Sweden, from geographical necessity and by tradition, has been a part of Europe's so-called "vodka belt" - those countries that, for want of a wine culture, instead have satisfied their need for alcohol with beer and spirits.
The Vikings had their mead, a fermented beverage made from honey and flavoured with spices, hops and malt, a precursor of today's beer, of which we purchased 179 million litres (starköl
, strong beer, above 3.5% alcohol by volume) at state-run Systembolaget liquor stores in 2005, and probably brought home significantly more privately from trips primarily to Denmark and Germany.
But the Viking naturally came in contact with wine on their journeys around the Mediterranean, and a few tuns undoubtedly found their way into the ballast on the trip home. (The name of Vinland, discovered by Leif Eriksson in present-day Newfoundland in the year 1000, does not refer to wine, but means roughly "swampy meadowland" in Old Norse. Our trade contacts with Germany have always been lively, particularly during the Hanseatic period (from the 13th to the 17th century), and German wine was imported early on to Sweden. But it was an expensive beverage that rarely reached beyond the circles of the court and the aristocracy. Poor folks had to make do with watery beer.
The origins of vodka are a pet bone of contention that has enlivened many a drinking party, especially in the company of Russians and Poles. Those Scandinavians, Finns and Balts who would have something to say in the matter have been brusquely repudiated. For this is largely an issue between Poles and Russians. The word is the same in both languages -vodka, a diminutive form of the word for water. Thus, "little water". But where did it come from? THE ART OF DESTILLATION
It all basically boils down to a question of where the art of distillation originated, and this is where the Spanish-born French alchemist Arnaud de Villeneuve gets involved. He lived between 1250 and 1314 and is usually attributed with being the first to produce spirits in the form of the distillate of wine. Not because he was first, though, but mostly because left behind written testimony of the deed.
"It deserves to be called eau-de-vie", he wrote, "as it is truly the elixir of immortality - it lengthens life, dispels ill humour, strengthens the heart and keeps one young."
Eau-de-vie, the "water of life" in Latin, acquired its direct linguistic equivalents both in "vodka" and "whisky", which was distilled from beer by monks in Ireland, perhaps as early as the 6th century. They had learned the secret art from the Orient, and the good Villeneuve had probably picked up his ideas from the Moors of Spain, where he spent the first part of his life. And even earlier, both the Egyptians, Persians, Indians and Chinese were familiar with the art of distillation. The latter also invented gunpowder, the production of which requires alcohol.
A kind of "vodka" probably found its way to the shores of the Baltic around the 11th century. Far before the times of Villeneuve, monks, apothecaries and alchemists in Poland dabbled in distillation, but their methods were primitive and, using wine as the raw material, a weak liquor resulted, whose unpleasant flavour one attempted to disguise with the admixture of herbs, berries and spices. Such additives - which make the vodka "flavoured" - are still very common in Poland and Russia, partly by tradition, partly to hide the taste of fusel oil.Brännvin
, brandywine or schnapps, was brought to Scandinavia by German merchants in the 15th century, but, in the beginning, it was only used medicinally and in the production of gunpowder. A court record from 1494 testifies to the fact that other qualities and effects of spirits were soon discovered - all distillation and sales of schnapps except for the production of gunpowder was penalised. But it would only be another four years until the first serving license was granted in Stockholm.
During the 16th century, most brännvin
was distilled from wine, as the name suggests, and it was therefore too expensive for the common run of people. The stills got busier and more widespread in the 17th century, when people learned to use cheaper grain as a raw material. Swedish soldiers also brought home both manufacturing methods and drinking customs from their ravages in the southern and eastern Baltic.
It was thus in the 17th century that brännvin
, flavoured or unflavoured, became Sweden's national beverage. Developments in Denmark were more or less along the same lines, although there was a greater predilection for the flavoured kind there. In 1746, the Swedish countess Eva de la Gardie developed a method for making schnapps from potatoes, but it wouldn't be until the next century that the new raw material made its breakthrough. In the 1830's, there were some twenty major stills, and it is estimated that over 100 million litres of brännvin were produced annually in Sweden - which numbered 3 million inhabitants at the time.