Snaps: How did an extremely strong alcoholic drink come to define Swedish Midsummer?

Snaps: How did an extremely strong alcoholic drink come to define Swedish Midsummer?
Midsummer dinner tables often feature the characteristic shot glasses for snaps. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / SCANPIX
The Local spoke to Eva Lenneman, a curator at Stockholm's Museum of Spirits in Stockholm about the history of snaps in Sweden.

Midsummer is not only one of Sweden’s biggest holidays, it is also one of the booziest. 

Once you start celebrating the holidays in Sweden you quickly realise that the food remains pretty similar, regardless of season. Potatoes, pickled herring, and devilled eggs set out at the buffet, and tall shot glasses adorn the holiday table. 

Midsummer is no different, and in between courses you will often hear someone clearing their throat, signalling the start of a snapsvisa, or Swedish drinking song.

What is in snaps?

The classic content of the shot glasses you’ll see on Midsummer tables across the country is a spirit called brännvin. While it literally translates to “Burn Wine”, it is made in a process similar to vodka, by distilling potatoes or grains. 

 “A snaps has always been a glass of Swedish brännvin, spiced or non-spiced. The classic akvavit-spice that we have today in Sweden is cumin, anise, fennel,” says Eva Lenneman, a curator at the Spritmuseum (Museum of Spirits) in Stockholm.

Other popular spices used in snaps production include wormwood, blackcurrants, lemon, St. John’s wort, yarrow and elderflower but also more exotic flavours such as Seville orange and ginger. The spices used were dependent on what was available and affordable at different times in history.

Where did snaps come from?

“Brännvin has existed in Sweden at least since the late 1400s. In the beginning it was distilled, as the name suggests, from wine, which was used in the production of gunpowder as well as medicine” Lenneman tells The Local.

At the time, liquid medicine was made by adding healing plants and herbs to strong spirits used to combat illnesses including the plague. The strong religious tradition of the time led to the saying “ont ska med ont fördrivas” which translates to “evil must be banished with evil”.

In the 1600s, Swedes began distilling brännvin from grains which made it more accessible. It remained used mainly for medicinal purposes until the 1700s when members of the nobility began drinking it for pleasure along with meals of butter, cheese, herring and cold cut meat. This was known as a brännvinsbord (brännvin table) and became a Swedish food tradition to accompany a nicer dinner.

You’ve probably heard the term smörgåsbord (‘sandwich table’ or ‘cold buffet’) before. In the 1800s, this more well-known, less alcohol-focused name replaced bränvinsbord and would become a popular event at restaurants across Sweden. 

In the original version, an unlimited amount of drinks were normally included in the price, and guests could serve themselves from large vats of brännvin, usually made of silver and containing four to six different types.  The custom might seem surprising given Sweden’s restrictive alcohol laws of today; it was available mainly in upper class establishments where rules tended to be more lax but the sobriety movement grew increasingly strong around the turn of the century and the unlimited drinking was finally banned in 1902.

In the 1870s, the brännvin industry grew to include mass production in bottles with labels. The technology also allowed for a more sophisticated process. 

“It is now that the snaps-drinking begins to take the shape we recognise. Even today, many of us Swedes eat variants of the smörgårdsbord when we celebrate our traditional holidays Christmas, Easter and Midsummer and serve brännvin-friendly cuisine,” Lenneman said.

So where did the singing come from?

The tradition of snapsvisor, where a few times per meal, those celebrating Midsummer will hold up their shot glass of snaps and sing a song together before taking the shot, also dates back centuries. 

“Just like toasts, the tradition to sing drinking songs and snaps songs is a way to strengthen the sense of community and the joyous atmosphere around the table. It is so fun to sing together!” Lenneman says.

Singing snaps songs became really popular around 100 years ago when the alcohol rationing was introduced. As for the content of the songs, an almost alarming number are written as a celebration of drunkenness itself. 

“In the world of the snaps song, we down glass after glass, get drunk, happy, social, sexy and dance samba all night long. Then we get headaches and vomit, but in the grand scheme of things it is worth it!” Lenneman explains.

Perhaps the most famous snaps song is “Helan går.” The song’s lyrics say that if you do not take helan, the name of the first round of snaps, you will not receive halvan, the second round. You can hear American actor Will Ferrell sing it on British television in the clip below (albeit with an incorrect translation of helan and halvan in the song’s context).

While at least 150 years old, we do not know where this song comes from. The melody comes from an operetta in the 1840s. It is common for a snaps song to be set to a well known tune, and for the lyrics to be rewritten in a humorous way.

What is the future for snaps?

“The status of snaps has shifted throughout history. Throughout many years, brännvin was something “ugly” which was associated with drunkenness and disorder,” Lenneman said.

Spiced brännvin has always had a higher status than the non-spiced. The non-spiced brännvin has a history of being a workers’ drink, while spiced brännvin has been drunk primarily by the upper class and academics. 

“I think that today the snaps often stand for something typically Swedish, which is more common around the older generation. [Snaps is often drunk] in environments where one wishes to protect old traditions such as at universities and the army,” Lenneman says.

But she believes the future might be bright for the strong spirit, noting: “With the resurgence of a connoisseur culture and a larger variety of producers and flavourings, the snaps might see a well-earned return.”  


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