A toast to aquavit!

The partly true history of Norway’s spirit

Kaare Askildt
Preeceville, Canada

Kaare Askildt

Kaare Askildt was born to his long-suffering parents in Norway, long before the discovery of North Sea oil made Norwegians filthy stinking rich and finally allowed them to gloat whenever in the company of Swedes. After a stint as a draftee in the Royal Norwegian Air Force, he turned to the world of work, studied, married, and immigrated to Canada.

Also known as the nectar of the gods, aquavit was initially made from grain. The first written history of aquavit is dated April 13, 1531. That’s when the Danish-born mayor of 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 mix of herbs, and a note saying in part: “some water that is called Aqua Vite, which will cure anything that ails you.” Thus, the name Aquavit became attached to alcohol spiced with herbs.

After the arrival of the potato in Norway, aquavit production was switched from grain to the golden spud. Seventeenth-century botanist Christopher Blix 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 herbs, rather than importing alcoholic beverages from central Europe. Hammer has been called the father of potato-based aquavit.

In 1805, a Norwegian shipping magnate Catharina Lysholm sent a freighter loaded with aquavit to Indonesia, with the purpose of selling it there. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to buy it. None of the load ever left the hull, and it was returned to Trondheim. Upon sampling the returned aquavit, it was discovered that the long voyage had enhanced the taste. Lysholm’s Linie Aquavit must still make a voyage in oak vats across the equator and back to Norway before it is bottled.

Aquavit has affected some Norskies profoundly.

For example, Hans told Sigurd, “I had a lot of aquavit at the bar last night, so I took a bus home.”

“That’s not a big deal,” she replied.

“Maybe not to you,” said Hans, “but I’ve never driven a bus before.”

Or there’s the story of Lars, who 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 worms.”

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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