Nordic and Viking lore tells of how two races of gods created the wise and wonderful Kvasir, who was then murdered by two dwarfs. It gets better. The dwarfs filled three drinking containers with Kvasir's blood, mixed it with honey and created a drink that offered wisdom and poetry to the drinker; even the god Odin wanted in on the party.
Mythology aside, there's now scientific proof that Norse folk as far back as the Bronze and Iron Age enjoyed some very intriguing tipples. The discovery was recently published online in the December 2013 Danish Journal of Archaeology, which cited evidence of “Nordic grog,” a “hybrid beverage” that mixed barley and rye, and often imported grape wine, with other ingredients such as honey, lingonberries, bog myrtle and juniper. The drink dates back as early as 1500 BC.
The discovery was made at various burial sites in Denmark and Sweden where excavated tombs revealed bronze drinking vessels and equipment (including a wine bucket from an imported Roman wine set) that contained residue which tested as the organic compounds found in wine. The discovery is ground-breaking because it suggests a flourishing trade network between the Nordic countries and south-central Europe that dates back 3,000 years.
From a social and cultural perspective, however, it's all the more fascinating because it reveals – through the evidence of numerous drinking vessels – a certain prestige attached to the consumption of wine. It also appears that the often barbaric image of Norse and Viking culture could be wrong; these drinks reveal a far more sophisticated lifestyle, where the Nordic people enthusiastically created, in essence, their own primitive cocktails, many of which appear to have had medicinal properties as well.
Lead author of the paper Patrick McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told us: “Mixed fermented beverages, like the Nordic grog, are the cocktails of antiquity. Before humans discovered how to distill, they were using fermented beverages of all kinds and mixing them with herbal bitters. In ancient Scandinavia, native herbs like bog myrtle, meadowsweet, heather, and yarrow were the preferred mixers.”
Today, if you're curious to try anything close to this Nordic grog, you'll have to travel to the Swedish island of Gotland, where one of the most recent residue samples was discovered. There, a modern grog is made from barley, honey, juniper and other herbs that parallel the ancient recipes.
As for McGovern, his curiosity has led him to create his own version of the brew, partnering with Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery for a very limited run. The grog can be found in L.A. at Sunset Beer Company and a few other spots.
Using the chemical, botanical, and pollen samples found at one of the sites, Dogfish and McGovern mixed up a heady and hearty brew that combines barley and winter red wheat with lingonberry, bog cranberry wine, and honey mead. The mixture is then flavored with bog myrtle, yarrow, clover, and birch syrup. Its name, aptly enough, is Kvasir. The gods would be proud.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.