aquavit – water of life

The name itself is fairly easy to decode – water of life, from latin Aqua vitae. It’s main ingredients are cumin and dill and contains 40% of alcohol on average. It’s a Scandinavian pride, but you can find it in other countries. Where exactly? What are the differences between Swedish and Norwegian aquavit? How many drinking songs do Swedes have? Or maybe a recipe for a drink with aquavit?


The earliest source mentioning aquavit is a letter from 1531, sent by a Dane Eske Bille to Norwegian archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson. Archbishop was failing in health and a gift from Bille was supposed to help him gain his strength back. Today it is known, that aquavit does not have healing properties, although when used as aperitif helps with the digestion.

Aquavit is considered to be a Norwegian alcohol, although historically it originated from Denmark, who was also a home to the oldest known recipe for aquavit from 1616. Possibly the vikings came up with a version of aquavit around the 11th century, but it was rather a beer with herbs than a distilled alcohol. Nowadays the base of the aquavit is vodka distilled from grain or potatoes. After distillation comes a moment of giving the flavour to it by using herbs, spices, fruits and sometimes even oils. Typical spices for aquavit are cardamon, anis, fennel, dill, lemon and orange zest. The Danish distillery Aalborg is producing aquavit even from amber.

Aquavit can be transparent, have colours from light gold to light brown, even light red. It all depends on the flavor-enhancers and time of mellowing. Adding an artificial colour by using caramel is prohibited. Aquavits lighter in colour come from Danish (Aalborg) and Swedish production (OP Anderson), a darker one will be Norwegian (Løiten, Lysholma i Gilde). Most of Norwegian aquavits are mellowing for a year, some even for 12 years (although they are the best after 4-5 years).


The first center of aquavit production was located in a Danish city Aalborg. In the beginning there were several distilleries, owned by different craftsmen. The idea of expansion and bigger profits came with a Polish Jew Isidor Henius. When he was only 17 years old, he came to Denmark in 1838 and decided to modernize the production of aquavit. He became the local monopolist, but soon his place was taken by other and bigger then him. Nevertheless, Henius started the fame of the Danish aquavit.

Danish aquavit is made from grain and is dominated by dill, coriander and cumin. For a Dane aquavit can be served during lunch. In Copenhagen you can drink kaffepunch, which is a mix of coffee and aquavit. It is made by putting a coin on the bottom of the cup, puring enough coffee to cover it and then adding aquavit until the coin the visible again. Aquavit is popular in Denmark especially during Christmas and Easter.


Swedish aquavits are also made from grain and are lighter in colour in comparison with the Norwegian equivalent. Typical spices in Swedish aquavit are anise and fennel. Technically, you shouldn’t mix alcohol, but a Swede will take a sip of dark beer first (or two bottles, for both legs) and then he will go over to aquavit – dark beer should bring out its taste. Marinated sill, crayfish or smoked fish can be served for eating. One type of aquavit, Løiten linje Aquavit (Norwegian, coincidentally), appears on Swedish Christmas tables with grilled pork and lamb ribs. Swedes open bottles of aquavit also during midsummer.

Swedes, along with Finns, will drink aquavit from a shot-glass. Drinking itself, regardless to what your beverage is, has its ritual. You should hold your glass, look into your companion’s eyes and say skål! (cheers!). And when you drink with Swedes, you cannot avoid singing (although often they don’t need alcohol to sing – for them the most popular “sport”, before hockey and football, is singing in a choir). Museum of Spirits in Stockholm recorded 9000 drinking songs, from which around 200 are about aquavit.

OP Anderson – the Swedish aquavit and the Scanian version, source:

OP Anderson – the Swedish aquavit and the Scanian version, source:


Jørgen B. Lysholm, the founder of the company, which now produces the most famous type of aquavit, Linje Aquavit, first was a manufacturer of soap. Why is it the most famous type? “Linje” means that the beverage crossed the equator. Twice. In 1805 Lysholm sent shipment of aquavit to Indonesia. 5 barrels were not sold, so they were sent back to their mother country. After arriving to Norway, Lysholm discovered that those 5 barrels contained aquavit even richer in taste. The practice of sending aquavit across the equator and back is still present, just now to Australia, not to Indonesia. Constant movement, changing moistness and temperature affect the oak barrels after sherry, in which aquavit is transported. Recreating those conditions in Norway didn’t give the same effect.

Norwegian aquavit is produced from potatoes (proofs for using them can be traced back to 1791), because potatoes are the grapes of the North. In it you can find anise, Guinea pepper, cumin and lemon zest. Norwegian aquavit mellows for at least 6 months in oak barrels, which sometimes are aromatised with berry juice. In some cases the process of mellowing is longer. In the vault of Arcus company there are still bottles from the 1920s. Those are added now to special editions. One of it, Juleakevi, is on the market since 1988, every year containing a new mixture of previous editions. The most famous Norwegian companies producing aquavit are Løiten, Lysholm and Gilde.

Norwegians, in contrast to their neighbours, rather take their time during drinking aquavit. They would drink it along with the Christmas dish called smalahove – head of a lamb (googling at one’s own risk). You could drink it with Norwegians in a shot-glass, but also in special glasses in a shape of a tulip. Norwegians will drink it during their most important national holiday – May 17th is their independence day.

Norwegian aquavit’s ad, source:

Norwegian aquavit’s ad, source:

At the end of the world and even further
Can you find aquavit outside of Scandinavia? In Poland it wasn’t hard before the Second World War, situation got worse after it and still nowadays it’s not a common drink. However, if you move to the west, you can find German and Danish types of aquavit. The popular brands are Bommerlunder from Flensborg (produced since 1760 roku), Kieler Sprotte from Kiel and Malteserkreuz is produced in Berlin since 1924. German aquavit is always made from grain and contains a little bit less of alcohol in comparison with the Scandinavian equivalents – it’s around 38%. Aquavit is also produced in Canada and in the US, where it arrived along with Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th century. You can also find aquavit in Latvia and Estonia. Still, in all of those types, cumin is the most important ingredient. Some foodies advise to serve aquavit as chilled, in frosted glasses. Then you should drink fast, so the alcohol won’t get warm due to the room temperature. Other people contradict to that and say something completely different – you should drink it slowly, because only in warmth aquavit develops its flavours.

First of all, you can make the aquavit yourself at home. You just need vodka and favourite sprices, mix them together and wait for few days. Or you can just buy a bottle of aquavit and prepare the cocktail.

Varg Veum (1 drink)
-30 ml of aquavit (Bergens or Lysholms Linie)
-30 ml of apple liqueur
-lemon juice
-Sprite for taste

Starter Cocktail (1 drink)
-45 ml Linje aquavit
-30 ml rice wine
-45 ml apple juice Granny Smith
-15 ml lime juice
-a little bit of Peychaud Bitters
-pieces of an apple

So? How was it?

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