (pre sherry), the drink is at room temperature and served in tulip-shaped glasses or shot glasses. Aquavit arguably complements dark beer well, and its consumption is very often preceded by a swig of beer. Some drink beer after a sip of aquavit, but purists generally lament this practice, claiming the beer will ruin the flavour and aftertaste.
Akvavit, like vodka, is distilled from either grain (Sweden, Denmark and Germany) or potatoes (Norway, Denmark, Sweden). 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; it is typically aged in old casks that do not colour the finished spirit or not aged at all.
|“||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 very 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.
Aquavit is seldom produced outside of Scandinavia, although there are domestic imitations of it in some countries, especially in areas that have a large community of Scandinavian immigrants like the USA. An exception, however, is Northern Germany, and in particular the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which was controlled by the kings 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 Scandinavian aquavits, since it is based on an original Danish recipe. Brands from Schleswig-Holstein, however, often have a long history, comparable to their Scandinavian 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% alcohol by volume, marginally less than Scandinavian aquavits.
Some local off-licences in the northeast of England where there are strong historic links with Norway have been known to sell Norwegian akevitt occasionally. The drink tends to be popular amongst older people. In Canada aquavit is produced by Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery, and Island Spirits Distillery. Small distilleries in the United States also produce aquavit, especially in parts of the country with high populations of people of Scandinavian heritage, such as the Gamle Ode distillery in Minnesota. The Hardware Distillery Co. of Hoodsport, Washington also makes Aquavit on the shores of The Hood Canal.