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A bottle and glass of Norwegian akevitt.


Akevitt (also spelled aquavit or Akvavit, /AHKVə-veet/) is a flavored spirit that is produced in Scandinavia and typically contains 40% alcohol by volume. Its name comes from aqua vitae, the Latin for "water of life".

Etymology

The word akvavit is derived from the Medieval Latin aqua vītae, "water of life". The word whiskey is derived from the Gaelic equivalent of this phrase.

An apocryphal story holds that akvavit actually means "water from the vine", a picturesque folk etymology derived through conflation of Latin vītae (genitive of vita) with the Italian vite (vine).

Drinking culture

Akavavit is an important part of Scandinavian drinking culture. The drinking of akavavit is often done during a formal procedure called "drinking snaps".

Akvavit is often drunk quickly from a small shot glass. This is usually attributed to tradition ("drinking snaps").

Akvavit arguably complements beer well, and its consumption is very often preceded (or followed) by a swig of beer. Enthusiasts generally lament this practice, claiming that the beer will ruin the flavour and aftertaste.

Production

Akvavit, like vodka, is distilled from either grain or potatoes (after making a mash from them then, e.g., breaking that down with malt, and then fermenting it). It is flavoured with herbs such as caraway seeds, anise, dill, fennel, coriander, or "grains of paradise". The Danish distillery Aalborg makes an akvavit distilled with amber.

The recipes and flavors differ between brands, but caraway is typically the dominant flavour.

Akvavit usually has a yellowish hue, but this can vary from clear to light brown, depending on how long it has been aged in oak casks. Normally, a darker colour suggests a higher age or the use of young casks, though artificial caramel colouring is permitted. Clear akvavit is called taffel; it is typically aged in old casks that do not colour the finished spirit.

Origin and traditional variants

The earliest known reference to akvavit is found in a 1531 letter from the Danish Lord of Bergenshusmarker castle, Eske Bille to Olav Engelbrektsson, the last Archbishop of Norway. The letter, dated April 13, accompanying a package, offers the archbishop "some water which is called Aqua Vite and is a help for all sort of illness which a man can have both internally and externally".A transcription of the original letter can be found here: Diplomatarium Norvegicum - XI p.630, Date: 13 April 1531. Place: Bergenhus.
"[...] Kiere herre werdis ether nade wiide att ieg szende ether nade nogit watn mett Jonn Teiste som kallis Aqua vite och hielper szamme watn for alle hande kranchdom som ith menniske kandt haffue indwortis.

[...]"

("[...] Dear lord, will your grace know that I send your grace some water with Jon Teiste which is called Aqua vite and helps the same water for all his illness that a man can have internally.

[...]")

While this claim for the medicinal properties of the drink may be rather inflated, it is a popular belief that akvavit will ease the digestion of rich foods. In Denmark it is traditionally associated with Christmas lunch. In Norway it is particularly drunk at celebrations, such as Christmas or May 17 (Norwegian Constitution Day). In Sweden it is a staple of the traditional midsummer celebrations dinner, usually drunk while singing one of many drinking songs. It is usually drunk as snaps during meals, especially during the appetizer course— along with pickled herring, crayfish, lutefisk or smoked fish. In this regard it is popularly quipped that akvavit helps the fish swim down to the stomach. It is also a regular on the traditional Norwegian Christmas meals, including roasted rib of pork and stickmeat . It is said that the spices and the alcohol helps digest the meal which is very rich in fat.

Among the most important brands are Løiten, Lysholm and Gilde from Norwaymarker, Aalborg from Denmarkmarker and O.P Andersson from Swedenmarker. While the Danish and Swedish variants are normally very light in colour, most of the Norwegian brands are matured in oak casks for at least one year and for some brands even as long as 12 years, making them generally darker in colour. While members of all three nations can be found to claim that "their" style of Akvavit is the best as a matter of national pride, Norwegian akevitt tend to have, if not the most distinctive character, then at least the most overpowering flavour and deepest colour due to the aging process.

Particular to the Norwegian tradition are linje akvavits (such as "Løiten Linje" and "Lysholm Linje"). These have been carried in oak casks onboard ships crossing the equator (linje) twice before being sold. While many experts claim that this tradition is little more than a gimmick, some argue that the moving seas and frequent temperature changes cause the spirit to extract more flavour from the casks. Norwegian akvavit distillers Arcus has carried out a scientific test where they tried to emulate the rocking of the casks aboard the "Linje" ships while the casks were subjected to the weather elements as they would aboard a ship. The finished product was according to Arcus far from the taste that a proper "Linje" akvavit should have, thus the tradition of shipping the akvavit casks past the "Linje" and back continues.

Akvavit outside of Scandinavia

Akvavit is seldom produced outside of Scandinavia, although there are domestic imitations of it in some countries, especially in areas that have a large community of Scandinavian immigrants. An exception, however, is Northern Germany and in particular the German state of Schleswig-Holsteinmarker which was controlled by the Kings of Denmark until the 19th century (see: History of Schleswig-Holstein) and still has a notable Danish minority. Among the most important German brands of Akvavit are Bommerlunder from Flensburgmarker, Kieler Sprotte Aquavit from Kielmarker and Malteserkreuz Aquavit. The latter brand has been produced in Berlinmarker since 1924 by a subsidiary of Sweden's Vin & Sprit AB, the producer of many Swedish akvavits, and can be considered a German imitation of Scandinavian akvavits since it is based on an originally Danish recipe. Brands from Schleswig-Holstein, however, often have a long history, comparable to their Scandinavian counterparts. Bommerlunder, for instance, has been made since 1760. Akvavit is also an important part of the traditional cuisine of Schleswig-Holstein. German akvavit is virtually always distilled from (fermented) grain and generally has an alcohol content of 38% alcohol by volume, marginally less than Scandinavian akvavits.

Some small local off-licences in the northeast of England have been known to sell Norwegian akevitt occasionally. The drink tends to be popular amongst older generations.

Actor Christopher Lee is known to drink akvavit regularly, a habit he acquired from his Danish wife, Birgit Kroencke.

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