Snaps Visa: A toast to community

Aquavit, Cocktails, and Nordic Snaps Culture by Lexi of the Old Ballard Liquor Co.

Photo: Charlie Langton A Midsummer (Sankt Hans Aften) Skål in Decorah, Iowa, 2014.

Photo: Charlie Langton
A Midsummer (Sankt Hans Aften) Skål in Decorah, Iowa, 2014.

One of the best memories I have of my time in Sweden was one warm spring evening, when the northern sun doesn’t set until after 9:00 p.m. in May, sitting outside at the picnic table in the backyard. Two families had gotten together to enjoy a late dinner and enjoy the evening rays of the late Scandinavian sunset near the beach at Tylösand over a meal of green salad and grilled fish proudly prepared by Lars on an American-style grill.

While the food was cooking, Åsa fetched two bottles of aquavit from the kitchen freezer and a tray of tiny, handblown v-shaped snaps (aquavit) glasses for the guests. The bottles had been submerged up to the neck in pitchers of water the night before and placed in the freezer until the water froze solid. In the kitchen, she took the pitchers off, leaving a beautiful crackled sheath of ice around each bottle. These frozen blocks were placed directly on the slatted table where guests could easily reach the bottles to pour tiny shots while the melting ice dripped into the grass below.

The tiny snaps glasses held only a fraction of what an American would consider a “shot”—maybe only half an ounce or less—and the glasses were drained and filled many times during the meal, accompanied by toasts, jokes, and boisterous sing-alongs. This was how I learned my first “snapsvisa” or drinking song: surrounded by friends and family eager to teach the American girl about Swedish culture. As twilight settled in, coats were fetched and candles lit; we were unwilling to go back inside. Someone brought out a guitar, and we sang and visited late into the night.

Being raised in the United States, I had never experienced much in the way of the deeply rooted traditions around aquavit and drinking culture in Scandinavia. My grandparents were never really drinkers and although family meals of fresh cod with dill and green salads were still enjoyed outside during the summer, they were very religious and alcohol was never served. Around the turn of the century, there was a firm belief that alcohol was evil and a sin, and although I never remember my grandparents voicing any specific reason for their abstinence, they certainly embodied a certain attitude of disapproval and fear toward all things alcoholic.

What we missed out on during those Camano Island family dinners, and what is so delightful about aquavit in Scandinavia, is that it’s a community event. It’s not just a drink and not something that is typically consumed in solitude. It’s a festive party beverage, always taken with a great deal of ritual alongside family and friends at special occasions and holidays. We don’t really have anything like Nordic aquavit culture in the United States: we tend to drink as an ancillary to another activity, while in Scandinavian countries the drink is the activity. The complexities of the Scandinavian toast, or skål, the thousands of variations upon drinking songs, the types of flavors served for different holidays, all combine to create a rich tapestry of cultural and community tradition.

In today’s modern society, with our advanced understanding of physiology, the social ills of alcohol consumption are no longer fought with religion, but with science and education. Aquavit has experienced a resurgence in popularity in Nordic countries, due not only to more relaxed attitudes toward drinking but also to the importance of national and cultural identity. The rituals vary slightly from region to region, but all are definitively Scandinavian and exist nowhere else in the world. So for this year’s holiday, consider coming together over a toast and know that in doing so, you are forging a connection with other Nords that crosses the distance of oceans and eons, to participate in a community ritual that is—and likely always will be—quintessentially Scandinavian.

Lexi is the owner and founder of the Old Ballard Liquor Co. in Seattle, which produces more varieties of aquavit than any distillery in the U.S. After growing up with the Scandinavian-American farming culture of the Skagit Valley and a three-year residency in Sweden, she settled back into Seattle life where she now operates the Old Ballard distillery and a Nordic café and fine dining Scandinavian restaurant called Tumble Swede, and travels the U.S. teaching classes on contemporary Scandinavian food and drink.

This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.