What Is Aquavit? How to Best Enjoy This Scandinavian Liquor

Published September 23, 2022
Aquavit shots and fennel

In a world of caramel, oaky, smokey, and neutral palate liquors, gin is the easy one to pick out as the most herbaceous. Until you know about aquavit. This Scandinavian liquor, the national spirit of not only Sweden but of Denmark and Norway, is one of the best-kept secrets that's actually no secret at all.

What Is Aquavit?

Aquavit, sometimes akvavit, starts as a neutral spirit, but thanks to botanical ingredients and herbs, it takes on a whole new life. Where gin relies on juniper to give it that botanical glow, aquavit comes to life thanks to caraway and even occasionally dill. Most often compared in flavor to rye bread, distillers use grains or potatoes as a base for aquavit. From there, distillers add spices and herbs. Since aquavit isn't barrel-aged, it remains a clear color after distilling. The exception is for Norweigan aquavit which often uses sherry casks in the distilling process, making that aquavit a bit stronger in addition to taking on a golden color. The name aquavit comes from none other than the Latin phrase "aqua vitae" -- water of life. This may sound familiar as whiskey shares a similar history.

Under a European Union law, lawmakers mandate that aquavit is required to include either caraway or dill, or both together. But it can consist of many other citrus flavors, herbs, or spices -- just so long as caraway or dill are included. Fennel, cardamom, and lemon or orange peels are all common flavorings you'll find in aquavit. In addition to the ingredient mandate, the EU requires a minimum of 37.5% ABV, 75 proof, for the distilled spirit to qualify as aquavit. You'll find some aquavits bottled and put on shelves immediately, while some distilleries allow the aquavit to age, resulting in the yellow hue.

Aquavit, like many other old liquors, started as medicinal, as caraway has medicinal properties for common ailments, including indigestion. Oh, and its name isn't limited to just aquavit or akvavit. In Denmark, you can find it called snaps or schnapps.

So, What Does Aquavit Taste Like Then?

Just like with the name and aging process, the flavor of aquavit shifts from distillery to distillery and country to country. In Norway, potatoes are used, but in Sweden and Denmark, you'll find distillers using grain in their aquavit. Norweigan aquavit, if you recall, is aged and has bold yet smooth flavors, including citrus and cumin, that'll stand out and hold their own with the caraway flavor. Swedish aquavit relies on stronger fennel and anise flavors, think licorice, and Danish aquavit uses more of the dill flavor but still features caraway. You can also find distilleries in America and Canada, but their aquavit flavors can vary even more widely than their traditional Scandinavian counterparts.

Too many flavor notes floating around your head? TLDR; aquavit is an herbaceous liquor that tastes like rye bread in a bottle in the best of ways. Rye bread doesn't bring a smile to your face? Don't worry, the dill-forward Norweigan aquavit is waiting for you. Still not sure? Aquavit flavors aren't far from the crisp and clean palate you find in the juniper flavors of gin.

Why Is Aquavit a Big Deal?

You'll find Scandinavians enjoying aquavit throughout each month of the year, but more bottles appear during holidays and celebrations. Aquavit makes a guest appearance in the summer in both Sweden and Denmark when midsummer dinners appear on everyone's social calendar, and drinking songs fill the air. You'll also find aquavit at typical holiday celebrations like Christmas and Easter. Aquavit isn't new to these parties either. You can find mentions of aquavit as far back as the early 16th century.

Now you'll find more and more bars with aquavit snuggled between shelves on the back bar. Once a spirit that was little known outside of Scandinavian countries, the herbaceous flavors have started to trickle into craft cocktail bars and house cocktails. Its unique and singular flavors mean it can easily command a cocktail but can also provide a supporting role to other ingredients to make a cocktail bursting with layers of different flavors. Simply, aquavit is a cool spirit to play around with when you're tired of the usual orgeats, gins, or fernet and want to set your cocktails apart. Aquavit is a great way to shake yourself out of a cocktail rut, too.

Aquavit flies under the radar, but American bartenders started enjoying an aquavit renaissance in early 2018 or so. However, Americans were a bit wary; not everyone is ready to jump into an herbaceous spirit. Read: gin. There's a reason vodka remains one of the most popular and sought-after spirits. And as for the younger Scandinavia generations, aquavit doesn't have quite the same hold as it once did, although its emergence into cocktails makes the spirit far more accessible to a larger crowd. One of the reasons aquavit sales have remained dormant for so long is due to an acquisition of a major distiller in the late 1990s, ads went quiet, and production slowed down until the distillery was bought out again in 2013.

How Do You Drink Aquavit?

Enjoying aquavit is as simple as taking it as a shot or as regal as sipping it slowly to honor or commemorate an occasion. If you're enjoying it straight, you'll want to chill the aquavit quite well if it's Swedish or Danish. As for Norweigan aquavit, you can enjoy that bottle straight from the cabinet at room temperature, as they believe this is the best way to enjoy all the complex flavors the blend has to offer.

Pouring Aquavit into frosted glasses

If you're nervous about drinking aquavit, or maybe you want to warm up to the flavors in a more subtle way, not only are there aquavit cocktails, but you can use aquavit in cocktails that generally call for other neutral spirits, such as gin and vodka. Like any whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, or tequila -- the vessel with which your drink aquavit is the imbiber's preference.

Trying Aquavit in Cocktails and On Its Own

You can enjoy aquavit on its own like you would whiskey or mix it into a cocktail. For instance, instead of cognac in a sidecar, you can put a Nordic spin on it by using aquavit instead. Some glögg recipes, similar to mulled wine, use aquavit. Tonic goes swimmingly with neutral spirits and those with herbaceous notes (hello, gin). It more than makes sense that an aquavit and tonic would be out of this world and a great place to start without anything to lose, especially if you're trying aquavit out in the safety of your own home. Go straight to the heart of aquavit by mixing up a chilled aquavit martini, allowing the experience to take you away to someplace new.

Aquavit as a Substitute

If you're looking for more well-established cocktails to give a Scandinavian riff, or you want to play around with a ratio of the original spirit and aquavit as you dip your toes further and further into the caraway flavors, consider these classics.

  • Skip the vodka or gin in your Tom Collins and introduce Tom to aquavit.
  • The negroni already features a heavily herbaceous spirit. It's a no-brainer to try it with aquavit instead. Use a half ounce of each if you're nervous about committing completely.
  • Bloody Mary is one of the most savory, herby drinks you can create, and the dill notes in Norweigan aquavit and the caraway flavors in classic aquavit only add to those flavors. If you're someone that loves to add pickle juice to your Bloody Mary, then Norweigan aquavit will add the perfect dill flavors without overdoing the saltiness.

Exploring the World of Aquavit Liquor

Why should you try aquavit? Because the world of cocktails and its offerings is constantly morphing, growing, and spreading from one corner of the world to the next. And there's something about trying a new ingredient to get the creative and imaginative juices flowing as you grow your knowledge of cocktails and ingredients. Don't let the unfamiliar hold you back from a wealth of new drinks.

What Is Aquavit? How to Best Enjoy This Scandinavian Liquor