Skål to Aquavit!

Subtitles were rarely brief in 1616. An early Danish cookbook was no exception. Simply named Cookbook, the subtitle told all: Containing A hundred useful pieces, Which are about brewing, baking, cooking, aquavit and mead to make, as is useful in householding & which before not in our Danish Language is issued in print.

The subtitle had more information about the book’s contents than it had advice on smoked meats, a staple in Nordic cuisine. For those, the author simply stated, “Salt food, smoked ham, meat, tongue, mutton, goose to cook surely everyone knows how to cook, thereof we will write nothing.” Nothing like a side dish of shame for the poor soul who wanted guidance on how to prepare mutton.

Aquavit, though, that was something different. Not only did aquavit merit its own chapter, the author listed 13 cures and healthful benefits one gained from it. I was intrigued by #4 on the list: “If a man loses his speech near death, then give him aquavit in his mouth, and he immediately speaks.” This statement seems to beg for a punch line. I will let you, gentle reader, supply that. But you must admit, if any substance could be so reviving, it is likely to be aquavit.

The benefit that really caught my interest was the last one on the list. “He who rubs the skin on his head and face with aquavit has always beautiful skin, strengthens the mind and brain.” I asked Patrice Johnson, food historian and writer, if she had heard of the wondrous cosmetic properties of aquavit. “No,” she said, “but my face sure turns red when I drink it.”

Patrice Johnson

Mike McCarron, creator of Gamle Ode Aquavit, also said he had never heard of using it as facial tonic, but he didn’t rule it out as a possibility. “Remember the whole idea behind aquavit being the water of life was that it was safer to drink than regular water, so I suppose that would extend into other uses of water like bathing and washing up.  At the very least it would create enough of a marketing angle that an earlier era salesman could create a market for the product…maybe better than snake oil,” he said.

Mike McCarron

Mike suggested sticking to tried and true uses of aquavit – drink it with friends and stay warm in the winter. To that end, he shared the following recipe:

Det Sista Ordet  (Swedish for “the last word”)

Det sista ordet

This cocktail is a Dill Aquavit variation on a classic cocktail from the 1920s.

  • 1 oz. Gamle Ode
  • .75 oz. Lime Juice
  • .75 oz. Chartreuse
  • .5 oz. Maraschino
  • .25 oz. Simple Syrup

Instructions: Shake over ice and strain.

Garnish with a lime wheel.

The Cookbook author did counsel moderation when drinking aquavit. The traditional small glasses certainly help with that. Over the centuries, many beautiful and creative aquavit glasses have been designed to let you enjoy your drink in moderation and with style.

Gene Tokheim of Tokheim Pottery has a contemporary aquavit glass using a very ancient form, the fjord horse. His wife Lucy told the story behind the cup’s creation, “Gene’s sculptural side was delighted with the horse head form that we spotted on a gorgeous ale bowl in the Vesterheim collection. Our version of the ale bowl with horse head handles was a big leap into the world of Scandinavian folk art which inspired our other applications with the horse head form.  One of the latest of these is our very small mug with fjord horse form as a handle, perfect for espresso or aquavit.”

The Tokhiem Pottery horse-head mug is rustic, fits nicely into your hand, and just seems right for sitting by a fire with friends, creating the sense of hygge that keeps Danes so happy all the time. For the aquavit drinker who wants to enjoy friends while dancing to techno, SagaForm designer Matz Borgström created a line of aquavit glasses called appropriately, “Club.” Modern, colorful, playful, the glasses are surprisingly hefty and well balanced. Borgström rounds out his career as a designer with being a Techno and House DJ and he clearly understands the need to keep your drink from toppling over, regardless of what is happening around you.

The choice of aquavits and aquavit glasses are many. But the effect is always the same. I think the Cookbook author would be pleased that this centuries-old drink is still popular and it still brings people together, all with beautiful skin and strengthened minds and brains.

Accomplished Lady's Delight

For people who love historical cookbooks, please visit Gherkins and Tomatoes for many more resources.
For those of you who want a Danish cookbook that doesn’t assume that you already know how to cook a goose, we suggest Cook Yourself Happy The Danish Way.

-Carstens Smith