Aquavit & Schnapps: Cool and Collected

<< Back to Robb Report, October 2004
  • Anthony Dias Blue

Alone in her Manhattan lair, Greta Garbo would enjoy her solitude with a shot or two of bone-dry aquavit. While it was the spirit of choice for the Stockholm-born recluse, aquavit is part of a social tradition at the Scandinavian table. When the host raises his glass, guests make eye contact with each other and take a sip. Glasses are returned to the table, not to be lifted again until the host motions to do so—a custom that epitomizes Scandinavian etiquette.

Aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit whose name loosely translated means the water of life, dates to the late 1400s. Derived from potatoes or grain, it is flavored with spices and herbs—from caraway to dill, lemon, or cinnamon. One brand, Lysholm’s Linie, is aged at sea for nearly five months in casks that travel on Norwegian freighters, crossing the equator twice before bottling. This tradition began after Jorgen Lysholm shipped several casks to the East Indies in 1805 and discovered that the aquavit had developed a mellower, more complex flavor.

Aquavit’s brisk, cut-to-the-chase character is the perfect pairing for such hearty Northern European fare as gravlax, kippers, or lutefisk, a Norwegian cod preparation. For mixology purposes, the spirit’s herbal essence blends best in savory drinks. When substituting aquavit for vodka in a Gibson or Bloody Mary, be sure to add a touch of lemon to enhance the spirit’s allure.

Although the 1940s’ The Gentleman’s Companion asserts that aquavit is “suitable only as a kind gesture to visiting Danes” and “practically uncalled-for in mixing,” contemporary connoisseurs believe otherwise.

Adventuresome mixologists have been known to create their own renditions by blending herbs, spices, or fruit with fine vodka. Among them is Christian Post, head bartender at Manhattan’s Aquavit restaurant. His house version is infused with grapefruit and lemongrass and matched with a generous splash of Campari and red grapefruit juice to make the Midnight Sun, the restaurant’s signature cocktail.

Aquavit is also known in Scandinavia as snaps, a word connoting a drink that is tossed back in one shot. American schnapps may be linguistically related, but this heavily sweetened spirit—flavored with licorice, spearmint, peach, or apricot—tastes nothing like the snaps to which Swedes and Danes are accustomed. While peppermint may be the best-known flavor, producers continue to concoct new tastes to tickle the palate—from Leroux’s root beer schnapps to Dr. McGillicuddy’s Mentholmint to DeKuyper’s Sour Apple Pucker that fuels the presently popular appletini.


The essential aquavits for he home bar include Denmark’s smooth, racy Aalborg Akvavit; Sweden’s lush and creamy O.P. Anderson, which offers undertones of vanilla and spice; and Norway’s amber-colored Linie, which is characterized by notes of dry licorice and caraway.

Sucker Punch
{Black eye practically guaranteed}
11¼4  oz. Phillips raspberry schnapps
11¼4  oz. blackberry brandy  |  1 oz. orange juice
1 oz. cranberry juice  |  2 oz. crushed ice
Place ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake
to blend. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Clammy Palm
{Brings anyone out of
his or her shell}
3 oz. O.P. Anderson aquavit
11¼2 oz. clam juice  |  1 tsp. lemon juice
1¼2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Salt, black and cayenne pepper to taste  2 oz. crushed ice
Stir ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Chill thoroughly and strain into an old-fashioned glass with fresh ice.

Danish Mary
{A smorgasbord’s best friend}
1 oz. Aalborg Akvavit  |  1 oz. tomato juice
Dash of Tabasco  |  2 oz. ice cubes
Minced fresh dill, black pepper,
and a celery stalk for garnish
 Pour aquavit, tomato juice, and Tabasco into a mixing glass and stir. Transfer to an ice-filled highball glass and garnish.

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