Gammel Dansk -- The Essence of Denmark

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Inasmuch as it's at all possible to define the essence of a country, let alone bottle it, Gammel Dansk is probably the closest you can get to the true essence of Denmark1. Actually, directly translated, Gammel Dansk means "Old Danish".

Gammel Dansk is a drink from the family of bitters. Not bitters as in a certain types of British beer (or is it ale?). Rather, it's a bitters as defined in Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary:

bitters n (constructed as pl.) 1. A liquid, often alcoholic liquor, in which bitter herbs or roots have steeped, often used as flavouring, esp. in mixed drinks, or as a tonic. (...)

Thus, Gammel Dansk is an alcoholic (38% Alc. by vol. in fact) drink, made with lots of herbs and spices. It is actually not used in mixed drinks2 but certainly as a tonic. Again, according to Webster's:

tonic n (1799) 1. a: an agent (as a drug) that increases body tone b: one that invigorates, restores, refreshes, or stimulates (a day in the country was a ~ for him) c: (...)

"Restores and refreshes" - my first meeting with Gammel Dansk

When I was a young lad, not many years ago3 I went with my school class to England. We went by train and boat and during the crossing from Esbjerg to Harwich, we spent a significant part of the night in the bar. As I recall, we started from the top of the drinks menu and worked our way down...

The next morning -- well, you can probably imagine what happens when you submit yourself to a mix of too much alcohol, too little sleep and not-too-calm seas. One of the effects of this was that we DID NOT want to have breakfast. To our surprise, our English teacher, who had claimed to be easily upset by sea-sickness sat there, happily eating away. To her credit, she did teach us something other than English -- she told us her secret was Gammel Dansk. We tried -- and soon found ourselves sufficiently restored and refreshed to have breakfast too.

And the rest, as they say, is history...

The history -- how Gammel Dansk was made

"There is a need for a Danish bitter. It must be new. It must be a dram. And it must be smooth but yet a bitter."

This was the task that the developers was given in the early 1960s. Very soon, everybody agreed that it had to be based on pure, natural ingredients. Many old recipes were tried, tested and discussed and hundreds of herbs and spices went into experimental brews.

It took three years to arrive at the right mixture. The result, a bitter made from a mix of 29 different herbs, spices and flowers, was named Gammel Dansk and remains far the most popular bitter in Denmark.

Bitters in general, however, are very much older than the 1960s... Indeed, they have existed as long as anyone can remember. The first written Danish records mentioning bitters are from the mid-1600s when the Danish-Norwegian king Frederik III was introduced to this type of drink by a German noble woman, Anna of Sachsen. But it is a pretty fair assumption that the Vikings had bitters in the hold when they went on their far-reaching expeditions.

Throughout all this time, bitters have been used for pleasure but also due to their invigorating and stimulating effects. In all of Europe, the tradition for a dram made from the local berries, herbs and fruits is well known. Just a few examples:

  • The French pastis made on aniseed or the many differently flavoured eaux de vies
  • The Italian grappa, based on the grape skins after wine fermentation
  • The Dutch genever and the English gin based on juniper

Gammel Dansk as a medicine

Apart from the already mentioned positive effect on my adolescent seasick stomach, there is quite a bit of good reason to think that Gammel Dansk could well be good for you. A number of the herbs used to flavour Gammel Dansk has been used in the folk medicine throughout history. After all, herbs have always been used to prevent, cure or relieve -- in potions ranging from having a nice taste to downright revolting. At least here is a way to take your medicine that also is pleasant!

Though the recipe is a very closely guarded secret, here is a few examples of the herbs used to make Gammel Dansk:

  • Laurel. The oils from the leaves contains glycosides and other components known to have a positive effect on digestion and appetite.
  • Ginger. Known for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as a medicinal plant in Chinese folk medicine. Traditionally used against nausea, stomach problems and to lessen pain and reduce fever.
  • Rowan berries. Used against stomach and intestinal problems, kidney stones and arthritis. Dried berries, when chewed, have been used against hoarseness.
  • Aniseed and nutmeg. Both have through times been believed to be aphrodisiacs (!) and nutmeg is also known, at least in superstition, to enhance the intoxicating effect of alcohol.

While this entry in no way claims to be able to document or guarantee any of these effects, I sure like to think that one of the major things that kept me going throughout a recent three-week trip throughout South-east Asia with no stomach trouble was a dose of Gammel Dansk morning and evening4.

And, as the Danish Pharmacies recently said in a large newspaper advertisement:

If you follow all the traditional advice against the common cold (and Gammel Dansk would feature prominently in here, ed.), the cold will probably last for 7 days. And if you don't, it will probably last a week.

One thing is certain, of all the things that probably doesn't help against the common cold or other diseases, Gammel Dansk most certainly is one of the better!

Traditions and folklore

The name Gammel Dansk has come to mean more than just the drink -- there is a large amount of tradition and folklore associated with Gammel Dansk. At the basic level, it probably divides Danes 5into two large and one small group:

  • Those who love it
  • Those who hate it6
  • Those very few who haven't tried it yet

Gammel Dansk is offered and drunk when- and wherever Danes meet (in principle at least) and has truly become the national bitter. So we do enjoy it in the morning (yes!), at birthdays, for weddings and honeymoons, at work - - - the list is endless. Whenever Danes are together with friends and family having a cosy time (the real term is "hygge" which is not quite translatable), drinking Gammel Dansk is a distinct possibility. And if there is no occasion, Danes can quickly think of one.

One especially common tradition is Gammel Dansk for birthday breakfasts -- be that at home wit family and friends or at work. Naturally, alcohol is not allowed everywhere at work, but where it is, Gammel Dansk is often a part of a birthday celebration -- especially what we call "round birthdays" (30, 40, 50, 60, ...).

Small societies have formed around the savouring of Gammel Dansk, in Denmark as well as Sweden and Norway. Such societies also seem to be spreading into the rest of the world, as a result of pioneering efforts of brave Danes.

The manufacturers of Gammel Dansk7 offers a service on their website where these societies, or clubs, can have a small website telling the world how much better life is with a wee dram down the hatch.

Another example of tradition is a personally experienced one. Back in my 20s we were a group of people who quite frequently camped and hiked in the great outdoors in Sweden. To end a good day, we often had "a meeting in the golf club". Everyone present "signed up" for a honorary office -- chairman, secretary, bookkeeper, whatever -- and then everybody had a drink in hierarchical order. Quite simply, the bottle went round and everybody took a hearty swig before passing it down the line...!

How to serve, drink and keep Gammel Dansk

On the label it says:

Gør godt om morgenen, efter dagens dont, under jagten, på fisketuren, eller som aperitif

...which means something like...

Gammel Dansk does you good in the morning, after the day's work, when you go hunting, on the fishing trip, or as an aperitif.

Gammel Dansk bitters is served traditionally at room temperature in small glasses for any occasion and at any time throughout the day8. It can be drunk by itself or with coffee or beer. And people often make the funniest faces when they sit together and empty the small glasses -- but everybody feels better afterwards!

As Gammel Dansk is an extract of natural ingredients, it must be kept with loving care. It can not be stored cold as this will lead to precipitates forming which will make the precious liquid unclear. And neither should it be exposed to direct sunlight. You should drink the contents of a bottle within six months of opening it as exposure to air will cause the natural flavours and ingredients to decay. As the saying goes: " Take good care of your Gammel Dansk before you drink it!"

1Not everybody, not even all Danes will agree. Well, them about that...2Not that I know of anyway3Well, not that many4Probably, vaccinations and very, very carefully avoiding local water, fresh vegetables, etc also helped...5At least Danes old enough to drink alcohol6An interesting group who shall nevertheless be ignored here...7Much to the chagrin of most Danes, the company is now Swedish owned. Luckily, they did not rename the drink "Old Swedish"...8Don't take "throughout the day" too literally though -- the state you'll be in will be very wobbly very soon...

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