Odin on Akvavit

When Ola told me in the interview on Norwegian Hjemmebrent nobody attempted to make their own Akvavit, I was tempted. Inspired by my visits to Denmark – and the joyous evenings with Danish friends that love Akvavit – I have done some recipe development on Akvavit in the past. I took my approach of the shelf, dusted it off, and gave it a new try.

To jump to the conclusion: I think making a great Akvavit is not that difficult. I think making a Norwegian style Akkevit is more difficult but still very doable. I will get back to that soon. First, let’s start with an introduction on Akvavit.

Akvavit is the national drink of the Scandinavian countries. Think “Sweden”, “Norway”, “Denmark”. Think “cold”, “ice”, “snow” and you are getting close. Imagine fjords, endless pine tree forests, reindeer, and so on, and the picture will almost be complete. Add solitary people that love to live on themselves, hunting, fishing, living of what the country has to offer.

And now the thing that always struck me as somewhat contradicting, when meeting with people from Scandinavia: even though most like to be on themselves and make a rational, rather than social, impression at first … when you get to know them, they “de-ice” at an incredible speed. Warmth, passion, an interest to find out what drives the other take over. Intelligent conversations, friendships that last …

Akvavit helps people in this process. To no small avail, it is the oil that keeps the engine of people meeting and getting to know each other running smoothly.

Now, as most families of drinks, Akvavit was developed as a technological innovation that rooted in a changing society. What changed and how did Akvavit came to be?

Let’s go back a few centuries. To the 13th and 14th century, to be more precise. Trade in Northern Europe boomed. The Hanze city collective had trading posts in Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Germany, and the Netherlands. They even had offices as far as London and Ireland. The Hanze city collective was guided by common trade rules. Because those cities agreed to trade in a certain way (think: currency exchange rates, warranty), trade and profits soared. But in order to trade, one needs to travel.

The low countries of Holland and Northern Germany did have a lot of water, but none of it was fast flowing, fresh water. Drinking water was a great way to catch a disease. This health problem was countered by making and drinking beer. The water treatment in making beer would make it healthier to drink than ordinary water. Imagine everybody drinking beer from the age of three onward …

People sailing to and from Scandinavia or the Baltic states were usually en route for a few weeks. And beer stayed fresh for one week only. Luckily distillation was being introduced in those parts of Europe around the same time. In order to have access to a drinkable concoction, even after a few weeks at sea, beer was distilled. Distilled beer has a higher ABV and does not turn sour. Problem solved? Well, almost.

Funny thing is, that even back then, people knew they had to make cuts for heads and tails. Even funnier, from today’s perspective, is that they consequently added those heads and tails to the next distillation batch. This way, they ended up with a drink that got worse and worse with every generation.

The solution? They started adding caraway seeds to the distilled beer. Caraway was the strongest herb they knew. The taste was strong enough to mask the off-taste of the distilled beer with recycled feints … And thus … And thus Akvavit was invented!

To  be continued!