It’s Syttende Mai. Have Some Aquavit to Celebrate Norway’s Big Day

(Bloomberg) -- It’s pronounced SET-nuh MY. “And it’s even more important to Norwegians than the Fourth of July is for Americans, if that’s possible,” says Morten Sohlberg, owner of Smorgas Restaurant Group in New York, which includes Smorgas Chef on Park Avenue at Scandinavia House and Blenheim, his Michelin-starred new-Nordic restaurant in the West Village.

Syttende Mai means 17th of May in Norwegian, and it stands for the historic day in 1814 when some Norwegians signed the Kongeriket Norges Grunnlov, making Norway’s constitution the second-oldest written constitution in the world. “I was born and raised in Norway,” says Sohlberg, “and I have Swedes and Danes in my kitchen, but this is not shared across the borders in Finland, Sweden, Iceland, or Denmark,” the other four nations of greater Scandinavia.

“It’s very much a national family holiday,” says Sohlberg, “an all-day event with lots of parades throughout the country.” Citizens celebrate by wearing bunad, the national costume of Norway. They stroll about, feasting on simple street foods “and singing national songs that I won’t sing for you because you cannot unhear them,” says Sohlberg. By day, it’s about brunchy foods, smorbrod (open-faced sandwiches), and lots of gravlax with eggs and chives, plus beer and Champagne. Along the parade routes, vendors sell hot dogs, ice cream, and a variety of cakes.

“And then we party hard at night,” Sohlberg adds. That’s when the aquavit gets opened.

If you can’t get your hands on an imported aquavit, sniff out one of the many notable American versions, including this caraway-driven spirit from Tattersall Distilling in Minnesota and the oyster shell–steeped Oster Vit from James River Distillery in Virginia. Aquavit is distilled from a potato or grain base and must feature a predominant flavoring of carraway or dill. Devil’s Head Distillery in Colorado ages its “Reserve” aquavit in charred-oak barrels for a year and a half, which lends the liquor a lovely amber color and warm flavors.  In Grand Rapids, Mich., Long Road Distillers has won more than a dozen awards for its version.

According to NPR, fewer than 10 aquavits were made in the U.S. in 2012. Now there are more than 50.

Sohlberg’s drinking coffee on Thursday morning while his countrymen in Oslo, six hours ahead, are enjoying their midday meal. “I was on a one-and-a-half hour FaceTime with them while they were gathered and celebrating. It was a wonderful way to be with my family.” He plans to raise a proper toast after dinner service, probably with a saison from Nogne O, an independent Norwegian beer.

If you want to experience Syttende Mai, there are happenings around the U.S. “There’s a large community in Bay Ridge that will celebrate today,” says Sohlberg. And the Norwegian Seaman’s Church of New York has an entire block closed at 52nd Street, with flags and paraphernalia. Major Syttende Mai festivals take place in Stoughton, Wisc. (a three-day celebration), another hosted by the Norwegian National League in Park Ridge, Ill., and West Coast Mai soirées in Portland, Ore. and Seattle, Wash. Just remember that the proper cheers is Skal!—pronounced as it looks: Skall!


To contact the author of this story: Jason Tesauro in New York at

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