Norwegian alcohol history is strange and the history of aquavit is no exception. Over the course of 500 years, aquavit has gone from being a “medicine” to a collector’s item. Here we take a real deep dive into the history of aquavit in Norway, Trøndelag and Innherred – from Archbishop Engelbrektson to today’s production at Berg Gård and Inderøy Distillery
The French have cognac, The United States have bourbon. The English have their gins, Mexicans have tequila, and the Italians have grappa.
And in Norway we have the aquavit!
What ia aquavit?
Aquavit is a Scandinavian liquor, with a clear or golden color. In Norway, aquavit is made from potatoes, while our neighboring countries produce aquavit from grain.
The aquavit gets its characteristic taste from spices that are distilled together with alcohol and water, flavoured with caraway or dill (mainly). Other spices can also be mixed in to add flavour, such as anise, star anise, fennel, cardamom, vanilla, coriander, lemon peel and leeks.
Norwegian aquavit has protection within the EU regulations. In order for aquavit to be labeled “Norwegian aquavit”, it must be aged in barrels for at least 6 months and made from potato spirit with at least 95% Norwegian potato. The aquavit should be added distillate of caraway or dill, and there is a certain limit to sweetness. The finished product must have an alcohol content of at least 37.5%.
Water of life
The first time liquor, or “roasted wine” was used in Norway, was around the year 1200. Alcohol was suitable for extracting the “power” and aroma of herbs and plants, and therefore gained an important position in the manufacture of medicine. Alcohol was used as a medicine during the Black Death around the year 1350. Its use as a medicine has remained up to the present day. Probably this is also the background for the terms “aqua vit”, “eau de vie” and “whiskey” – these names mean the same thing; “water of life”. *
The archbishop and the aquavit’s arrival in Norway
Read more about how the caraway left its mark on Norwegian liquor and home roasting / moonshine became common.
The father of Norwegian aquavit
Christopher Blix Hammer (1720-1804) is considered the father of the Norwegian aquavit. In the 18th century, most of the liquor came from Germany or Denmark, and in the late 18th century he wrote several books in which he described to the Norwegian farmers how to ensure better storage of potatoes, and also take care of their own production of liquor rather than importing it. Hammer wanted to encourage the Norwegian farmer to distill liquor by teaching how to improve the quality of the distillate.
Sundnes aquavit from Inderøy
Sundnes Brenneri in Inderøy is one of the oldest spirits producing plants in Trøndelag and produced aquavit until 1900. Read more about Sundnes Brenneri in the article below.
A/S Vinmonopolet is created
Prohibition of spirits 1916 – 1927
The liquor ban was introduced in Norway in 1916 after a referendum. All alcohol was then sold at the pharmacy. In 1920, the farmers at Sundnes decided to relaunch the Sundnes aquavit. They negotiated with Lundgreens Enke who still owned the rights to the trademark and the recipes of the Sundnes aquavit. They had to pay about NOK 20,000 at the time to buy back the rights. They ordered a grand distillery machine from Germany and everything was ready for the relaunch of the Sundnes aquavit.
The decision to establish the Vinmonopolet ( Norway’s state-owned alcohol monopoly) came into effect, and the state was given the exclusive rights to all distillation of fine spirits. The wine monopoly was formed to curb the increasingly extensive illegal liquor production. The state took over all distilleries / distillations in Norway and confiscated all of the inventory, equipment and recipes. In 1923, the Sundnes distillery had to dismantle their apparatus, for which they received a compensation of NOK 132,000. (Sundes Brenneri continued to produce raw alcohol for the Vinmonopolet until 2019.)
The liquor ban was set aside in 1927, and is the only law introduced after a referendum that has been ignored by the Parlament.
The big four
Of all the aquavits that were available then, only four aquavits were continued by Vinmonopolet – Gammel Oppland, Lysholm, Simers og Løiten. Eventually, the Vinmonopolet developed new aquavits themselves.
Aquavit – poor man’s liquor?
Why it is called the Vinmonopol? – well, it is in the name. The government wanted people to buy wine instead of liquor, because liquor was bad for you. There was a lot of alcohol abuse and bad conditions here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The government wanted to shift consumption to weaker products; therefore the Vinmonopolet focused on wines. If they were to recommend liquor, it invariably had to be finer cognacs from France.
The aquavit was considered a poor man’s liquor. So one can say that the aquavit has been a bit stepmotherly treated in Norway until 1986.
The modern aquavit’s father
In 1986, Halvor Heuch was employed by the Vinmonopolet and he revived and continued the old traditions with Norwegian food and Norwegian drinks. 1988 is considered a milestone in the history of aquavit – when Heuch launched the Gilde Christmas aquavit. And every year since, the Vinmonopolet has released a new edition. Heuch is now the subject director of Arcus and has been appointed a knight of the 1st class of the Order of St. Olav for his efforts for Norwegian food culture and aquavit tradition.
Inderøy Distillery and The Golden Aquavit (Den Gyldne Akevitt)
116 years after the last bottle was filled at Sundnes Distillery, the aquavit farmer Svein Berfjord has brought the old tradition back to Inderøy and today runs Inderøy Distillery at Berg Farm in Inderøy.