Nordic Coastal Town

The history of aquavit

For hundreds of years barrels of caraway-spiced aquavit from the north have travelled the seas around the world.

The birth of Nordic aquavit was first recorded in a letter from the Danish Lord Eske Bille of Bergenhus castle, to the Norwegian bishop Olav Engelbrektsson in 1531. With the letter, Bille sent a spiced liquor that he promised would cure any illness known to man. Although the belief in the healing powers of aquavit has faded since the bishop received his gift, aquavit is still considered a wise choice to help the digestion after large meals during the festive season.

Caraway seeds

Aquavit is the national liquor of most of the Nordic countries. Nowadays it is a popular ingredient in cocktails, too.

An aquavit is made by infusing the selected herbs and spices, such as caraway and dill, in alcohol which is then distilled and further blended with alcohol and pure water.

Since the 16:th century distilled grain spirits became increasingly popular in the Nordic countries. From the very beginning of this production, there was a strong tradition of flavouring the alcohol, using everything from summer berries to herbs and spices. The most popular of these flavourings soon became known as aquavit, and was spiced with locally grown herbs like caraway, dill and coriander. For hundreds of years, there were small distilleries on basically every Nordic farm, in every village and manor house. As one can assume, the quality of these distillates would vary. Later, in the 19:th century, the distilling techniques were further refined. An aquavit is made by infusing the selected herbs and spices in alcohol which is then distilled and further blended with alcohol and pure water. Some of the most popular Swedish aquavit brands are also barrel aged for less than a year to bring roundness and aged character to the aquavit. Most Nordic countries have their own specific style of aquavit: the Swedish, Danish and Norwegian styles. The Swedish aquavits tend to have a light hay colour and a touch of sweetness, whereas the Danes sometimes prefer a clear version with a strong caraway aroma. In Norway, a popular version is the barrel-aged, amber coloured aquavit.

Danish Aquavits

A selection of Danish aquavits.

This style of Norwegian aquavit has a curious history – it was actually invented by accident back in the year 1806, when a merchant captain sailed from Norway to Batavia, in modern day Jakarta with barrels of aquavit. Arriving at the ship's destination, the aquavit did not sell, so the filled barrels were brought back to Norway. To everyone’s surprise, it was found that the aquavit had transformed into an amber-coloured, mellow liquor, more flavoursome than the freshly distilled alcohol. Yet another style of aquavit had been born.

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