Light Swedish vodka
Brännvin is probably best translated as light Swedish vodka.
Brännvin normally has an alcoholic content of between 30 and 38% (ABV).
If literally translated brännvin means burn-wine (bränn = burn, vin = wine). This is because distilling is sometimes referred to as burning, and the starting point for the distillation is a rather tasteless wine made from potatoes and cereal grains.
The "tasteless wine" normally has an alcohol content of about 15% and is then distilled until the alcohol content is about 60% or higher. Finally it is bottled with an alcohol strength of 30% or higher.
Vodka is made by a very similar process, but it has to be distilled to at least 95% and bottled with an alcohol strength of least 37.5% in Europe, 40% in the USA. (Vodka was originally a Slavic word and was not used in Sweden until 1958.)
Unflavoured brännvin is seldom drunk on its own, instead it is normally used to create some home-flavoured snaps. For instance, many Swedes like to make a bottle of slånbärssnaps (sloe snaps) in time for Christmas.
Sometimes the brännvin is sold flavoured with herbs and spices. Often the term brännvin is retained for marketing purposes, usually because the brand has been established for a long time.
Aquavit is always flavoured and can be made by flavouring vodka or brännvin.
Snaps (schnapps is the German spelling) is a small shot of aquavit (or another strong alcoholic drink) usually consumed during the course of a meal. (Snaps can refer to the drink in a snapsglas (snaps glass) or to a bottle of aquavit.)
Swedes love to sing snapsvisor (drinking songs) before consuming their snaps. For more information about snapsvisor and some lyrics click here.
The skål ritual
Although skål can be translated simply as cheers, Swedes have a ritual for saying skål during a meal. There are three stages:
1. When the glasses are filled, the host (or anyone else proposing a toast) raises his/her glass, at which point the diners raise their glasses too, turn to one another and make eye contact, making certain not to leave anyone out.
2. Once the host calls out Skål! everyone replies Skål! and takes a sip (or drinks the whole snaps). Again there is eye contact.
3. The glasses are then set on the table, not to be lifted again until a new toast is proposed!
Not too serious
Don't worry: many of these meals are notoriously tipsy affairs, so they are not taken seriously for long. And the songs are just bonkers.
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