The secret history of Norway’s signature spirit

Aquavit - Akevitt

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Serving your aquavit on a Norwegian tray will make it taste all the better!

Preeceville, Saskatchewan

Akevitt—aquavit—also known as the nectar of the Norse gods, was initially distilled from grain. The first written history of aquavit is dated April 13, 1531, when the Danish-born mayor of Bergenshus (now called Bergen), Eske Bille, sent a parcel to the Norwegian Catholic Archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson in Trondheim. The parcel contained a bottle of grain alcohol spiced with a secret mix of herbs, and a note saying in part: “Some water that is called Aqua Vite, meaning water of life, which will cure anything that ails you.” Thus, the name aquavit became attached to alcohol spiced with a secret mix of herbs.

Potatoes were discovered in Peru and deemed edible. Potatoes were imported to Spain and Portugal as ballast on the return voyage by explorers. The tuber soon found its way to Scandinavia. After the arrival of the potato in Norway, aquavit production was switched from grain to the golden spud. Christopher Hammer wrote many books outlining to the Norwegian farmers how to be partly self-sufficient by growing potatoes. He also described in his books how the farmer could make his own alcoholic beverage by distilling potato mash spiced with a secret mix of herbs, rather than importing alcoholic beverages from central Europe. Mr. Hammer has been called the father of potato-based aquavit.

In 1805, a Norwegian shipping magnate, Catharina Lysholm, sent a freighter loaded with aquavit in wooden oak casks to Indonesia, with the purpose of selling the aquavit there. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to buy any of it. The entire load never left the hull and was returned to Trondheim. Upon sampling the returned aquavit, it was discovered that the long voyage causing the aquavit to slush around in the oak casks had enhanced the taste. Lysholm’s Linie Aquavit must still make a voyage in oak casks, across the equator and back to Norway before it is bottled for sale. 

Here are a couple of stories of how aquavit has affected some Norskies.

Hans went over to Sigurd for a visit, and after a little while Hans said:

“I had a lot of aquavit at the Kroa bar last night, so I took a bus home.

“That’s not a big deal,” said Sigurd.

“It may not be a big deal to you,” said Hans, “but I’ve never driven a bus before.”

Lars was teaching his young son Knut the evils of alcohol, especially aquavit. Lars put one worm in a glass of water and another in a glass of aquavit. The worm in the water lived, but the worm in the aquavit curled up and died.

“All right son,” said Lars, “what did you learn from this little experiment?”

“Well dad,” said Knut, “I learned that if you drink aquavit, you won’t have any worms.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.