06 December 2021, by Peter Eichhorn
Enjoying a Cosy Drink Nordic-Style
When people think of the Nordic countries, they often picture magnificent fjords, amazing biathletes, invigorating trips to the sauna, or faeries and mermaids. These regions recently made an international splash with their distinctive way of living.
Scandinavian cuisine has a great deal more to offer than just crispbread, cinnamon rolls and furniture-store hot dogs. While the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef and his “Bork Bork Bork” catchphrase were not taken entirely seriously in the culinary world, by opening their ‘Noma’ restaurant in Copenhagen in 2003 and issuing the Nordic Cuisine manifesto in 2005, Claus Meyer and René Redzepi helped launch a new movement. They raised awareness of regional culinary arts whose impact reached far beyond their Danish homeland to influence chefs around the globe. The Scandinavian touch is also a welcome presence in the world of interior design and decoration. Anyone who has ever spent the winter in the Nordic region knows just how important light, candles and the little details that warm the heart are whenever there is an icy chill and lasting darkness outside.
Nordic Influence on Christmas
During the Yuletide season in particular, we welcome numerous traditions that come to us from the far north. One example is 13 December, the feast day honouring Saint Lucia of Syracuse. On this day, singing and crowns of light honour the saint who gave food and sustenance to the poor and to persecuted Christians, wearing a crown of lights that illuminated her path as she did so.
Even the ‘Secret Santa’ custom made its way to our environs from Scandinavia. In this tradition, friends or colleagues are randomly assigned someone to whom they are to give a small gift. This has even given rise to a tradition where people give one another the worst gifts they received from Father Christmas.
Hygge, Beer and Singing
In Denmark, the Christmas season kicks off right at the beginning of November. The high point of this ‘liquid Christmas season’ is ‘J-dag’, or J-day, the first Friday in November. This is the day when the Tuborg brewery releases its special Christmas beer, Jule-Øl. Since 1990, the brewery’s employees have marked this day by giving away free beer at drinking establishments – they also have to sing Christmas songs.
The Meaning of Hygge and Lagom
In 2017, the word ‘hygge’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which defined this word as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or wellbeing”. Ever since, countless magazines, books and self-help guides have been offering tips on how to achieve this Danish feeling of well-being coupled with advice on slowing down their lives. The ongoing hygge trend may well be a reaction to the fast pace of today’s digitalised world that satisfies a desire to slow down and step back from it all. There is still no entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for ‘lagom’, a Swedish philosophy of life. ‘Lagom’ is a word that seeks happiness in the middle – in doing things just right. Its maxim: neither too much nor too little. The ideal is to be sought in perfect balance: moderation, not mediocrity.
From Underwear to the Equator
While the Finns are not technically Scandinavians, this Nordic nation has also made a contribution to this area: a slap in the face. While it may seem dangerous to ask for one, anyone who orders a ‘korvapuusti’ (the Finnish word for ‘slap in the face’) will be treated to a tasty cinnamon treat. These are enjoyed with copious amounts of coffee, as the Finns are some of Europe's biggest coffee drinkers. Yet the Finns are also big fans of stronger beverages and are avid fans of ‘kalsarikännit’. Also sometimes referred to as ‘pantsdrunk’, it means staying at home and drinking large amounts of alcohol while still in your underwear. One speciality that is suitable for this pastime is ‘sahti’, a traditional beer that is flavoured with juniper.
The Origins of Aquavit
After learning all these new words, it is certainly time for a schnapps. This is where the Norwegians come in. The first official document making reference to Aquavit (also known as ‘Akvavit’) dates back to 1531. On 13 April of that year, the commander of Fort Bergenhus (near the city of Bergen in modern-day Norway) sent a bottle of Aqua Vitae to Archbishop Olaf Engelbrektsson when he was ill. A letter accompanied the gift in which it can be read: “...some water known as Aqua Vitae that is a boon to anyone suffering from any sort of internal or external ailment.” This healing gift was sent to Steinvikholm Castle, residence of the Archbishop. It was in honour of this historical event that ‘Steinvikholm Aquavit’ was launched on the Norwegian market in 2003. The speciality spirit is produced using malt and aged for three to four years in sherry casks. With its caraway, fennel, orange peel and smoke aromas, connoisseurs see it almost as a cousin to Scotch Whisky.
In the EU, Akvavit and Aquavit are spirits whose flavour is defined by caraway or dill seeds – or both. Such rules do not apply in the USA, where Aquavit is currently an on-trend drink in bars and a frequent component of cocktails. In the US market, additional flavours and aromas are allowed to take centre stage.
Aquavit is practically synonymous with Scandinavian Drinking Culture
History was made by the ‘Linie’ brand, which is a product of the oldest distillery that is still producing Aquavit. And it was a woman who played the starting role. Catharina Meincke from Trondheim proved to be a farsighted entrepreneur and manager of a shipping firm with an eye for new markets. In 1805, her brig the ‘Trondhiems Prøve’ set sail to transport dried fish, cheese and ham to Batavia, what is now Jakarta in Indonesia. Also part of its cargo: five barrels of schnapps. Due to the fact that they were unable to find any buyers, these barrels remained on board for the return journey – very much to the annoyance of the ship’s captain. On 7 December 1806, the crew decided to celebrate the crossing of the equator in the traditional manner by having a drink. There was still schnapps on board, after all, and when they took their first sip the sailors were overjoyed: the sea journey and barrel ageing had changed the schnapps, adding something exquisite to its flavour. The entrepreneur was also quite pleased with what maturation at sea had done to the Aquavit, and when she subsequently married into the Lysholm family, she passed on her recipe to Jørgen B. Lysholm. In 1821 he established a distillery in Trondheim, giving rise to the ‘Linie’ brand and its distinctive method of maturing schnapps in sherry barrels at sea. Even today, every bottle of ‘Linie’ Aquavit bears the dates of its sea journey and crossing of the equator.
...and a Touch of Madness
The art of distilling and its inherent creativity continue to be widespread throughout Scandinavia today. Whisky currently enjoys tremendous popularity, with Mackmyra, Highcoast and Spirit of Hven serving up their distillates in Sweden and Denmark’s Staining distillery recently undertaking experiments with mezcal-barrel maturing. And a Finnish Kyrö Rye from the brand with the naked distillery team is the perfect choice for a hot toddy.
The unusual products from Empirical Spirits have already earned an international reputation, especially on account of their low-temperature distillate with habanero peppers that they christened ‘Fuck Trump and his stupid fucking wall’. The team from Copenhagen has been boldly experimenting with a variety of methods, temperatures, yeasts and aromas. Their ‘Helena’ marries Western and Eastern fermentation methods while making use of Belgian beer yeasts and Asian Aspergillus oryzae, also known as kōji mould. The resulting tipple: sweet, floral, umami.
Hygge for at Home
But let us get back to hygge, lagom and kalsarikännit. It’s time to prepare a nice drink, grab a good book and find a nice cosy corner in which to settle down and get comfortable. The poet Friedrich Schiller once offered a piece of advice: “Strive for calm, but do so through balance, rather than inaction.”
Marian Krause from the ‘Grid Bar’ in Cologne has created just the right drink for us to do this: ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ (English: a bed in the cornfield).
- 3 cl Aquavit
- 2 cl rosé vermouth
- 1.5 cl lime juice
- 1 bar spoon of Williams Pear Brandy
- 1 dash of aromatic bitters
- 1 dash of orange bitters
- Coupled with a slice of dried bread