Snaps Visa: What is aquavit, anyway?

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

Photo: Lexi Scandinavian aquavits are produced in a great range of flavors, colors, and styles.

Photo: Lexi
Scandinavian aquavits are produced in a great range of flavors, colors, and styles.

At its very simplest, aquavit is a caraway-spiced vodka.

About 500 years ago, distillation was just getting popular in Europe, and brennevin, or “burnt wine,” was a whole new science. The primitive stills of those early distillers did not produce the same quality of spirits that modern stills can, and without the benefit of today’s scientific knowledge and regulations, the products were wildly inconsistent. Many distillates were “dirty” or poorly distilled, containing fermentation byproducts like methanol or acetone, which affected the taste and sickened the drinker.

People quickly figured out that adding spices to their spirits improved the taste and had the added benefit of herbal medicinal applications. Different spices were popular in different cultures, and the agricultural zones of Scandinavia made hardy, cold-weather plants like rye and caraway important for daily foods.

For flavoring, each distiller reached for their own spice cabinet and local styles started to take hold. Caraway and dill were popular additions in the northern communities of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, while juniper berries were favored farther south in Holland, forming the earliest Genever: the grandfather of gin.

The original juniper-spiced Dutch Genever was popularized in England by William the Third in the early 1700s when Holland was occupied by the English. It was then introduced in the U.S. by settlers and quickly became a well-known staple of the American bar scene. But Scandinavia was never occupied by the English, so the aquavit flavors and traditions of those Nordic cultures didn’t ride along to the colonies. This is why most Americans know about gin but not about aquavit.

Aquavit and gin are made using identical techniques; one could call them kissing cousins. There are a few different methods for spicing the liquor, but the most common is to first distill a neutral spirit, i.e.: flavorless, pure alcohol. Most European gin and aquavit distillers agree that in order to show off the best spicing flavors, the base liquor should be made separately and sometimes by a separate company specializing in neutral spirit production. After the neutral spirit is made or procured, it is then either infused with spices or redistilled with spices. Infusion is a process in which spices are added to liquor and allowed to set until the liquor takes on the flavor and color of the spice. Redistillation is done by adding spices and liquor back into a still and distilling them together. Infused products are typically colored, while distilled products are clear.

Infused aquavits and gins were traditional for hundreds of years until the mid 1800s, when the Danish Aalborg company discovered the redistillation technique. From a business perspective, this was a massive breakthrough, as aquavit could now be made more quickly, for less money, and using less spice than the traditional infusion process. Thus, clear taffel, or “table” aquavit was born. Even today, taffels are often considered unfinished or incomplete spirits by Swedes and Norwegians, like the way Americans view white whiskey or moonshine. The Danes however, are fiercely proud of their taffel tradition, and no festive meal in Denmark goes without it.

Gin factories quickly picked up the redistillation technique, and for a hundred years gin marketing focused on convincing consumers that clear, distilled gins were superior to the old-fashioned infused products. By the 1970s, Americans were drinking distilled gins exclusively and bartenders and consumers scoffed at the idea of infused products.
Aquavit never suffered from this marketing manipulation. Infusions were—and still are—an important part of the aquavit culture, and color is considered an indicator of quality. Today’s Scandinavian aquavits are produced in a breadth and range of flavors, colors, and styles that would astonish a typical American. Hundreds upon hundreds of aquavits are produced in Scandinavia, but only one—Lysholm Linie—is imported to the U.S.

But Linie aquavits are a whole separate “line” of inquiry—one we’ll get to in a future column.

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.

**CORRECTION added March 31, 2016: William III didn’t occupy Holland, he was Dutch and occupied England. He brought gin with him to the English market.

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 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.