Since we have been selling so many of our hand carved, drinking horns, it only made sense to take a deeper look at what type of beverages the Vikings drank ...besides the blood of their enemies!
The Vikings believed that after death the bravest warriors went to Valhalla, where they would spend their days battling each other and then spend their nights in feasting, drinking, and camaraderie. This belief reflects the attitude that the best part of life is to test oneself against adversity and then to celebrate those victories.
The Triskele symbol (as found on the Snoldelev Stone seen here), with its interlocked drinking horns, came to represent Odin and the hope of Valhalla. We know that the Vikings did not wait for death to raise an ale horn in toast, but that communal drinking and fellowship were an important part of their culture. Every jarl (lord) or prosperous family had a longhouse, sometimes referred to as a “mead hall” and in these buildings of heavy timber Norse friends and extended families would spend the nights of the dark, northern winters in animated conversation or listen reverently to skalds recite the poetry and lore of their ancestors.
But what did the Vikings like to drink? To answer this question, we must first consider what life was like during their time. Most of us would find the Early Middle Ages no more comfortable than a camping trip. There was dubious sanitation, limited access to medicine, a precarious food supply, no running water, and no refrigeration. So, while we know that Vikings prized access to spring water, much of their hydration was in the form of alcohol. Vikings and other Medieval peoples even drank alcohol for breakfast, but they did not imbibe so much because they were more indolent or more decadent than modern people (quite the reverse, actually) but because alcohol solved several food supply and contamination problems.
While it would be seven centuries or so before the discovery of microorganisms, pre-modern peoples like the Norse were adept at manipulating microbiology, such as using yeast or bacterial cultures to make bread, yogurt, cheese, poultices, and various forms of alcohol. In the process of alcohol making, any water used would be purified through heating, and the developing alcohol and other additives (such as hops) would help preserve the beverage for storage. For Vikings, this storage benefit would be especially crucial as they embarked on sea voyages or traded casks of beverages between distant ports.
Of course, Vikings didn’t just drink alcohol because they had to. They greatly prized good drink, and over time different lore became associated with various beverages. There is a reason why Vikings raising ale horns in a mead hall buzzing with merriment is still an indelible image on the collective imagination. In the rest of this article, we will take a look at some of the Vikings’ favorite drinks.
Mead is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks and goes back to Neolithic times. It is made from blending honey with water, along with any other flavorful or medicinal plants that may be desired. The ratio of honey to water is usually anywhere from 2-3 pounds per gallon, and depending on the potency of the yeast used, mead can range from a light, off-dry, wine-like drink to a heavy, heady, sweet and potent elixir. Mead has an alcohol range of about 11-20+ percent.
Though mead is an ancient drink and is heavily associated with the Vikings, for the Vikings, it probably was not an everyday beverage. The amount of honey needed to supply everyone would have been challenging to harvest. Instead, we see in Norse lore that mead had a place of high honor and was used for celebrations and momentous occasions. Throughout Europe, mead was considered an aphrodisiac, and we owe our term “honeymoon” to the tradition of a newly-married couple spending their first month drinking it to bless their union with children. Mead may also have been the inspiration for the “nectar” or “ambrosia” the gods of the Mediterranean were said to thrive on.
For the Norse, though, mead was associated with Odin. One of the most well-known stories of Odin was how he stole the Mead of Poetry (Norse: Óðrœrir, or “the Source of Inspiration) whereupon drinking it he gained the gift of understanding and creating the most-treasured Norse art form. This is another reason why the interlocking horns of the Triskele are one of Odin’s symbols. It was said that great poets were blessed by Odin and shared in his mead, while less-talented poets only got the spittle that Odin dropped behind.
Ales and beers were probably the most plentiful drink for the Vikings. Ale is principally brewed from grains boiled in water (which makes a syrupy mixture called wort). The grain was usually barley, though all manner of grain may be used. This malt was kilned over a fire, producing a brown, slightly smoky color and flavor. In addition to hops, other flavoring herbs could include juniper, alehoof, horehound, and bog myrtle, just to name a few. Yeast was introduced from one batch of brew to the next using something later referred to as a totem stick. Modern research into Viking yeasts reveals they were multi-stage yeasts, capable of making ales that were sometimes 9-10 percent alcohol. Other experts contend that most medieval beers and ales (especially the ones served for breakfast) were relatively low in alcohol. It is probable that these “small beers” or “table beers” were drank throughout the day while the stronger ales were reserved for feasts and celebrations.
Unlike today, where mega-producers brew millions of cases of beer and even microbreweries produce thousands of cases, Norse families brewed their own using various recipes and whatever was seasonally available. For this reason, there was an endless variety of Norse ales. Special ales were also required for specific festivals (such as Yule or Midsummer) or events (such as funerals, births, or even barn raisings). Ale brewing was usually done by women, who took great pride in their work.
There are not many mentions of cider or other fruit-based, non-wine drinks in Norse literature, but it is reasonable to suppose that Vikings both had and enjoyed them. Apples were widely available in the Norse world, and apples ferment with no help from humankind. All the Vikings would have to do is crush these surplus apples, let the juice sit, and then enjoy.
Under Rollo the Walker (the mastermind behind the second siege of Paris in 885) Vikings settled Normandy. Today, Normandy is best known in the drinking world for apple cider, as well as an apple brandy called calvados (developed later). The cider makers of Normandy trace their art back to their Viking ancestors of the ninth and tenth centuries.
Wine was cultivated throughout the Mediterranean world from pre-historic times, and when the Romans forged their empire stretching from Mesopotamia to Africa to Britain, they planted vineyards wherever they went. The northerners they came into contact were immediately smitten with the drink. The Celts loved wine so much that they would readily trade a slave for one amphora (about 26 liters or 6.8 gallons) of the stuff. While the Goths were rampaging across the Western Roman Empire, they left the vineyards unspoiled as not to interrupt their supply. But as Rome's control in the West collapsed, and trade dwindled, northern peoples had less access to wine grapes (which do not grow well in the cold and wet climates). Thus, wine became a drink of the cultural elite jarl class but was seldom drunk by other freemen.
This changed somewhat as the Vikings met with raiding success, and captured wines (mainly from monasteries and churches) made their way back to Norse ports. Soon, the Vikings were demanding wine as part of their tribute (or Danegeld) when they campaigned in southern countries. Other Vikings, walking paths similar to Rollo, demanded vineyards be ceded to them in exchange for their services to foreign kings and emperors. Of course, as Vikings began re-establishing trade between lands that had been almost insular since Roman times, they also facilitated the wine trade between warmer and cooler countries.
When Leif Erikson discovered North America (500 years before Christopher Columbus), he was delighted to find grapes growing in abundance, and so named his discovery Vinland.
Beginning in the ninth century, Vikings came into contact with the Eastern Roman Empire (known to history as the Byzantine Empire) and became highly sought-after for their loyalty, battle prowess, and intimidating appearance. These Varangian Guardsmen with their special privileges and high salaries were not popular with everyone, though, and were sometimes labeled “The Emperor’s Winebags” for the prodigious quantities of wine they were said to drink. So, we see from all this that while Vikings did not often have access to wine, they enjoyed it immensely when they could get it. So honored was wine in Viking culture that, according to the Grímnismál (from the Poetic Edda, p. 74, v. 19), “But on wine alone does the weapon-decked god Odin forever live.”
While distillation was discovered in ancient times, it was only used for alchemy or to make medicine until the Late Middle Ages, and really did not take off until even later. One exception to this is vodka. Vodka – or voda as it was first called – originated in what are now Poland and Russia around the dawn of the Viking Age. While more of a crude brandy than today’s vodka, and still often intended as medicine, it became instantly very popular with the Swedish Vikings who penetrated eastward. Vladimir of the Kievan Rus is even quoted as saying, “Vodka is the lifeblood” of his people.
There are some claims that monks in Ireland and Scotland may have discovered whiskey earlier, but this is largely unsubstantiated. However, Norse settlement and culture were heavy in what became the birthplace of the world's most famous whiskeys, and so we can be sure sons of Vikings were enjoying this “water of life” as soon as it was developed.
Drinking Customs in the Viking Age
Though drinking could be a mundane part of everyday life for the Vikings, it could also be an essential part of ceremonies and rituals. Alcohol was an essential part of the sumbel, or symbel – a communal drinking event held in the mead hall of a liege lord, which were an important part of the Norse-Germanic culture. Unlike the feast, the sumbel was without food (though there may have been food before or after). These celebrations strengthened the bonds between leaders and followers, as well as all the other minute relationships within a social structure. They reinforced hierarchies while offering opportunities for social maneuvering. During the sumbel, the leader would demonstrate his largess by bestowing gifts and favors to his warriors, while they, in turn, would renew their vows of loyalty. Anyone who has read the Norse sagas, as well as other Germanic literature knows that these sumbel or other feasts were where a lot of the action begins or ends, and even the Gods of Asgard are frequently shown enjoying them.
The sumbel would begin with high-status women serving the first rounds of ale or mead to men, according to rank. This drink would be served in large horns, sometimes gilded or jeweled if the jarl was very rich. An ale horn is a peculiar drinking vessel in that it cannot easily be set down, and so the tradition was that these should be drained quickly. Sharing an ale horn could seal a deal or serve as an indication of a strong accord. As we see in Beowulf, to serve the ale horns was itself an honor, as well as a venue for the noblewomen to display their own grace and intelligence.
The Norse made honorific toasts (called fulls) as well as memorial toasts (called minnis). Skol (written "skål" in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish) is the Nordic word for "cheers", a salute or a toast. Speeches would be made, oaths spoken or renewed, and gifts or arm rings (conspicuous awards for valor) would be given. As the ale horns were drained and drained again, the formality and solemnity would fade to raucous laughter, games, and wild boasts. As this collective energy eventually was exhausted, the mead hall would settle into poetry and music, until in the hours before dawn people would one-by-one stretch out to sleep on the floor. A true sumbel may go on for days, and at the end, there would likely be new friends, new lovers, and perhaps new rivals. This was one of the ways that the community strengthened itself, and the Vikings perpetuated their culture as they spread across Europe and beyond.
Drinking horns available at Sons of Vikings:
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
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