Snaps Visa: Norway’s equatorial aquavit
Aquavit, Cocktails, and Nordic Snaps Culture by Lexi of the Old Ballard Liquor Co.
Norway is home to what might be the most storied aquavit produced anywhere in the world: aquavit that crosses the equator. Linie (pronounced “LEEN-yeh”) means line—as in equator line—and refers to a type of aquavit aged at sea, in boats, on a journey that circles the globe.
In the early 1800s, the Tronheim-based Lysholm family sent some oak barrels filled with aquavit on a trade mission to Indonesia. Unimpressed by its savory nature (the locals preferred sweeter rum distillates), the barrels were returned to Norway unsold. After spending a few years in a barrel at sea, the flavor of the aquavit had changed significantly, with rich caramel flavors and smoothness only found in barrel-aged spirits. This was the discovery of linie aquavit.
The unusual technique of sending aquavit to the tropics by boat quickly became a thriving business model, and around the turn of the century various linie aquavits were in production by a number of the 22 distilleries around Norway. But as Scandinavia experienced its own version of Prohibition in the early 1900s, many of the producers went out of business or just stopped making liquor altogether. Later in the century, attitudes toward liquor started to relax but the cost and effort of such an extravagant process was prohibitive and now, 100 years later, just two companies still make linie aquavit: Arcus/Lysholm and Løiten. Løiten has remained a small local-ish distillery and does not export, so its products are available only in Scandinavia.
The environment that a barrel is aged in has everything to do with the flavor of the product, and the idea of aging products at sea is not exclusively a Norwegian concept. Some Caribbean rums are aged outside, in uncovered barrels under sun and through hurricane for maximum flavor. Scotch whiskeys take much of their unique character from the slow, cool aging that Scotland provides. Westland Distillery in Seattle makes a whiskey aged in a damp, misty Washington State fishing village near the Pacific Ocean for the same reason.
Most liquor aging barrels are made from oak that has been charred on the inside. The char acts as a thin layer of activated carbon that helps to filter and purify the unwanted fusel oils—trace amounts of chemicals like methanol or acetone—out of the liquor, much like a Brita filter does for water. Exposing the barrel to extremes of heat, cold, humidity, and dryness make the wood act like a sponge, absorbing and expelling the liquor through that layer of carbon and into the barrel staves, where it also picks up flavor notes from the wood oils and caramelized wood sugars. Agitation helps to speed up this process by constantly mixing and sloshing the liquid inside.
In the old days, a sailing ship could take two or three years to complete its aquavit voyage, but time (and technology and government regulation) marches on. Modern linie styles complete their journey in around nine months on large ocean-going freighters. Lysholm prints the name of the ship and the dates of its voyage on the inside of the front label on every bottle. These contemporary products travel in a more controlled environment and spend less time at sea than their antique counterparts, so they are sometimes artificially colored to mimic the rich dark colors of their predecessors.
Sending products around the world on a wooden ship like it was still 1850 would make the cost of each bottle prohibitively expensive, so we may never know what the original linie aquavits tasted like. But as Americans, we are fortunate that this particular category of aquavit is the only import still available in the United States. Lysholm Linie is available in most states and if it’s not, it will be soon. (They’re going through a distributor change, don’t fret! Any shortages are only temporary.) So if you haven’t tried Norway’s “Message in a Bottle” yet, be sure to pick up some and give it a try. It’s a little slice of Norwegian history in every glass.
Løiten Distillery: www.lbr.no/index.php
Arcus Corporation (Lysholm): www.arcus.no/en/Spirits/Arcus-and-spirits
Lexi is the owner and founder of the Old Ballard Liquor Co. in Seattle, which produces more varieties of aquavit than any distillery in the U.S. After growing up with the Scandinavian-American farming culture of the Skagit Valley and a three-year residency in Sweden, she settled back into Seattle life where she now operates the Old Ballard distillery and a Nordic café and fine dining Scandinavian restaurant called Tumble Swede, and travels the U.S. teaching classes on contemporary Scandinavian food and drink.
This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.