What Is Aquavit?
Aquavit or akvavit is a distilled spirit from Europe’s Scandinavian and Nordic countries that plays an important part of their cultural heritage. Outside of these countries, akvavit isn’t particularly well known unless there are strong Scandinavian communities nearby.
Akvavit plays a particularly central role in Scandinavian festivities and celebrations. Indeed, akvavit sales tend to skyrocket during Easter, Midsummer, and Christmas when they are usually enjoyed with intense toasts and drinking songs.
Strictly speaking, akvavit isn’t too dissimilar to vodka. However, this is best left unsaid when in earshot of Swedes or Danes! Nevertheless, it isn’t the same either due to the way the spirit is infused with flavourings after distillation.
Aquavit Vs Akvavit: How To Spell Aquavit
You may have noticed that there is some inconsistency in the way “aquavit” is spelled. In the UK and USA, it is usually spelled “aquavit”. However, it may also often be referred to as “akvavit”.
Indeed, both can be used interchangeably as they refer to the same thing. Furthermore, each Scandinavian neighbour has its own spelling for the word:
- Danish: Akvavit
- Finnish: Akvaviitti
- Icelandic: Ákavíti
- Norwegian: Akevitt
- Swedish: Akvavit
In all cases, the word derives from the Latin “Aqua Vitae”, which means “water of life”. This has roots that are very similar to the Gaelic “Uisce Beatha” as well as the French “eau de vie”.
That being said, each country has its own cultural heritage and traditions regarding the way they produce akvavit. As a result, some of the varieties are surprisingly different and we’ll detail those below!
Also, you may have noticed above that none of them use “aquavit”, which is actually an anglicised corruption of the word. The only exception to this are the Germans who actually use “Aquavit” and produce their own in the Northern Schleswig-Holstein region.
Nevertheless, we’ll be using “akvavit” going forward since its shared by both the Swedish and the Danes.
The History Of Akvavit
Although akvavit likely existed well before then, it was first recorded in 1531 in a letter from the Danish Lord Eske Bille. Writing to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Norway, Olav Engelbrektsson, Bille included a bottle of the spirit stating that this “Aqua Vite” helped for both internal and external illnesses.
Interestingly, the alcoholic drink sent to Archbishop Engelbrektsson may not have been akvavit as we recognise it today. Instead, it may have actually been imported wine that was distilled, which was a common practice until Swedish soldiers learned to make akvavit from grain mash.
Since its conception, akvavit’s supposed medicinal properties have long been associated with digestion. As a result, it quickly became the digestif of choice to accompany large and greasy meals.
Throughout the 16th Century, distilled grain spirits grew in popularity and it became common to infuse the alcohol with herbs and spices.
This practice arguably even inspired the invention of jenever in Holland, which would later lead to the creation of gin in the United Kingdom. However, these were produced by infusing the herbs and spices when distilling the alcohol a second time.
Eventually, almost every Nordic and Scandinavian farm would have its own small distillery for producing akvavit. While most would use distil alcohol using grain mash, the most northern countries would instead use potatoes.
Akvavit’s properties varied depending on both the location and its regional traditions. In some cases, the spirit would be barrel-aged for several years to produce a distinctive flavour.
By the 19th Century, the distillation process had improved considerably. Consequently, larger scale distilleries began to replace small-scale farmyard akvavit, which resulted in more standardised national customs.
What Does Akvavit Taste Like?
Given that akvavit varies from country to country, it doesn’t always taste the same. Generally, most will be flavoured with caraway and dill, which results in these being the most distinctive flavours.
However, different regional practices lead to a variety of flavours. For instance, Norwegian akvavit is often barrel-aged, which results in a mature, rounded flavour.
Meanwhile, Danish akvavit is often a clear, un-aged liquid with a strong caraway note. As for Swedish akvavit, it tends to be somewhat between the two with a straw colour and sweet palate.
If you want to learn more about each of country’s varieties of akvavit, we’ll be exploring these in greater detail below.
How Akvavit Is Made & Its Ingredients
Like vodka, akvavit can be produced by either distilling potatoes or grain mash to produce ethanol, which is then seasoned with various herbs and spices. While there are no official guidelines, potatoes are preferred in northern Nordic countries while lower Scandinavian cultures will use grain mash.
Akvavit is sometimes mistakenly compared to gin with the erroneous claim that it is distilled a second time to infuse the flavours. However, it is traditionally only distilled once and then infused with seasoning. Once sufficiently flavoured, the liquid is filtered with charcoal and then diluted with pure water.
Overall, caraway and dill are the main ingredients used for flavouring akvavit. In some instances, brands may also include anise, fennel, citrus peels, grains of paradise, cumin seeds, and even cinnamon.
Although most akvavit is then bottled and shipped immediately, some varieties are occasionally barrel-aged. In Norway, this has essentially become the standard and most traditional practice, which results in a darker spirit. Meanwhile, Danish akvavit is clear because it’s usually bottled straight away.
Typical Alcohol Volume Percentage
Generally, akvavit will be at least 42% ABV but may be as high as 45% or 47%. As far as we know, there are no legal requirements for akvavit’s strength and it largely depends on the brand and its own traditions.
Different Types & Varieties Of Akvavit
As we’ve already mentioned on several occasions, there are several varieties due to the different countries that produce akvavit. In this section, we’ll explore their similarities and differences in much greater detail.
Although Denmark is arguably one of the oldest consumers of akvavit, it is no longer the biggest producer. Considered the most bracing variety, Danish akvavit is usually clear in appearance and is hardly ever aged.
Denmark’s most well-known akvavit would be Ålborg that is distilled on the country’s northern coast in Jutland. This is largely because it is the only brand that can be legally exported from the country due to its strict regulations.
Unfortunately, Denmark’s akvavit industry has been in decline over the years due to corporate neglect. For instance, the Swedish company, V&S, which produces Ålborg, was purchased by Pernod Ricard. However, this was mainly to acquire Absolut vodka.
It wasn’t until 2013, when Norwegian brand Arcus bought Ålborg, that its production began to improve again.
Danish akvavit is making efforts to revitalise its industry. Indeed, a number of micro-distilleries have started to emerge, which craft unique concoctions with exotic ingredients.
Like the USA, Iceland went through a period of prohibition that was repealed, albeit partially, in 1935. It was then that Brennivin, Iceland’s most celebrated distillery, began producing akvavit. While it wasn’t exported to North America until 2014, it was embraced by Icelandic culture for decades.
Icelandic aquavit, spelled “Ákavíti”, is usually produced from potatoes given the country’s northern location. Given the country’s very alkaline 8.9 pH water, it is often considered to have its own unique flavour profile.
Like Danish akvavit, Icelandic versions are rarely aged. Furthermore, they have a distinctive caraway flavour, which tends to come across much stronger due to the very soft water.
Ironically, all alcoholic beverages in Iceland were legally required to have stark, black labels in a similar way to cigarette packets in Europe today. However, rather than dissuade Icelanders from drinking alcohol as was intended, it has actually become something of a cultural icon.
Interestingly, beer was still illegal in Iceland until 1989. Therefore, locals would often use akvavit to add a kick to non-alcoholic alternatives.
Despite having a relatively low production of akvavit, Norway hosts one of the most distinctive varieties of the spirit. Furthermore, it is legally required to be produced from Norwegian potatoes.
Traditionally, Norwegian akvavit is barrel-aged, which is a practice that was supposedly started by the Arcus Distillery in 1805 purely by accident. This began when a Lysholm trade ship sailed to the West Indes loaded with casks of akvavit.
However, the akvavit caught very little interest when it arrived in 1807 and was returned to Norway.
Yet, upon opening the casks, the Norwegians discovered that the journey had actually improved the flavour of the akvavit. Thanks the constant movement and fluctuations in temperature and humidity, the spirit’s maturation in the casks had been accelerated.
Arcus has since continued this practice and its Oloroso casks are still shipped to Australia and back as deck cargo over four months during its full 16-month ageing period.
In fact, Arcus had even tested the possibility of simulating the process by rocking casks at the distillery. During this process, they subjected the casks to the same weather conditions. However, the resulting beverage was far from satisfactory.
Today, the process is referred to as “Linie” or line-style akvavit, which refers to barrels of the spirit being literally shipped across the equator and back. Usually, the exact route that was taken will be detailed on each bottle’s label.
Today, Sweden is the biggest producer of akvavit and hosts about 20 brands alone. In many ways, akvavit has endured cultural changes and remains very much ingrained into Sweden’s contemporary customs.
Given the spread of the brands throughout Sweden, it is also the only country to arguably have its own regional varieties with a strong north-south divide.
The identities of these different akvavit varieties are very much reflected by the country’s varying climate and topology as well as the ingredients that were historically available.
For instance, akvavit from the harsh northern part of the country is often produced from potatoes and is often barrel-aged. In terms of aromas, it’s particularly spicy and will usually be made using caraway, fennel, dried spices and herbs.
Meanwhile, southern Sweden is lush with rich forests and a temperate climate. As a result, its akvavit is often praised for its sweet and fruity flavours, which are produced by using citrus, berries and fresh fruit.
Unlike Norway, Swedish akvavit has a very relaxed legal definition with no particular restrictions. Instead, production is more-or-less decided by tradition and the expectations of the local communities to which is distributed.
Throughout its complex history and up until the late 19th Century, Northern Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region was essentially under Danish control. Today, the Danish influence has resulted in a number of German brands of akvavit including Bommerlunder, which has been produced since 1760.
One Berlin brand, Malteserkreuz, began production in 1924 using a Danish recipe under Sweden’s Vin & Sprit AB, which is now owned by Pernod Ricard. However, its production was relocated several times before settling in Norway in 2015.
Nevertheless, many German brands like Bommerlunder have a equatable history to their Scandinavian counterparts and shouldn’t be considered as imitations. Generally, German Aquavit is often a lighter than its Scandinavian equivalents at around 38% ABV. Furthermore, it’s almost always distilled from grain mash.
American & International Aquavit
Akvavit was a somewhat elusive and obscure spirit in the USA until relatively recently. Before then, it tended to be only consumed among communities with Nordic heritage.
In fact, akvavit is soon expecting a renaissance thanks to the recent gin boom. With a growing interest in new spirits for cocktails, akvavit is at the front of the queue to be embraced by mixologists.
Most American aquavit tends to be produced on a very small scale in micro-distilleries rather than being part of large productions. More often than not, the distilleries will produce other spirits where the aquavit is a part of their full range.
Similarly, Canada hosts a small number of distillers who produce akvavit. For instance, the Newfoundland Distillery Co. produces akvavit that is flavoured with honey and juniper-smoked peat. This is an interesting but unsurprising company given Newfoundland’s distinctive Nordic heritage.
Conversely, a micro-distillery in Bristol, England has started producing aquavit too. Due to EU regulations, it is named “Aqvavit” instead but Psychopomp’s concoction is overall very similar.
How To Serve & Drink Akvavit
Although akvavit is enjoyed in a variety of countries with their own unique cultures, the way that it is enjoyed tends to be rather similar. As mentioned earlier in this guide, it is a popular beverage for social and festive gatherings.
While it is usually chilled and poured into shot glasses, Norwegian and other barrel-aged akvavit will normally be served at room temperature in tulip glasses. In either case, akvavit is rarely downed as a shot and most drinkers will usually slowly sip at their glasses throughout the meal.
Furthermore, is very rarely consumed on its own. Instead, akvavit will be often be accompanied by a meal or a snack. During late August, it may be paired with a seafood during what are known as crayfish parties. Meanwhile, it may also be consumed during Christmas lunch.
Surströmming or “sour herring”, which recently garnered infamy as a YouTube challenge, is also occasionally paired with akvavit. Given the fermented herring’s particularly strong taste and odour, akvavit is often used to conceal its flavour.
In most cases, akvavit will often be accompanied by a toast and song such as Helan Går. That said, more than 200 akvavit-related drinking songs have been recorded by Sweden’s Spirit Museum.
Finally, everybody involved (no matter the size of the gathering) has to make eye-contact before drinking. Don’t forget to say “Skal” beforehand!
Popular Akvavit Cocktail Recipes
Unlike its cousin, gin, akvavit is not a particularly popular base spirit for cocktails. However, many Scandinavian and foreign mixologists are actively seeking to raise awareness of the drink while also incorporate it into modern cocktails.
Below are a few suggestions on how you can successfully use akvavit in cocktails as an alternative approach:
A&T (Akvavit & Tonic)
Rather than using gin, why not try making an akvavit and tonic instead? Rather than having an overt juniper note, the tonic will instead bring the caraway or dill to the forefront. Indeed, this is a refreshing and somewhat original take on a classic.
Like the above, the gin or vodka can be substituted with akvavit for a more herbal and quite surprising result! We would avoid barrel-aged akvavit and instead opt for a Danish or possibly southern Swedish variety.
An out-of-the-box alternative to another classic, this works particularly well with Norwegian barrel-aged akvavit. With a touch of dry and sweet Madeira wine as well as some bay leaf liqueur, it offers a herby yet warming experience.
Similar Drinks & Akvavit Substitutes
Traditionally speaking, there are no real substitutes to akvavit when participating in Scandinavian social gatherings. However, if you need alternatives for cocktails or other circumstances, there’s plenty to choose from.
Firstly, we would consider gin as akvavit’s closest relative. While akvavit carries more anise aromas, the gin will be heavier on the juniper. If you are looking to retain this herbaceous property, gin would be our first choice.
However, vodka presents itself as a much more neutral substitute. Although we have been careful only to say it once, vodka is essentially an unflavoured akvavit. Therefore, it’s the perfect choice is you’re looking for something that’s much less invasive.
Alternatively, if you have time to prepare, we would recommend taking vodka and letting it steep in a concoction of herbs and spices for a few months. If you were to use caraway, dill, and other popular akvavit seasonings, you could probably get something that’s relatively close once it has been drained.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Akvavit?
As you may have read earlier in this article, akvavit’s supposed medicinal properties were its original claim to fame. Indeed, it was allegedly used as a medecine during the Black Death and was strangely believed to be a cure for alcoholism.
However, its medicinal properties have largely been debunked as the herbs impart far too few of their characteristics to have any positive effects. Nevertheless, akvavit is still believed to aid in digestion to this day, which is why it often accompanies hearty meals.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Aquavit
Given that the way akvavit is produced from country to country, its properties can greatly vary. However, even if aquavit is made with gluten grains, the distillation process would usually make it relatively safe to those with a sensitivity to the protein.
Still, some sufferers of celiac disease may still react poorly. Nevertheless, some brands like Krogstad pride themselves in using gluten-free grain.
Meanwhile, its calorie count is very low and a 20ml shot should contain as few as 48 calories with no presence of carbs. Again, this may depend on the way it is both aged and flavoured.
Where To Buy Akvavit
Unfortunately, akvavit is not overly popular in the USA and most of Europe. Therefore, it’s available in only limited quantities. In most cases, you’ll be lucky if a liquor store only sells a single brand of akvavit. Furthermore, you’ll be even luckier if it’s an authentic Scandinavian brand!
However, we’ve found that the online liquor retailer Drizly stocks a number of our favourite akvavit brands. As they work in partnership with local liquor stores, their selection tends to be quite large and delivery is pretty fast.
This is actually fantastic as other online retailers such as Reserve Bar don’t seem to stock any akvavit just yet.
Pricing: How Much Does Aquavit Cost?
Given its rarity and the fact that it tends to be exceptionally imported, akvavit prices can greatly vary. In most cases, a bottle of akvavit shouldn’t set you back more than $30.
However, certain small-batch and artisanal brands may cost you over $50. This is particularly true of Icelandic and Norwegian akvavit. Nevertheless, the growth of American aquavit has allowed for the introduction of cheaper options.
Top 10 Best Aquavit Brands
As mentioned above, we will now cover the top 10 best akvavit brands that you can buy online:
- O.P. Anderson [Swedish Aquavit]
- Aalborg [Danish Akvavit]
- Lysholm Linie [Norwegian Aquavit]
- Krogstad [American Akvavit]
- Brennivín [Icelandic Akvavit]
- Gamle Ode Dill [American Aquavit]
- Ole Bjørkevoll [American Akvavit]
- North Shore [American Aquavit]
- Bareksten Botanical [Norwegian Akvavit]
- Skadi Aquavit [American Aquavit]
Scroll down to see them all or jump ahead using the links above.