Having made the mistake of not booking ahead for lunch at Restaurant Schønnemann, located just at the edge of the University of Copenhagen campus, I was lucky to snag a seat there on my last day in the city. Apparently, even after 138 years in business, one of the oldest restaurants in a city boasting 18 Michelin stars still packs each of their two daily seatings for a traditional Danish lunch of smørrebrød (open-faced rye sandwiches) chased with snaps.
As they changed out the crisp white linens on a nearby table, I slid off my slicker at the burnished oak bar and perused the rows of more than 140 bottles on display, each containing a different variation of snaps, the infused spirit ubiquitous to Scandinavia (not to be confused with the sweetened American-style schnapps, or Austrian fruit brandy, schnaps). In Denmark, snaps is almost exclusively made from aquavit, traditionally infused with dill, caraway or both. In neighboring Sweden, snaps can be made from either aquavit or vodka and infused with a variety of herbs, spices and botanicals—fennel, cardamom, anise, caraway and coriander being the most common—or even fruits and berries.
Snaps can be traced back to the 1400s, when the spirit was produced by monks in Denmark and regarded as a medicine used to clean the skin, fight infection, calm indigestion and more. Later, herbs continued to be used, but more often to flavor and mask the taste of low-quality alcohol, particularly amidst Scandinavia’s early 20th-century temperance movements. But even as spirits improved, the tradition of drinking snaps has carried on through the years.
Today, consumption of snaps remains an important part of the lunch tradition. At Schønnemann, groups can be seen raising their stemmed glasses in cheers and downing them with a festive “Skål!” Meanwhile, in Sweden, snaps is mostly consumed around holidays like Christmas, Easter and Midsummer—and unfailingly accompanied by drinking songs both traditional and new.
“I try to go a bit more heavy on the flavor of the snaps for Christmas and more crisp and light for the Midsummers snaps, since the food around Christmas tends to be a bit more rich compared to the lighter cuisine in the summer,” says Stockholm-based bartender Jakob Sundin, founder of The Bartenders’ Choice Awards. “But it’s really fun to play around with different infusions…the only limit regarding flavors is your own imagination.”
Sundin advises starting with a smooth vodka when making snaps at home; he prefers Absolut, which is made from water sourced from an underground aquifer in Åhus and winter wheat grown also grown in the Skåne region of Sweden. “I’m a big fan of the clean profile [and] bready notes,” he says. “You don’t want something heavy or powerful when making your own snaps.”
Ingredients can be steeped in different ways, depending on the desired flavor profiles. The herbs and botanicals can be placed directly in the spirit for a stronger, faster infusion (24 hours, or longer, depending on taste preference) or hung in a mesh cloth inside the sealed jar of alcohol. “In that way, the ingredients and the alcohol never get into actual contact,” says Sundin, “therefore, the infusion takes longer time compared to steeping, but can give a more subtle and elegant flavor.”
As Absolut’s Director for Sensory Design, Åhus-based Per Hermansson is constantly inventing new products, and the experimentation continues at home, where he infuses his own snaps for the holidays and serves it alongside classic Scandinavian dishes.
“Akvavit and snaps are always used with food, like the Chinese baiju,” explains Hermansson. The chilled, herbal shots provide balance to the ålagillen (eel parties) of early fall, Mårtensafton goose dinners of late November and rich holiday smorgasbords filled with foods like pickled herring with crème fraîche and Janssons frestelse (potato gratin with cheese and anchovies).
Back at Restaurant Schønnemann, my choice of smørrebrød (potatoes, smoked eel, chives, onions and generous dollop of mayonnaise balanced on a delicate slice of rugbrød) was rich and satisfying on the cool, damp day—but even better when offset with a couple astringent shots of snaps.
On the way out, I stopped to chat with the bar manager, Simon Olesen, about whether he makes his own snaps. His eyes lit up as he reached under the bar and unearthed an unmarked bottle, then poured us both a small shot; it carried that trademark tannic heat of black pepper and the sweet spice of clove and star anise, all lit up with a bright whisper of lemon zest: Christmas in a glass.
Yet, he wasn’t pleased. He capped the bottle, shaking his head. “It still needs some work.”