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    Akvavit:
    The Water of Life


If you’ve ever traveled to Scandinavia, you know a
couple of facts: 1) the people are amazingly nice and
welcoming; 2) it is as beautiful a part of the world as you
will find, especially if you are fond of the sea; 3) to
American palates, there is some AMAZING food and
drink to experience, and some very “unique” traditional
gastronomical fare that might just make your toes curl.  

While points 1 and 2 are fabulous topics for a discussion
in other forums, it is point 3 that brings us here today.  
Specifically, the “drink” part (Did you notice what site
was in your browser? Go ahead and look up there now –
don’t worry; we’ll wait for you.  (whistling)  Ready?  
Okay…) There is one particular incarnation of spirit
that is still a traditional mainstay of the region,
particularly of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark –
akvavit.

Akvavit, which is spelled as many different ways as
there are styles of the spirit itself (Norway: akevitt,
Sweden and Denmark: akvavit, English: akvavit or
aquavit,) is a spirit distilled from grains or sometimes
potatoes.  By U.S. definition, which follows the custom
for most traditional akvavits found on the market, the
primary flavoring agent must be the caraway seed.  
After that, the flavoring agents used often vary greatly.  
Some other common botanicals include star anise,
coriander, fennel, and dill.  These spices produce a
spirit that is very savory, and often produced at 80
proof or above, not for the faint of heart.  Most akvavits
are then aged in oak to varying degrees, helping to
impart new flavors and integrate those imparted by the
botanicals.

The name is derived from the Latin roots of “aqua”
(water) and “vitae” (life), and thus plays its part in
establishing the tradition that spirits were, for the better
part of human history on Earth, generally safer and
more healthful for you to drink than normal, untreated
and often-polluted ground water.  The Gaelic “uisge
baugh” or “uisce beathe”, source of the common name
for “whiskey” (or “whisky” Scotland – don’t yell!),
means the same – “water of life.”  As such, for centuries
(and in my house, still today) spirits were seen as health
tonics and medicines that were good for whatever might
ail you.  Akvavit was no different, often being made
with herbs, spices, and grains that were thought to have
some kind of natural health benefit.  

There are records going back to the sixteenth century
with mentions of “aqua vitae” being used among the
educated elite (really, who else was reading and writing
a whole lot back then?) for its healthful purposes.  This
reputation was undoubtedly helped by the fact that,
thanks to its highly alcoholic nature, you definitely felt
pretty good after a couple of drinks of it.  Different
forms of these early “tonics” spread around the world as
explorers and settlers from these regions did, and took
root in their new homes by taking on slightly different
and unique forms using the local ingredients.  For
instance, whiskey became “bourbon” in the U.S. once
the abundant yellow corn that was native to the area
was utilized for something besides popping and being
served on sticks at county fairs.  In Germany, schnapps
became king.  In most parts of Scandinavia, the tonic of
choice was akvavit.

Akvavit now has several different forms: “taffel”
(Germanic for “table”, used in the same manner as
“table wine”) akvavits are often unaged and thusly
clear, or are aged in used barrels that have no natural
flavoring or coloring agents left to impart.  Sometimes,
as in many other spirits, caramel coloring is also to give
these normally clear versions a yellow or amber hue
similar to the oak-aged versions.

Another form popular in the Norwegian tradition is
“linie” akvavits.  “Linie” refers to the king of all lines of
latitude, the equator.  Norwegians tend to like their
akvavits aged for longer periods of time than their
neighbors do, and the ultimate age statement for their
akvavit (again, akevitt locally) is “linie”, meaning that
the spirit has crossed the equator twice during its barrel
aging before it is bottled to be sold.  The idea behind
this is that barrels which are exposed to the sometimes
extreme temperatures and constant rocking motions
experienced aboard a ship, especially for the length of
time it takes to sail across the equator and back from
Scandinavia, have had plenty of opportunity to extract
the many nuanced flavors from the cask and deposit
them into the spirits contained within.  Some will argue
that this is an overly-romanticized, centuries-old notion
that doesn’t necessarily hold water (or akvavit! <rim
shot>) in our modern times.  However, most stories
built around spirits are centuries old, overly-
romanticized, and have that perfect amount of artist’s
embellishment passed from one happily-inebriated
storyteller to the next that makes the stories so fun and
interesting.  So, my official stance is “linie akevitts are
the best!”

Modern producers of akvavit abound in Scandinavia,
and other versions are starting to pop up in other
countries as well.  Traditionally, akvavit is served ice
cold from the freezer (or snow bank, depending) and
straight up as a shot or for sipping.  However, you will
find those who enjoy it at room temperature in the same
fashion, and now there are versions that lend
themselves exquisitely well to mixing into cocktails.  It
is much easier to add natural fruit sugars or bar syrups
to a cocktail for sweetness than it is to add ingredients
that will give your libation a truly integrated
savoriness.  As such, as mixologists around the world
are spending more time creating drinks with classic
brown spirits, akvavit is experiencing a renaissance
era.  

While it may not be for everyone, akvavit has a unique
taste profile and centuries-old tradition that make it
well worth sampling on your next trip to the corner
liquor purveyor, especially as the colder, Scandinavia-
esque months of winter are upon us.
North Shore Distillery
in Lake Bluff, IL makes
an aquavit designed for
the modern spirits
connoisseur.
Kyle McHugh
The Boozehound