Snaps Visa: The aquavits of Sweden

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

Photo courtesy of Old Ballard   A selection of Swedish aquavits.

Photo courtesy of Old Ballard
A selection of Swedish aquavits.

Styles and definitions of aquavit vary greatly throughout Scandinavia, and regional specialties abound. Aquavits in Denmark are nothing like those in Sweden, which in turn have little in common with Norwegian varieties. Of the three major Scandinavian countries, Swedish aquavit is produced in the widest variety and can be broken out into two distinct types: spicy, often barrel-aged North-Central types and sweet, fruity Southern styles.

Regionalism in aquavit preference is abundantly clear when visiting Scandinavia; it’s not uncommon to find native drinkers who have experienced little or no aquavit outside of their familiar local favorites. Some of those differences are directed by varying legal definitions of aquavit from country to country: Norwegian aquavits are required to be made from Norwegian potatoes and aged in oak barrels while Danish aquavits are rarely barreled but can be spiced with either dill or caraway. For each community, their legal definitions evolved from older, more culturally entrenched local preferences, which in turn were influenced by what was available agriculturally in the centuries before supermarkets and refrigeration.

Swedish aquavit enjoys a broad legal definition, with no restrictions on the material used for the base spirit and though it all must contain caraway, Swedish aquavit encompasses a broad range of flavors, sweeteners, and aging techniques. The country itself crosses 15 degrees of latitude, and the weather and topography range from warm seaboard just a few short miles from the European mainland to icy permafrost within the Arctic Circle. This broad range of weather and seasonal change creates vastly different growing and importation zones across the country.

Southern Sweden is lush and temperate; the thick inland forests give way to sandy beaches, warmed by the residual heat of the North-Atlantic Drift. It’s a beach culture down south, where vacation homes and summertime resort towns abound and the weather is temperate and rainy in the winter, hot and sunny in the summer. In these southerly provinces, the aquavit tends to be playful and fruity, reflecting both the availability of fresh fruits and citrus from the mainland as well as the summery party attitude that accompanies warm weather and beaches everywhere. If southern Sweden had a U.S. parallel, it would be Florida and its aquavit culture would be comparable to rum.

Aquavits in the south are typically slightly sweet and often flavored with citrus, berries, fresh fruit, or baking spices. The lightly licorice-flavored Skåne, the dilly, Danish-influenced Läckö Slotts Aquavit, and citrusy Malmö Akvavit are all produced in this part of the country. When introducing Americans to aquavit, these light aquavits are the most familiar and easiest for beginners to enjoy.

Moving north, the country becomes more unforgiving as the land and the people become harsher and colder. Fruits and citrus don’t grow as well in the rocky, stony ground of northern Sweden and historically, flavoring was primarily influenced by dried, long-lasting spices imported from warmer climates in the south and down into Europe and Persia. The proximity and cultural connection with Norway in this area has also influenced aquavit storage and there is a greater tendency to barrel-age northern liquor.

Aquavits produced in these areas are less sweet and use more dried foreign spices or cold-weather herbs like fennel or caraway. Coriander, fennel, anise, and caraway are the most common, but it’s not unusual to also see exotic spices like grains of paradise, mustard, dill seed, saffron, or pepper. Basically, historic spices were limited to anything that could withstand months in shipping or else were hardy, cold tolerant, and locally grown, and that flavor profile has become a hallmark of the northern part of the country.

O.P. Anderson and Gammal Norrlands are both classic examples of this style, and each is flavored with the classic aquavit trifecta of caraway, anise, and fennel, then aged in oak barrels until they take on a golden hue and mellow flavor similar to Norwegian styles. Of the two, O.P. Anderson is the most famous and was available in the United States until just a few years ago.
Sadly, imported Swedish aquavits are no longer available in the United States, so if you find yourself in Stockholm, Malmö, Nykoping, or any other Swedish city, be sure to stop in to the local watering hole for some local spirit. You won’t be disappointed.

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 June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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