How is Aquavit made?
By law aquavit, akvavit or akevitt is agricultural ethanol flavoured with a distillate of dill seed and/or caraway. Let’s take a moment to explain what that means.
Agricultural ethanol is one of those weird terms that everybody thinks they understand, but few do. It is not, contrary to popular belief, just spirit made from agricultural origin—i.e. grain spirit, cane spirit or “insert produce” spirit.
The process of making agricultural ethanol is very complicated and technical and involves quite large machines called continuous stills or column stills. Hence, most distilleries around the world producing gin or aquavit buy this product from an external source.
Suppose you, like myself, are a super nerd about these kinds of regulatory things. In that case, you can read this Dostoyevskian sized report by the European Parliament, on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 1576/89.
AGRICULTURAL ETHANOL AND AQUAVIT
Agricultural ethanol is the basic common denominator between gin and aquavit, as both spirits are required to be based on it. That said, it’s the process after which separates the two spirits. So how do they get their flavour?
To make aquavit (and gin) you take your selected botanicals and put them into the ethanol. Often at 40-60% abv. That has to do with the flavours that extract at different strengths of alcohol.
On a side note, the added ingredients historically don’t need to be ‘botanical’ in nature. Leather, rocks and other minerals could be fun to play with, and the mystical unicorn horn and Ambergris were common ingredients back in the 14-1500’s. I can’t imagine there would be a sizeable contemporary market for whale vomit-flavoured spirit; however, unicorn-flavoured would probably have a niche clientele.
Now we get to the distilling. The flavour infused agricultural ethanol is moved into a pot still, a distillation apparatus that is often used in whisky distilleries. Here it is gently heated until the alcohol starts evaporating. This evaporation process transports light flavour molecules with it, leaving bitter compounds behind. The resulting product is a colourless flavourful spirit, often at around 80% abv.
From here, the distiller will either add water to dilute the distillate to the desired strength, or they will add a mix blend of water and the original agricultural ethanol to obtain a desired strength and flavour.
In gin, there is a distinction between gin, compound gin, distilled gin and London gin. But that distinction does not exist in aquavit. There is, however, a strict rule that aquavit must be flavoured by a distillate of dill seed and/or caraway, and that means that you can’t make it at home. If you add caraway to a bottle of vodka, you get snaps, and that is a whole other story.