ISIDOR HENNIUS’S INVENTION
Basically, aquavit and schnapps are the same as vodka. They are made of the same raw materials (grains and/or potatoes) and with the same distillation techniques, and are seldom aged. For aquavit especially, flavouring is more common, but this characteristic is also found in some Polish vodkas. In fact, the only reason that the aquavits of Denmark and Scandinavia and the schnapps of Germany have their own denomination is that they have a strong national character. They are considered an important element of local culture and were chosen above others as signs of belonging to a common heritage. The fact that they so closely resemble the vodkas of neighboring counties makes no difference.
ISIDOR HENNIUS’S INVENTION
Aquavit (also spelled “akvavit”) is the Danish transcription of aqua vitae, or “water of life” in Latin. Unlike other spirits, we know exactly who invented it: Isidor Hennius, a young distiller who moved to the city of Aalborg on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark in 1848.
Until then, the history of the distillation of spirits in Denmark had been very similar to that of neighboring Northern European countries. The technique became known at the end of the fifteenth century and spread rapidly, with both families and farms setting up home stills. The lack of grains in the country forced distillers to also make use of potatoes. A local proverb holds that with one potato, one can always make a small glass of spirits. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Danish state decided to increase its control over the production of spirits and set up a monopoly. Nevertheless, more than two thousand distillers were counted in the country at the time.
When Isidor Hennius arrived in Aalborg, the city was the main distilling centre because it was located in the middle of a grain-growing region. His personal recipe, which was to become a great success, is not precisely known. We know only that part of its particular flavour comes from a strong aromatization with cumin. Hennius was the first distiller in Denmark to use a continuous still and to practice rectification to obtain the greatest possible purity and to eliminate undesirable elements
The popularity of this aquavit was so great that it quickly adopted the name of its native city, Aalborg, which it still carries today. It is made by the Danisco Distillers group, the largest producer of spirits (with several vodkas and various liqueurs) in Denmark.
The making of traditional aquavit is a little more complex than that of other grain-based spirits. A neutral eau-de-vie (made of grain or potatoes) is used to macerate various aromatic plants and spices, especially cumin. The result is distilled to obtain an aromatic extract that is then mixed with water and neutral spirits. This mixture then rests for several weeks before being bottled.
Aalborg, the most popular brand, is a fairly strong eau-de-vie, with forty-five percent alcohol, but it is very mellow and has a great richness. Cumin dominates its flavouring.
In 1946, for the centenary of the distillery, an aquavit called Jubilaeums was created. With a yellow-gold colour and forty-two percent alcohol, its flavouring is more complex, dominated by cumin, dill, and coriander.
Other brands sold on the Danish market include:
• Brondum Kummen, created at the end of the nineteenth century by the distiller Anton Brondum in Copenhagen. Its cumin and cinnamon flavouring have made it a great success.
• Harald Jensen, with forty-five percent alcohol, is another highly aromatic aquavit, launched in 1883.
• Holger Denske, a more recent aquavit, is made by the distiller Oskar Davidsen in Copenhagen for Taster Wine A /S, a wine-importing group founded in 1946 by Fritz Paustian. The standard version contains thirty-eight percent alcohol, and the pale yellow Guld contains forty percent. Both are pleasantly flavoured with cumin.
While aquavit can be drunk straight, it is most commonly consumed with a traditional Danish smorgasbord — various smoked fishes, charcuterie, and cheeses served as canapés.
Norway also developed its own style of aquavit, marked above all by the country’s maritime tradition. The distillation of potato- or grain-based eaux-de-vie, flavoured with cumin, goes back at least two centuries, as is proved by a treatise published in 1776 by Christopher Hammer, a landowner who conducted chemistry experiments. In particular, he studied the effects of different aromatic herbs, especially cumin, either used alone or mixed with others.
The major contribution of the Norwegians to the making of aquavit dates to the nineteenth century and was the result of an unexpected discovery. A Norwegian boat, the brig “Trondheim Prove”, set out in 1805 on a long journey to India and Australia, carrying aquavit in a few small barrels that had once held sherry. The aquavit was to be sold at the ship’s destinations, along with other merchandise, but it was not a great commercial success, and the ship returned to Norway with most of its cargo of aquavit intact. On arrival, it was discovered that this unplanned aging, accelerated by the movements of the ship, had created an eau-de-vie of a lovely golden colour that was especially mellow and aromatic. The ship belonged to the Lysholm family, and the secret of this high-quality eau-de-vie was carefully guarded until 1821, when Jorgen B. Lysholm founded a distillery in the city of Trondheim. Using the traditional recipes for the making of aquavit, he institutionalized the family recipe, sending his barrels off on ships going to India and Australia. He called the aquavit aged in this way Linie, a reference to the “crossing of the line”, the Equator.
The family business was later nationalized, and it has now become the private group Arcus, a large producer of spirits. Linie no longer travels around the world in sailboats. Since 1927, the Norwegian company Wilhelmsen has been responsible for the procedure, specifying that the barrels must travel under the bridge of the ship and that the voyage should last at least four-and-a-half months. Each bottle of aquavit thus made carries the name of the ship on which it traveled on a band around its neck.
Lysholm Linie is the best-known brand of the Arcus group, which produces other varieties of aquavit with different flavourings.
Arcus’s Loiten Export, an aquavit made according to another procedure (a mixture of neutral aquavit with aromatic plants), also travels the world in oak barrels before being bottled.