In as much as it's at all possible to define the essence of a country, let alone bottle it, Gammel Dansk is probably the closest you can get to the true essence of Denmark (of course, not everybody, even all Danes, will agree). Directly translated in to English, Gammel Dansk means 'Old Danish'.
Gammel Dansk is a drink from the bitters family. Not bitter as in a certain type of British beer but 'bitters' as defined in Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary:
bitters n (constructed as pl.) 1. A liquid, often alcoholic liquor, in which bitter herbs or roots have steeped, often used as flavouring, esp. in mixed drinks, or as a tonic. (...)
Thus, Gammel Dansk is an alcoholic drink (38% ABV) made with lots of herbs and spices. It is actually not used as a mixer but is certainly used as a tonic. A tonic is defined by Webster's as a drug that increases body tone or something that invigorates, restores, refreshes or stimulates.
The Restorative Effects of Gammel Dansk
The restorative effects of Gammel Dansk are highlighted in the following Researcher's tale:
When I was a young lad, a few years ago, I went with my school class to England. We went by train and boat and, during the crossing from Esbjerg to Harwich, we spent a significant part of the night in the bar. As I recall, we started from the top of the drinks menu and worked our way down.
The next morning, as you can probably imagine, what happens when you submit yourself to a mix of too much alcohol, too little sleep and not-too-calm seas, we did not want to have breakfast. To our surprise, our English teacher, who had claimed to be easily upset by seasickness sat there happily eating away. To her credit she did teach us something other than English; she told us her secret was Gammel Dansk. We tried it and soon found ourselves sufficiently restored and refreshed to be able to eat breakfast too.
How Gammel Dansk Was Created
There is a need for a Danish bitter. It must be new. It must be a dram. And it must be smooth but yet a bitter.
This was the brief that the developers were given in the early 1960s. Everybody agreed that it had to be based on pure, natural ingredients. Many old recipes were tried, tested and discussed and hundreds of herbs and spices went into experimental brews.
It took three years to arrive at the right mixture. The result, a bitter made from a mix of 29 different herbs, spices and flowers, was named Gammel Dansk and remains by far the most popular bitter in Denmark.
Bitters in general, however, are very much older than the 1960s. Indeed, they have existed as long as anyone can remember. The first written Danish records mentioning bitters are from the mid-1600s when the Danish-Norwegian King Frederik III was introduced to this type of drink by a German noblewoman, Anna of Sachsen. It is also assumed that the Vikings had bitters in the hold when they went on their far-reaching expeditions.
Throughout all this time, bitters have been used for pleasure but also for their invigorating and stimulating effects. In all of Europe, the tradition for a dram made from the local berries, herbs and fruits is well known. Here are just a few examples:
The French Pastis made of aniseed or the many differently flavoured eaux de vies.
The Italian Grappa, made from the grape skins after wine fermentation.
The Dutch Genever and the English Gin made from juniper.
Apart from the positive effects on adolescent seasick stomachs, mentioned earlier, there are other reasons why Gammel Dansk could well be good for you. A number of the herbs used to flavour Gammel Dansk have been used in folk medicine throughout history. After all, herbs have always been used to prevent, cure or relieve ailments in potions that range from the pleasant-tasting to those that are downright revolting. At least Gammel Dansk is a way to take your medicine that's pleasant on the palate.
Though the recipe is a very closely guarded secret, here are a few examples of the herbs used to make Gammel Dansk:
Laurel: The oils from the leaves contains glycosides and other components known to have a positive effect on digestion and appetite.
Ginger: Known for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as a medicinal plant in Chinese folk medicine. Traditionally used against nausea, stomach problems and to lessen pain and reduce fever.
Rowan berries: Used against stomach and intestinal problems, kidney stones and arthritis. Dried berries, when chewed, have been used to cure hoarseness.
Aniseed and nutmeg: Through the years, both have been believed to be aphrodisiacs and nutmeg is also known, at least in superstition, to enhance the intoxicating effect of alcohol.
Even if the effects of these medicinal herbs is minimal, the belief that you're doing yourself some good will certainly make you feel better.
For example, as Danish Pharmacies recently said in a large newspaper advertisement:
If you follow all the traditional advice against the common cold (traditional advice for colds in Denmark seems to include large quantities of Gammel Dansk) the cold will probably last for seven days. And if you don't, it will probably last a week.
One thing is certain, of all the things that probably don't help against the common cold or other diseases, Gammel Dansk most certainly is one of the most popular.
Traditions and Folklore
The name Gammel Dansk has come to mean more than just the drink. There is a large amount of tradition and folklore associated with Gammel Dansk. At the basic level, it probably divides Danes (at least Danes old enough to drink alcohol) in to three groups - two large, one small:
Those who love it.
Those who hate it (an interesting group whose opinions have largely been ignored here).
Those very few who haven't tried it yet.
Gammel Dansk is offered and drunk whenever and wherever Danes meet and has truly become the national drink. It is enjoyed in the morning, at birthdays, for weddings and honeymoons, at work; the list is endless. Whenever Danes are together with friends and family having a great time, drinking Gammel Dansk is a distinct possibility. And if there is no occasion to celebrate, the Danes can quickly think of one.
One common tradition is Gammel Dansk for birthday breakfasts, be that at home with family and friends, or at work. Naturally, alcohol is not allowed everywhere at work, but where it is, Gammel Dansk is often part of birthday celebrations especially on what the Danes call 'round birthdays' (30, 40, 50, 60 and so on).
Small societies have formed around the savouring of Gammel Dansk in Denmark, as well as Sweden and Norway. Such societies also seem to be spreading into the rest of the world, as a result of the pioneering efforts of brave Danes.
The manufacturers of Gammel Dansk1 offer a service on their website where these societies, or clubs, can have a small website telling the world how much better life is with a wee dram down the hatch.
A Researcher related another Gammel Dansk tradition:
Back in my 20s I belonged to a group of people who quite frequently camped and hiked in the great outdoors in Sweden. To end a good day, we often had 'a meeting in the golf club'. Everyone present 'signed up' for an honourary office; chairman, secretary, bookkeeper, whatever, and then everybody had a drink in hierarchical order. Quite simply, the bottle went round and everybody took a hearty swig before passing it down the line.
How To Serve, Drink and Keep Gammel Dansk
On the label it says: 'Gør godt om morgenen, efter dagens dont, under jagten, på fisketuren, eller som aperitif' which means 'Gammel Dansk does you good in the morning, after the day's work, when you go hunting, on a fishing trip, or as an aperitif.'
Gammel Dansk bitters is served traditionally at room temperature in small glasses for any occasion and at any time throughout the day (don't take 'throughout the day' too literally, though, or you might find yourself in a bit of a state). It can be drunk by itself or with coffee or beer, and people often make the funniest faces when they sit together and empty small glasses of it, but everybody feels better afterwards.
As Gammel Dansk is an extract of natural ingredients, it must be kept with loving care. It cannot be stored cold, as this will lead to precipitates forming which will make the precious liquid unclear, and neither should it be exposed to direct sunlight. You should drink the contents of a bottle within six months of opening it as exposure to air will cause the natural flavours and ingredients to decay. As the saying goes, 'Take good care of your Gammel Dansk before you drink it!'