Consider winter in Scandinavia, say the northern reaches of Sweden, the long coast of Norway. Here, between the Arctic Ocean and the icy Baltic Sea, over 100 days a year clock in below freezing, with many unfolding in permanent, mid-winter twilight. To survive with your sanity intact, you'll need a few provisions: Sturdy boots, thick walls, and liquor that will warm you up in a hurry.
Enter Aquavit (or Akvavit, depending on where you're drinking it), the water of life, the pale gold liquor that defrosts hearts and hands and forges bonds from Stockholm to Kruna -- and the next great addition to your home bar.
Far from being a roughly hewn spirit meant solely for desperate, isolated nights on the fjords (though, again -- it's perfect for that), Aquavit is actually a staple of Scandinavian socializing; the drink is a standard appetite-stimulator in the summer, and has an honored place in the nations' major holiday meals. Here's all you need to know to get started:
1.) Aquavit is distilled from potato or grain, like vodka, and flavored with botanicals and spices -- principally caraway, but it's not rare to see cumin, aniseed, cardamom, or citrus peels.
2.) Your Aquavit's color and age depend on its origin; Norwegian aquavit is often matured in oak, whereas Danish and Swedish bottlings tend to be white.
3.) The preferred way to take Aquavit is straight, either at room temperature or with a stiff chill. Non-purists can be caught chasing the shot with beer.
4.) Aquavit is often called by the generic term "snaps," a generic term for a strong shot done during a meal (in Scandinavian countries, anytime one is drinking snaps, one is more than likely drinking aquavit). Snaps are typically accompanied by seafood (pickled herring, crayfish), and are often tied to drinking games and songs.
5.) Like many spirits, Aquavit was once (ie, in the 1500s) thought to have significant medicinal properties. Today, it's still prescribed -- from one drinker to another -- as an aid for digestion, especially after rich, fatty meals.