Aquavit – the water of life

At our latitudes, distilled spirits can be traced back to the spreading of Christianity, and by the early 1300s many monks were skilled in the art of distillation.

To begin with, they thought they had discovered a universal medicine that helped against ageing and all imaginable diseases, hence the Latin name “aqua vitae”, which means water of life – and today, aquavit.

It is believed that spirits were used as medicine during the Black Death around 1350. Towards the end of the 1400s, liquor was also on sale at some of the apothecaries of the time.

The first written account of aquavit

The first documentation of liquor flavoured with spices, or aquavit, is associated with archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson of Nidaros. In 2003, Steinvikholm Aquavit was launched. This aquavit alludes to a consignment sent to Archbishop Engelbrektsson by Eske Bille of Bergenshus, dated 13 April 1531. The package contained a bottle of aquavit accompanied by a letter in which Bille wrote that he would gladly have sent the bishop more of the “… liquid called aqua vitae which helps against all kinds of internal diseases.”

This is the earliest written reference to aquavit in Norway. Subsequently, Bille has been accredited with being the maker of the first Norwegian liquor, while the archbishop has been given the honour of putting liquor to use for medicinal purposes in Norway.

As early as 1551, however, the first restrictions on the sale of spirits were brought into effect. The Church imposed a ban on the purchase and consumption of spirits before midday on Sundays. From 1568, the sale or drinking of spirits was illegal on the Sabbath until after church services had been held. The first liquor tax was introduced by King Christian lV in 1621.

People from Trøndelag arrive on the scene

A great step towards what we today associate with Norwegian aquavit came in 1807, when people in Trøndelag made a major discovery.

Catharina Meincke from Trondheim married into the Lysholm family, and was thereby related to Jørgen B. Lysholm who, in 1821, set up a distillery in Trondheim. In 1772, Catharina Lysholm became an early widow at the age of 28. She had a good nose for business, however, and soon established herself as one of the most prominent shipowners in the city. Together with her brother, she had several ships built, including the “Trondhjems Prøve” in 1780, and ran major trading operations with Europe and the Far East. In 1805, the “Trondhjems Prøve” carried a cargo of stockfish, ham and cheese to the East Indies, or more precisely to Batavia, which is today known as Indonesia.

The cargo also included five barrels of Norwegian potato liquor that they hoped to sell. However, the captain had no such luck, and the spirits were brought back to Norway again. On 7 December 1806, the “Trondhjems Prøve” crossed the Equator on her way home with a cargo of spices and other commodities. An oaken barrel of the unsold spirits was opened to celebrate the crossing of the Line, and there was great wonderment among the seamen when they tasted what their mugs had been filled with. Gone was the raw, fusel oil infested potato liquor – a transformation had taken place in the oaken barrels during the voyage. Safely back in Trondheim in 1807, the barrels were reopened. In principle, Line aquavit had been invented, and maturing in sherry vats became the norm.

In 1821, the young, newly graduated Jørgen B. Lysholm opened his distillery and distillation factory in Trondheim. With knowledge of distilling, maturing in vats and Line aquavit, the shipowner created – after a number of years of experimentation – a trademark that was to become synonymous with Norwegian aquavit all over the world.

Regular consignments cross the Equator

In the late 1830s, the export of clipfish to South America was begun, and Lysholm was able to send aquavit in oaken barrels on return trips across the Equator on a regular basis. In the 1800s, Jørgen B. Lysholm was the country’s best known trademark, and the company’s aquavit was sold across all continents.

Up until our own times, the idea of having a “Jørgen B” has been synonymous with having a wee dram. Today’s Line Aquavit is still made in the same way as in Jørgen B’s time, but now it is the great liners of Wilh. Wilhelmsen’s shipping company that carry the barrels of Lysholm Aquavit on their return journeys to and from Australia.

Line Aquavit is:

•The world’s oldest existing brand of aquavit.
•Matured for 16 months in oaken barrels that have first been used to mature Oloroso-sherry.

Source: Baklandet Skydsstasjon Restaurant in Trondheim and en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Akvavit.

Read about historical aquavit tours of Trøndelag.