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Norway’s Message in a Bottle

Aquavit is Norway’s best-kept secret. Toby Cecchini takes it neat.

Descending on the train out of Oslo from hours of traversing the vast snowfields of the mountainous center of Norway, broken only by the occasional speck of a cross-country skier, down into the bowed birches and spectacular waterfalls that line the Sørfjord on the approach to Bergen, I swear I smell caraway and star anise in the air. Then I realize, my jaw hung open in awe of the vistas unfolding before me, that I’m just unconsciously hankering for more of last night’s aquavit.

Several days into an unusual investigation, to locate actual Norwegian fans of Norwegian akevitt, I am finding the going rewardingly arduous. Aquavit, for those not in the Nordic loop, is the historic Scandinavian tipple, a near cousin to both vodka and gin, but very distinct from both in that it is flavored strongly with numerous spices, the most dominant being always caraway. Despite a brief vogue for it in the late 80’s in New York restaurants, the few Americans who have even heard of aquavit, much less ever tasted it, tend to be of Nordic extraction. To be honest, it is a weird drink, very much a fingerprint of its origin. Three things distinguish Norwegian aquavit from others produced throughout the rest of Scandinavia and northern Germany. It must be made only from potato spirits, it must be aged in wood and it must have predominant flavors of caraway or dill. That last order gets fudged in some cases, as the soaring aromatics of some of the richer offerings resemble fine cognacs more than anything, but the first two are fairly unique to the Norwegians, who term potatoes the grapes of the north. Norwegian aquavit is traditionally taken neat in small stemmed glasses with meals, most often alongside beer, and is never frozen, or even chilled, like its neighbors’ unoaked versions.

Often such bibulous oddities are treasured fervently in their home regions, even those viewed as quizzical or worse by the outside world. Latvian balsam bitters and Thai “whisky” come immediately to mind. But inasmuch as aquavit is almost exclusively limited to Scandinavia, I am finding curiously few homegrown boosters for so interesting and worthy a spirit. It appears, just as in many other parts of the world, that only the old men are drinking the real stuff. Jan Bru of the “Femte i Andre” Bar in Bergen exasperatedly confirms my observation that few under sixty seemed to be savoring the local beauties. “It’s like with any great alcohol, you have to learn to appreciate it. Everybody wants “Sex on the beach” and alcopops!”

One of the largest but least populated countries in Europe, Norway is something of the hayseed cousin in Scandinavia to the slicker and more cosmopolitan Danes and Swedes, and still suffers a slight inferiority complex from having been dominated at various points in its history by those countries. Equally, both Danes and Swedes will warn that Norwegians are “different,” which proves to be delightfully so. Everything from the weather to the language to the food and drink seem nearly familiar, but turn out just a bit askew. Expecting the anguish and gloom of the characters in Hamsun’s novels and Munch’s tableaux crossed with leftover Viking ferocity, I found instead outdoor cafés brimful of laughter, with braziers blazing and thick wool blankets set out for the convivial, red-cheeked patrons to wrap themselves in.

Norway’s stubborn quirkiness extends in several ways to its liquor, with alcohol taxed up to 80% and available only through government-run outlets called Vinmonopolet. In fact, the sole major liquor manufacturer in Norway, Arcus, was until very recently owned and run by the government and, until last year (2005), all other production of spirits was illegal – not that those in the hinterlands aren’t rumored to fire up a bit of their own. As draconian as all that sounds by our standards, in practice it actually works fairly smoothly. The Vinmonopolet stores, if stupifyingly expensive, are spit-polished and well-stocked. And the communally adopted measures to battle the famous Scandinavian weak spot not only fill the already brimming civic coffers, but divert customers to the slightly less brutally-priced local offerings, namely Norwegian aquavit.

A counterintuitive twist to the story is that Arcus, with all domestic competitors removed by law, has nonetheless labored to put out a cornucopic array of surprisingly high quality liquors, and finding itself by default the mandated keeper of the flame of Norwegian aquavit, over the past 25 years has researched and collected various recipes from defunct, regionally famed distilleries throughout the country and recreated the spirits down to the labels. This unusually considerate mark of respect for the cultural icon that is true Norwegian aquavit is largely the work of one bullheaded man, Halvor Heuch, the master distiller of Arcus. A preternaturally handsome sixty year-old with sweeping white hair, full beard and mustache and the hale, canny demeanor of a seasoned seafarer, Heuch has captained Arcus for most of his adult life, and spent the greater part of that rallying for more exacting attention to quality and detail in the products he still insists on crafting with his own hands. Though most all of the 30-odd varieties of aquavit he makes are marketed only in Norway, the flagship product, Linie, is one of only four aquavits routinely available in the States.

Linie (pronounced lean-yay) has as long and unusual a history as any spirit one can encounter. Distillation arrived with Christianity in the 1300s and aquavit, like many alcohols, was initially manufactured as a medicine, employing ethanol as a solvent to preserve the salubrious qualities of herbs and botanicals considered beneficial at the time. It is the aging in wood that led to the remarkable production process of Linie. In 1805, the Lysholm family sent a shipment of aquavit in barrels to Indonesia along with other goods to be traded. The aquavit found no buyers among the Indonesians, however, who preferred the local arrack rums, so some months later the ship sailed back with the cargo still aboard. Upon arrival back in Norway in December 1807, there was a eureka moment when the barrels, which had twice crossed the torrid equator in a kind of mobile, maritime version of the Spanish solera aging system, proved to house a much mellower and richer product than anyone had previously tasted. To this day Linie (the name refers to the “line” of the equator) is made in exactly the same way. The spirit is distilled at Arcus, then sealed up in 500 liter sherry butts which are strapped into cargo containers and sailed, on deck, through the frost and the torpor to Australia and back. Their suffering is visible back in the aging room of Arcus, outside Oslo, where the resting casks are twisted and buckled from the rigors of the voyage. The aquavit within is unlike any you’ll find outside of Norway. A deep golden color with the caraway now subdued but the sherry and vanilla of the barrel carrying through, it is aquavit transformed into something completely other, like tasting gin made into fine whisky.

Though the younger generation of Norwegians might eschew aquavit as their grandpa’s dram, the spirit’s more stalwart acolytes, like Lars Ole Ørjasæter, the secretary of the Norwegian Friends of Aquavit Society, proudly keep the flame burning. “Even though some of us are drinking the stuff the whole year round, the main season is around Christmas,” he explains, when all adults are compelled to down a requisite toast or two at family feasts. Acting as my energetic Virgil through the barely traceable network of remaining fanatics, he drove me down to meet Ole Puntervold, a longtime purveyor of apple cider and products for home brewing and winemaking. Since distillation was legalized last year, Puntervold is so far the only man bold enough to go to market against Arcus with his Agder Brenneri. He makes only two aquavits as of yet, and hasn’t had the time to age in wood, but he is blazing a trail that should become very interesting to watch over the next few years, as the illegal distillers, which are rife in this country due to the remoteness of much of it and the expense of liquor, and others begin to come out of the woods and market their wares. Sipping hard alcohol with food as the Norwegians do may seem unusual, but many spiritous practices we might consider odd, or not consider at all, are magically illuminated on their home ground. Ken Terje Norhus, head bartender at the Norsk Aquavit Bar No. 1 in Trondheim, stresses the importance of matching various bottlings to specific Nordic dishes in a somewhat disorienting mimic of a sommelier: “Best with rich dishes like reindeer or whale meat,” he explains, holding a bottle, or “The light body and full caraway make it perfect with strong dishes like lutefisk (lye cod) or rakfisk” (literally “fermented fish,” a cherished specialty of freshwater fish buried for up to two years and then unearthed and savored, according to Halvor Heuch, “Like fine old cheese.”) Arcus, in fact, makes aquavits specifically for bacalao, lutefisk, rakefisk and smalahove, a Norwegian speciality for the stout of the hearth, consisting of a whole roasted lamb’s head and presented so that the real delicacy, the eyeballs, can be plucked out first.

Waiter, another God Gamal Smala Dram, please. In fact, just leave the bottle...

Questionable arctic fare aside, I found the matchup of aquavit and food at times transcendent, as when steaming along the Storfjord on the M.S. Midnatsol between Bergen and Trondheim. The Midnatsol is part of the plush Hurtigruten Line that prowls the astonishingly gorgeous coast all the way up to Kirkenes near the Russian border. It has among other amenities the Mysterier Bar, the only aquavit bar on keel in the world, and I put it to hard use nightly wrestling with creaking plates of silken gravlaks, smoked dogfish, langoustines, oysters, deep red crayfish, blue mussels, smoked halibut, sweet North Sea shrimp, lobster claws, caviar and peppered mackerel, astride dark whole grain bread with butter, a half-liter of Mack beer from Bergen and a pony of snaps from among the dozens on offer. The strong, astringent sweep of the spirit and the swirl of spices cleanses your palate so neatly you understand in a flash the drink’s cultural niche with an immediacy no history book can match; the sea brought all this: the fish, the trade in spices and the hard life that made aquavit the reverently important balm it became to these people. When Lars Petter, the solicitous barkeep, knocks me a freebie I ease back in contemplative appreciation of all those centuries of grueling labor, sipping my glass of Steinvikholm as we purr past the 1,000 foot glacial waterfalls and the pin-neat little farms etched out in the mountain crevasses by the moonlight, feeling wonderfully like an old man.

Four perfect aquavit bars:
Fyret Mat & Drikke 
(The Lighthouse) Oslo, Youngstorget 6, Oslo, tel. 22 20 51 82
Femte i Andre Bar
Strand Hotel, Strandkaien 2, Bergen, tel. 55 59 33 00
Norsk Aquavit Bar No. 1
Olav Tryggvasons gt. 24, Trondheim, tel. 73 50 17 14
The Mysterier Bar, M/S Midnatsol
Hurtigruten Line, tel. 810 30 000

The pictures:
* The train ride from Oslo to Bergen
* Gunnar Moreite at Fyret Mat & Drikke
* Norwegian mood
* Ole Puntervold of Agder Brenneri
* M.S. Midnatsol
* Halvor Heuch of Arcus
* A 500 liter sherry butt with Linie Aquavit

All pictures: Lars Ole Ørjasæter

About the author:
Toby Cecchini is part owner of the bar/gallery Passerby, located in New York's far west Chelsea neighborhood. He began his bartending career in the mid-eighties at New York's fabled bar and restaurant Odeon, where he invented the Cosmopolitan, that gorgeous red cocktail of the '90s. In 2003 he published “Cosmopolitan: A Bartender's Life”. Cecchini also writes for The New York Times Magazine and the Times's Style section. He lives in New York City.

A shorter version of this article was published in The New York Times Style Magazine, November 18, 2007.
Published with permission from the author.