Idar Aarheim, The Magazine for the Corps Diplomatique
Among the assorted cargo of salted herring and dried and split cod were seven barrels of spirits. The sailing ship was on a long and hazardous journey to Batavia, the capital of Indonesia, where the Dutch were colonial rulers. The Norwegian vessel arrived in port on 21st December 1805.
The reason for the journey being dangerous was the on-going Napoleonic war, during which the British were confiscating tonnage and blockading ports along the entire Danish-Norwegian coast. Lord Nelson had already attacked the Danish-Norwegian fleet in1801 with a ferocious bombardment of the naval base in Copenhagen. During an even fiercer attack on Denmark’s capital in 1807, which lasted three days, the Royal Navy destroyed even more of the Danish-Norwegian fleet and also captured a number of merchantmen with their crews.
Although "Throndhiems Prøve" soon disposed of its fish products at good prices, the Norwegian potato spirit was a different story. The Dutch were themselves skilled producers of arrack and genever (Dutch gin) as well as matured brandy in casks. Consequently the Norwegian merchantman returned in 1807 with several unsold oak barrels of potato spirit that had been exposed to both the rolling motion of the sea and tropical temperatures for eighteen months. This return trip resulted in a marked improvement in the quality of the spirits. Thus Linie Aquavit was born – a schnapps that had twice “crossed the line” at equator.
Linie Aquavit is still crossing the equator. Ever since the 1920s the world-renowned Norwegian family ship-owning firm Wilh. Wilhelmsen have had the honour of transporting aquavit barrels to Australia and back. On the reverse side of the label, visible through the bottle, you will see the name of the ship and the dates when the vessel crossed the equator.
Last year, in 2006, more than 2.5 million litres of aquavit was produced in Norway by Arcus, with over half going for export. Lysholm Linie Aquavit has by far the greatest share of the export market.
The Lysholm family
From the world of history and literature we have several examples of strong-willed and determined women being the driving force behind many pioneering enterprises – with men receiving the credit! The daring journey made by "Throndheims Prøve" to Indonesia in 1805 was no exception. The ship’s owner was the influential Catharina M Lysholm. This lady discovered the quality improvement that occurred during the spirits’ long sea journey. She also understood the business implication of the discovery – and knew how to keep it as an industrial secret within the family.
However, it was a family member from the next generation, Jørgen B Lysholm (1796 -1843), who was responsible for creating the concept of “Linie Aquavit.” He was seriously interested in everything to do with science and technology. During his studies in Berlin he met the inventor and scientist Pistorius, who had constructed the world’s most advanced distillation apparatus. This gave a purer spirit base with a higher alcohol content than the primitive stills that had been used up until then. Jørgen B Lysholm therefore installed the most moderen state-of-the-art equipment for industrial alcohol production in the distillery he founded in l82l. Trondheim became a centre for aquavit production. It is also true to say that the most exported linje aquavit these days bears Jørgen B Lysholm’s name.
Aquavit is the most distinctive spirits variety in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Although similar by virtue of an additional flavouring with spices and herbs, there are a number of significant differences between the various types of Scandinavian aquavit and schnapps. Aromatic spirits were made in the Nordic countries well before “Throndhiems Prøve" set sail for Indonesia in l805. One of the pioneers in Norway was Christoffer Hammer (1720-l804 ) the son of a clergyman, who was instrumental in introducing Norwegian herbs and spice plants as flavouring additives. It is important to remember that in earlier times it was necessary to disguise the impure raw alcohol taste with strong spice and herbal additives. It was not until the latter half of the 1800s that stills were able to produce purer spirits that did not reek of unclean alcohol. Today, aquavit is made on the basis of pure spirits derived from either corn or potatoes (Norway). Then the various taste components are added. Caraway and dill (Anethum graveolens) are two mandatory ingredients - through an EU-directive prompted by our Danish cousins! In addition to these two herbs, Norwegian aquavits contain extracts from plants such as angelica, star anise (Fructus anisi stellati), paradise corn (Grana paradisi), fennel (Fructus foeniculi), coriander (Fructus coriandri) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Scandinavian aromatised-spirits production incorporates a number of other herbs and spices. Both Denmark and Sweden have a wide range of national specialities.
Calling the majority of Norwegian aquavits “noble brandies” (in contrast to Danish and Swedish aromatised brandies and aquavits) is not necessarily because they are better accompaniments to food than the other Nordic schnapps. Norwegian aquavit is termed “noble” because, like cognac, armagnac, calvados, matured rum and single malts, it is allowed to develop for shorter and longer periods in oak casks. This of course limits production volumes, but means that noble brandies have a greater element of craftsmanship in both production and storage. Most of the casks used for maturing Norwegian aquavits are second-hand oak barrels that have been used for sherry production in southern Spain. Their size is generally in excess of 500 litres.
Master Blender and Vice President Spirits, Halvor Heuch, is the world’s foremost expert when it comes to producing, storing and maturing noble aquavits. Particularly in recent years, he has made a number of varieties that are specially composed for distinctive Norwegian traditional dishes; about twenty different varieties in all. Besides which he has come up with a new recipe every year since 1988 for the “Year’s Yuletide Aquavit.” This is because Norwegians traditionally drink more aquavit in connection with Christmas and the heavier wintertime diet. With its rich concentration of herbs, aquavit is a highly efficient digestive agent, breaking down fatty foodstuffs and rendering them more readily digestible. As there are hundreds of Norwegian aquavit formulae, Halvor Heuch – in addition to his own creativity – does not have to worry about ever running out of recipes.
Linie Aquavit spends approx. Sixteen months in used oak casks. The time span for more mature varieties such as Gammel Opland and Gammel Reserve is approx. twenty-six months, while Yuletide Aquavit (juleakevitten) is allowed to slumber for twelve months. Halvor Heuch is a great adherent of aquavits that have a distinct and distinctive taste. In order to achieve this, he uses newer casks that provide multiple and full-bodied aromas.
Only Yuletide aquavit changes its recipe each Christmas; the standard brands such as Linie Aquavit remain virtually unchanged from one year to the next.