Today, the Danish-German war of 1864 is looked on as a geopolitical event and the history of a changing society. But the more down-to-earth details mattered most to those people who were the main players in the war – the Danish soldiers.
They were equipped with antiquated muzzle loaders and uniforms that could not deal with the bitter winter cold that afflicted the country in that fateful year. However, at some point someone had thought about the soldiers’ welfare: Their meagre rations at least contained a decent amount of aquavit. But what exactly was in the bottles in those times?
The first Danish aquavit was a powerful drink with a burning content, stuffed with cumin and dill to dull the worst of the bitter taste. But in 1846, the “Aalborg Privilegerede Sirup- og Spritfabrik” distillery was founded, and the development of a proper aquavit was seriously underway. Homemade aquavit’s days were numbered – at least in general. Danish aquavit reached a whole new level in terms of quality, as the distillation was carried out by professional craftsmen with their own school in Sølvgade in Copenhagen in the middle of the 19th century. The Danish army’s aquavit came from authorised distilleries, so the aquavit in the Danish field rations must have been of good quality.
Today’s aquavit is made using technically advanced distillation equipment, which means it is much superior to the aquavit that was enjoyed in the 19th century. If a Danish soldier from 1864 was offered a glass of D Argentum or D Aurum, there is no doubt he would have thought he was in heaven. Hope and motivation would almost certainly have been given a boost, even if history cannot be re-written and the war would still have been lost.
We will leave it up to the Army Chiefs, to decide if aquavit should once again be part of a soldier’s rations. Cold, snow and rain certainly mean that the heart could do with a little warming, which people were aware of back in 1864. At the very least, the aquavit was cheap, and it helped the field rations to go down a little easier because they were not always so appetising, consisting of fresh beef, dried and salted cod, rice, porridge and bread. Each man was allocated 1.5 dl of aquavit every day – equivalent to seven glasses of aquavit in a restaurant today. If a soldier was of the sober persuasion, he could choose coffee instead, which was a costly ingredient, so only 10 g of coffee beans were allocated. In 1864, 1 kg of coffee costed 1.87 rigsdaler (old Danish currency) and 1 l of aquavit costed 0.38 rigsdaler. This was a time before expensive alcohol duties, which did not take serious effect until 1917, which put a real damper on consumption. The duty on a bottle of aquavit, meant that its price in a single day, went from DKK 0.19 per bottle to DKK 11.
No doubt saquavit was more popular than coffee in the trenches in 1864, since staying warm was a real problem, and a couple of aquavit could get the blood flowing on a cold winter’s day. Several of the soldiers’ letters said as much: “It’s getting cold now and we have to move out to Dannevirke to dig trenches, and we have to break the ice at Slien to keep the water open, and we suffer much because of the cold, and must endure it day and night, but we have good supplies, and we have enough aquavit.”
In reality, the state of supplies would take a gruesome turn, in line with the Danish army’s collapse: “We had to take up Battle Formation, while the biting frost and wind penetrated bone and marrow. In the lee of stumps, people started to ransack bread bags, hoping to find old scraps. It hit me bitterly hard, seeing some of my dear comrades use their sabres to start to dig up roots in the forest floor for food.” A couple of bottles of aquavit would definitely have lifted their spirits.
There is another factor that is evidence for the high quality of the Danish aquavit in 1864: After capitulation, the national aquavit was so popular among the Prussian soldiers that the local population were forced to provide several good meals a day to the occupying forces, so that their soldiers could enjoy copious amounts of aquavit. So on that score, we did gain a tiny victory.