The word akvavit is derived from the Medieval Latin aqua vītae, “water of life.” The word whiskey is derived from uisge beatha, the Gaelic equivalent of this phrase. Likewise, clear fruit brandy is called "eau de vie" (French for "water of life").
An apocryphal story holds that akvavit actually means "water from the vine," a picturesque folk etymology derived through conflation of Latin vītae (genitive of vita) with the Italian vite (vine).
Akvavit is an important part of Scandinavian drinking culture. Akvavit is often drunk during a formal procedure called "drinking snaps".
Akvavit is often drunk quickly from a small shot glass. This is usually attributed to tradition.
Akvavit arguably complements beer well, and its consumption is very often preceded (or followed) by a swig of beer. Purists generally lament this practice, claiming that the beer will ruin the flavour and aftertaste.
Akvavit, like vodka, is distilled from either grain or potatoes (after making a mash from them then, e.g., breaking that down with malt, and then fermenting it). It is flavoured with herbs, spices, and fruit oils such as caraway seeds, cardamom, cumin, anise, lemon or orange peel, or fennel.[ Dill and "grains of paradise" are also used. The Danish distillery Aalborg makes an akvavit distilled with amber.
The recipes and flavours differ between brands, but caraway is typically the dominant flavour.
Akvavit usually has a yellowish hue, but this can vary from clear to light brown, depending on how long it has been aged in oak casks. Normally, a darker colour suggests a higher age or the use of young casks, though artificial caramel colouring is permitted. Clear akvavit is called taffel; it is typically aged in old casks that do not colour the finished spirit.
“ Dear lord, will your grace know that I send your grace some water with Jon Teiste which is called Aqua vite and the same water helps for all his illness that a man can have internally.”
—Lord of Bergenshus castle, Eske Bille
The earliest known reference to akvavit is found in a 1531 letter from the Danish Lord of Bergenshus Castle, Eske Bille to Olav Engelbrektsson, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Norway. The letter, dated April 13, accompanying a package, offers the archbishop "some water which is called Aqua Vite and is a help for all sort of illness which a man can have both internally and externally".
While this claim for the medicinal properties of the drink may be rather inflated, it is a popular belief that akvavit will ease the digestion of rich foods. In Denmark it is traditionally associated with Christmas lunch. In Norway it is particularly drunk at celebrations, such as Christmas or May 17 (Norwegian Constitution Day). In Sweden it is a staple of the traditional midsummer celebrations dinner, usually drunk while singing one of many drinking songs. It is usually drunk as snaps during meals, especially during the appetizer course— along with pickled herring, crayfish, lutefisk or smoked fish. In this regard it is popularly quipped that akvavit helps the fish swim down to the stomach. It is also a regular on the traditional Norwegian Christmas meals, including roasted rib of pork and stickmeat (pinnekjøtt) It is said that the spices and the alcohol helps digest the meal which is very rich in fat.