I was a colicky and fussy baby. During a visit to my grandparents' farm in Denmark, my grandmother found the antidote to my fidgeting; two or three drops of aquavit (a vodkalike elixir beloved by Scandinavians) into the baby bottle, and I would calm down.
I've had a taste for it ever since. To this day, a bottle of Aalborg Jubilaeums Aquavit, distilled in northern Denmark, is in perpetual residence in my freezer, as it is in that of almost every Dane I know, even here in Minnesota.
There are many national drinks destined to provoke embarrassing ethnic dancing, folk songs and fierce hangovers. The Russians have vodka. The Greeks have ouzo. The Italians Strega.
But aquavit, which the Danes have been drinking for about 500 years, is different.
Sure, like vodka, it's distilled from potatoes and wheat. But aquavit is usually distilled several more times than its coarser cousin, often with natural flavorings, from dill to orange rinds. Aquavit is also widely believed to have distinctive health qualities. This is, after all, a drink whose name means "water of life" in Latin.
In the Middle Ages, there were several reports of dead people rising back to life after a glass of the stuff was poured down their throats -- which, given that aquavit is 40 to 45 percent alcohol, isn't that surprising. Even now, doctors routinely prescribe aquavit for health in Denmark. In fact, aquavit is served in drams, the measurement of a druggist rather than that of a bartender.
My Danish grandmother, a thoroughly sober but suspiciously cheerful lady, had a dram (about a shot) of aquavit most days of her 99 years. She used to pour a stemmed shot glass of aquavit every night and place it in her freezer for a gulp every morning.
"My doctor prescribes it to me -- it's good for the circulation," she told me. "Plus, it heats." I asked her doctor about his prescription. "It certainly can't hurt," he responded. And it probably doesn't. She biked and walked in the forest every day until she died a few months short of a century.
All in the ritual
Aquavit's strange attractions go beyond health. There's a mystical quality to the elixir; it's like a Scandinavian version of communion wine, fraught with ritual. The basic ritual goes like this:
Pour into a frozen aquavit glass (a special shot glass with a stem so your fingers won't warm the contents). Lift glass toward mouth and pause. Stare into eyes of everyone else holding a glass. Say the obligatory Danish toast, "Skaal."
Drink -- to empty or not to empty is up to the individual. Look everyone in the eyes again. Set glass down. It's that staring ... silently ... into the eyes ... of ... everyone ... that can be awkward for novices.
For Danes, famed for their uncommunicative style, this might be the most intimate act that most will perform their entire lives. And yet they're likely to perform it several times a week, often with strangers and enemies. During a dinner party, I found myself staring directly into the eyes of a miffed relative who had just announced her intense dislike of my wife and me. Not a flicker of hostility registered in the aquavit stare (though she did gulp down the whole glass).
For something so strong, aquavit has a strangely civilizing effect. In fact, it's the only booze I can think of that doesn't ever seem to inspire havoc. I have yet to hear the phrase "aquavit- fueled crime spree."
A history with a past
Aquavit wasn't always so proper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, aquavit, or braendevin, which translates to "burning wine" in English, was the scourge of the impoverished working class, much as vodka was in Russia and gin in England. The low esteem with which the ruling class held aquavit is best preserved in the refrain of a popular Danish children's song: "The cobbler's son is a swine/The cobbler's son drinks burning wine." Today, the cobbler's son would most likely be considered swinish if he neglected to serve the drink to his guests.
For our wedding, my wife and I were given three different sets of aquavit glasses -- a polite way to remind us to have a bottle well-chilled for future visitors. It's amazing how many non-Scandinavians now expect a glass also, although I'm not sure how well the taste travels across cultures. I can always expect a glass when visiting my brother-in-law in Texas. I gave him the bottle five years ago.
Variations on a theme
Every Scandinavian country shares the aquavit tradition, though each puts its own spin on it. The Swedes, good forest people, are fond of flavoring their aquavits with berries. The marine-oriented Norwegians ship their Linje Aquavit in oak casks, which they sail back and forth across the equator, the belief being that the transequatorial journey adds to the taste. This might be a good time to point out that many Norwegians also believe in trolls.
The Danes, practical farmers at heart, tend to stick to clear, unflavored aquavit, though they're also fond of aquavit brewed with coriander, which gives it a mild flavoring and golden hue the color of wheat fields. In the United States, you'll occasionally find a sophisticated restaurant or bar that offers its patrons a baroque array of flavored aquavit, from horseradish to pineapple.
But my reaction to flavored aquavit is the same as some people's disdain for Vanilla Coke. You just don't mess with mother's milk.
Finn-Olaf Jones grew up in Denmark and Minnesota, and is currently a contributing editor at ForbesLife.