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Aquavit is also spelled 'akvavit' or 'aquavite' depending on where you come from; in Denmark it is also called snaps. Aquavit is a clear or pale yellow spirit of slightly above 40 percent alcohol. Originally the name came from the Latin phrase aqua vitae meaning 'water of life'. Most commonly it is dry with a caraway flavour. It is made from fermented grain or potato mash, redistilled in the presence of different flavourings such as caraway or cumin seed, cardamon, lemon peel, aniseed or fennel; it is usually bottled without ageing. In times past, aquavit was solely distilled from imported wine, which made it quite an expensive drink, but human ingenuity has found other means to making this fragrant spirit.

Aquavit is popular in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark (these countries are the main producers), Finland (even though the Finnish mostly drink vodka, they're quite prepared to sup a glass or two of aquavit) and is also often consumed in northern Germany.

Different Brands of Aquavit

Brands of aquavit include the Norwegian Linie Aquavit which gets its name from the fact that it crosses the equator twice because it's shipped to Australia and back in oak containers (although there is no hard evidence as to why it gets shipped to Australia and back other than for marketing purposes). As a matter of fact, Linie Aquavit has a little more colour than other aquavits (it's golden rather than pale yellow) because it's been stored in oak barrels. As for the brand's mellow flavour, it is believed this too comes from being shipped around the world. Indeed, Madeira wine used to be shipped across the equator: it was discovered that wine that had crossed the equator was significantly better than the wine that stayed at home. For many years, all Madeira wine was shipped across the equator and back to improve the flavour. Then someone worked out that the improvement was caused by the wine being heated up slowly and held at a high temperature for some weeks. Now the producers do this in the winery and save a fortune on transport. In the case of Linie Aquavit the producers still ship bottles around the world and just to prove it they actually print the name of the ship, the date, the route they were travelling on the back of the label.

Another brand of Aquavit which comes to mind is Aalborg Akvavit from the town of the same name in Jutland, Denmark. There are about 15 different styles of Aalborg aquavit. For example, the most popular (in Denmark) is Aalborg Taffel Akvavit which is also called Rød Aalborg. This one has 45 percent alcohol when purchased in Denmark, but only 42 percent when exported.

How to Drink Aquavit

Now to the fun part of this entry: aquavit is to be consumed straight and chilled, and should be served in small glasses. If you plan to offer aquavit to your guests, be sure to have more than one bottle at hand, and, even more importantly, remember to put it in the freezer before consumption as aquavit should be served chilled. However, don't leave it in there for too long; aquavit should be cold, not frozen.

Traditionally, it is the ideal companion to appetizers and the Swedish-style sandwiches of a smorgasbord1. In Norway, aquavit is considered a must for a meal of lutefisk; some people say it is even more essential to the meal than the actual lutefisk. In Finland, it is tradition to drink a lot of aquavit during a meal of freshwater crayfish. Also, it is said that drinking it in large quantities helps avoid the stomach aches associated with eat-as-much-as-you-like-restaurants (apparently), even if a serious hangover is then unavoidable.

1A smorgasbord is a Swedish buffet of hot and cold dishes.

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