By Sam Bygrave
Photography by Rob Palmer
Drink Styling by Simon McGoram
Booze geeks and writers can get a little carried away with the details some times, focusing too much on the small stuff. We get in to all the pedantic stuff about the grains used for a particular distillate, different combinations of botanicals, NOM numbers and so on. We can bore those around us that aren’t so inclined with long discussions on the origins of the Martini. We use words like ethereal and primal about things that others think of as boozy or stinky, speaking unintelligibly about the subtle complexity of this or that spirit. To the uninitiated (and our long suffering partners), you might as well be speaking a foreign language.
We seem to forget that for most of the world alcohol is a passport to a different state, one that enables social interaction to which booze is the key. For non-bartenders it’s less about the drink, and more about the occasion.
Aquavit (or akvavit as it is known in Denmark) is one of those social spirits. It is deeply entwined with Scandinavian drinking ritual of skål, and has for hundreds of years replaced wine at their tables. Smorrebread, oily fish like herring and mackerel, cabbage (the foods of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway), are all made a little nicer by the little glass of aquavit that often accompanies it. For example, no Danish Christmas lunch, called Julefrokost, is complete without their small glasses of chilled akvavit, which the Danes call snaps (pronounced like schnapps).
But it could have been so very different for the Scandinavians. Long before distillation brought them aquavit (from the mid 1500s) they might have been making wine. In the latter half of the 800s AD population growth saw the Scandinavians colonise Iceland and then move on to Greenland. They didn’t stop there, though. The Norse ‘Saga of the Greenlanders’ and ‘Eirik’s Saga’ both describe a Viking vessel that, straying off-course, ended up discovering a land thought today to be the tip of Newfoundland, Canada. Around that time there was a bit of climate change going on and the northern altitudes were a bit warmer than usual, and in this new land they found wheat, grasslands and most importantly (for the booze geeks among them), wild vines. Naturally enough they termed this newly found land, Vinland. Had things gone a little differently, it might have been a bottle of Vinland wine that accompanied the herring and rye. As it stands, aquavit does the job just fine.
Which is just as well, really, as the Scandinavians have really developed a taste for the stuff. While gin exploded in London, so too did aquavit in Scandinavian countries: in Sweden during the 1800s the per capita consumption of aquavit and branvin was estimated at 10 gallons, or over 37 litres, a year – that’s more than a standard bottle a week.
Jim Meehan includes aquavit in amongst the gins in The PDT Cocktail Book. There’s sound thinking behind this: aquavit and gin are, at their cores, a kind of flavoured vodka, the main difference being the cast of botanicals that appear. They both came about through “burned wine”, too: in Dutch, brandewijn would lead to corenwijn and genever; branvin in Scandinavia evolved into aquavit as wheat and potato spirit is much cheaper than that made from wine.
Aquavits from Denmark, Sweden and Finland can be either aged or unaged, whereas Norwegian aquavits see time in used sherry casks. As a result of this sherry cask ageing Norwegian brands like Linie are recommended (by them, at least) to be drunk at room temperature (to be fair, room temperature in Norway might be a little different from Australia). There is a strong Australian connection with Linie, too: the story of the brand goes that one ship, making its voyage from Norway to Australia and back again, had a misplaced cask of aquavit on board. When they cracked it open again after its long voyage, they found that the heat and the rolling of the ship on the waves had served to improve the character of the aquavit. Today, the same journey is undertaken – the name Linie being derived from the voyage across the equator line – and the name of the boat it went out on is on the label of every bottle of Linie.
But Norway is just a small producer of aquavit. Denmark is by far the largest producer of the stuff: their Danish Distilleries, which operates a state monopoly on alcohol, produce the Aalborg brand (of which there are just a couple of varieties available in Australia).
But how to mix it? Meehan’s book provides a few recipes, but Charles H. Baker Jr. didn’t think much of it, describing the stuff as a “clear and potent spirit from the Scandinavian countries, and drunk in tiny thimblefuls, with a toss of the head” which is “practically uncalled-for in mixing.”