Where Aquavit Flows Like Water

We have spent last year-and-a-half introducing aquavit to countless Americans. Most have never tasted of it. Even more have never heard of it. What is amazing is how many people love it when they try it. A totally new flavor. A new kind of spirit. And people are won over.

This always feel like a grand sense of discovery for us and the people who are tasting, but the truth is aquavit has been an esteemed and well-loved spirit throughout much of the world for centuries. More than five centuries, to be exact.

Go to your local spirit shop and—if it's a good one—they'll likely have an aquavit—or maybe two—to choose from. Go to a similar store in Norway, and you're likely to find upwards of 90 different varieties on the shelves. In Scandinavia, aquavit basically flows like water, which is particularly fitting, as aquavit literally means "water of life."

In the Nordic countries, bottles of aquavit sit alongside all the other typical spirits of a well-stocked home bar. There is probably a bottle or two sitting the average Northern European refrigerator or freezer. Many Scandinavians will pull a bottle out after a special dinner, to down a shot or two as a digestif. It's not uncommon for a bottle to hit the table when a celebration of one kind or another is called for. And, around the holidays, aquavit is the festive drink of choice for many families who consider it the perfectly delicious blend of flavor and tradition.

As aquavit is a fixture in Northern European life, so are stories about it and its origins. A man named Christopher Blix Hammer is commonly considered to be the "father of Norwegian aquavit." Born in 1720, Hammer was something of a Renaissance Man. He could read Hebrew, Arabic, and Chinese and studied mathematics, theology, botany, cartography, and law before taking over the family business where he learned the art of distillation. One of his earliest known works was a 1766 treatise on potatoes, in which he described the plant that was still new to the region. Ten years later, he wrote a treatise on aquavit, which he had begun to produce on his farm (presumably with the potatoes he cultivated).

Since Hammer's time, aquavit has become ubiquitous throughout the Nordic region, and is now produced in a wide variety of styles and with a wealth of ingredients. Today, to be called an "aquavit," the spirit must have caraway and often has dill, but many producers use a wide range of other herbs and spices, including wormwood, star anise, fennel, iris root, chamomile, juniper berries, coriander, celery, lemon, cumin, bitter orange, curacao, and jasmine. In fact, the incredible variety of styles and flavors found in the world's aquavits make the spirit as diverse and interesting as any gin, bourbon, or tequila. Our hope is that soon Americans will come to know of aquavit's many charms as well.