What Is Aquavit? (& 4 Cocktails to Use It In)

December 17, 2015

If there is one question we receive from a visitor to our distillery, it is nearly always, “What is aquavit?”

The question comes so often and so predictably, we joke about making our staff wear buttons that say, “Ask me what aquavit is.” (They would probably all quit if we did that though.)

Photo by Emily Vikre

Though some in-the-know bars have integrated aquavit into their cocktail programs, aquavit remains solidly planted in the “obscure liquor” category for people outside of the northernmost reaches of Europe. So, let us take a moment to answer our favorite question: What is aquavit?

Shop the Story

Aquavit is a traditional Scandinavian spirit. Just as gin has to have a dominant flavor of juniper berries, aquavit has to have a dominant flavor that is either caraway seeds or dill seeds (or both!) to earn its name. Aquavit, also spelled akevitt or akvavit, and sometimes just called snapps, comes from the Latin aqua vitae, or water of life. Interestingly, this is the same meaning as the French word for brandy, eau-de-vie, and the Celtic origins of the word whisky, usquebaugh.

Aquavit is the national drink of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, though being Norwegian, I know the most about the traditions in Norway, where aquavit has existed since at least the 1500s. As with many spirits, it was originally believed to be a cure for virtually anything that ailed you. At the very least, it kept lumbermen and farmers warm as they worked, and its popularity became so widespread that it became a cultural centerpiece.

A "Sunrise Over the Fjord": aquavit, grapefruit juice, and sparkling white wine. Photo by Emily Vikre

Aquavit must be infused with caraway and/or dill, but it can also feature a cast of other supporting spices such as citrus, fennel, anise, star anise, grains of paradise, and juniper. The aquavit we make, for example, includes caraway, cardamom, fennel, cloves, ginger, pink peppercorn, and citrus peels.

Aquavit may be un-aged, a style often referred to as taffel aquavit, or aged in oak casks. Norwegians have most notably evolved an affinity for aquavit that is aged in used sherry casks for anywhere from a year to nearly two decades, which gives these aquavits a distinct sweetness and nutty and raisiny notes that bolster the caraway.

Photo by Emily Vikre

A particular style of Norwegian aquavit, called Linie aquavit (linie is Norwegian for line, and the old word for equator), is aged on ships that travel to Australia and back. The companies that use this technique assert that the rocking of the ships, combined with the changes in temperature and humidity along the voyage, creates completely unique aging effects. I know first hand that the U.S. government is not, at present, particularly open to letting small American distilleries try similar techniques. Indeed, according to U.S. regulations you can’t even call an aquavit aged. We make an aquavit that is aged in cognac casks, but we have to say it is “matured.”

These days aquavit is most often part of celebratory meals on holidays: Easter, Constitution Day, Midsummer, and most especially Christmas. Special aquavit varieties are made to pair with different feasting dishes: shellfish, pinnekjøtt (a Christmas lamb dish), lutefisk, fjellmatt (“mountain food”), and so on.

And aquavit is an absolute must for the julebord (“Christmas table"), which are the epic Christmas feasts that Norwegian companies throw for all their employees. A good Christmas meal is likely to start with aquavit-spiked gløgg and then proceed with sips of ice-cold aquavit interspersed amongst rich, meat-heavy dishes.

Aquavit is not the most easy-going spirit to work with in cocktails. The caraway gives it a savory bent that tends to be assertive. But, even so, the results of a nicely balanced aquavit cocktail make it worth any effort it took to get there. I like aquavit best in simple cocktails.

Photo by Emily Vikre

Some notable examples:

  • A friend of ours who has a bitters company makes an aquavit negroni with our cognac cask-aged aquavit.
  • Our friends at a distillery called Tattersall make a concoction they call the North Side (a spin on the Southside, which is a gin cocktail) with aquavit, lime, and mint.
  • One of my favorite cocktails ever is a gimlet made with aquavit and homemade lime cordial.
  • And our friends at Marvel Bar in the Twin Cities gained note for their Tomas Collins, a bracing but balanced, Nordic-inflected twist on a classic Tom Collins.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Elaine
  • Thomas Andersen
    Thomas Andersen
I like to say I'm a lazy iron chef (I just cook with what I have around), renegade nutritionist, food policy wonk, and inveterate butter and cream enthusiast! My husband and I own a craft distillery in Northern Minnesota called Vikre Distillery (, where I claimed the title, "arbiter of taste." I also have a doctorate in food policy, for which I studied the changes in diet and health of new immigrants after they come to the United States. I myself am a Norwegian-American dual citizen. So I have a lot of Scandinavian pride, which especially shines through in my cooking on special holidays. Beyond loving all facets of food, I'm a Renaissance woman (translation: bad at focusing), dabbling in a variety of artistic and scientific endeavors.


Elaine May 22, 2019
This is amazing! I know I'm late to the game, but I *just* picked up a bottle of your Aquavit from the local booze store, having tried and loved your cedar gin.

Came here to F52 to look for some cocktail ideas, and found out that you -- whose recipes I frequently save anyway -- are the cofounder Vikre! This is cocktail kismet, for sure.
Elaine May 22, 2019
(cofounder *of* Vikre -- good lord, I'm too excited about this aquavit to type correctly.)
Thomas A. September 21, 2016
Wow - thank you for a great article. At we've just published an ebook on aquavit and aquavit cocktails which can be dowloaded here: