Scandinavia is a huge region, but there are various themes that unite the nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark – together with their culturally congruous neighbours in Finland and Iceland.
A reliance on fish and seafood is a given, surrounded as these countries are by nutrient-rich seas. And a penchant for cosily warm, intricately patterned jumpers suits not only the climate but the ever-rising tide of Nordic Noir that has engulfed us all with its sense of portentous intrigue and Scandi-cool style. But the most potent factor to unite these engaging Nordic brethren can arguably be found in a bottle: that much-loved and oft-toasted ‘water of life’ (from the Latin aqua vitae): aquavit.
The Norwegian version (akvavit – for there are some subtle variations, not only in the spelling) dates back to the 15th century and must made from potato, spiced with caraway seeds, and stored in oak casks for a minimum of 12 months. Beyond this, each blend of ingredients is a secret: cardamom, cumin, dill, fennel and aniseed are those most commonly combined, and, in a country where detailed labelling is sacrosanct, this is the only – and time-honoured – exception: a drink that retains its hallowed status through carefully preserved anonymity.
Such is the reverence for this powerful spirit – and the great variety of styles – that some Norwegian bars are dedicated to aquavit alone, but there is only one in the world – at the Spidsbergseter Hotel in the Norwegian Highlands – that is housed in a barn. Formerly occupied by goats (‘seter’ refers to a former ‘mountain pasture’), this exalted stable now features no fewer than 140 varieties of the stuff. 120 of them are Norwegian (a few Swedish and Danish imposters have been allowed), and pride of place goes to hotel’s own blend, 1850 Fjøsakevitt, made by Egge Gård and using mountain-inspired ingredients like røsslyng (heather) and spring water from the nearby Rondane National Park.
Although the barn’s opening times are sporadic, guests are welcome to enjoy a look around and a sample or three. But heed the owners warning that “you might find it easier to go out than in”, given the low-slung doorway, and the tendency of some visitors to crawl out rather than walk!
The most famous Norwegian aquavit of all, though, is surely Linie (pronounced “lin-yuh”). This celebrated brand is celebrated not so much for its aniseed and caraway flavour notes as for the manner of its ageing: each and every oak cask (obtained from Spanish Oloroso sherry production) is sent on a 19-week voyage by sea, crossing the equator twice while being exposed it to the constant rolling of the waves and shifting weather patterns. This, say Lysholm (its producers), lends the finished product “a perfect balance of spices and cask aromas”.
It’s a tradition that goes back 200 years: an unsuccessful trade voyage to Indonesia meant that the unwanted casks were shipped back to Trondheim and re-opened. Their contents were found to have a uniquely rich flavour, so the method is still practiced today – with each bottle bearing the name of the ship, its route and the dates of its journey at sea. So you can even track your aquavit’s history online while you’re drinking – no doubt adding even greater depth and richness to its complex flavour.
Related Holidays & Further Information
A Heady Blend
For a remarkable Norwegian winter experience – including great cross-country skiing, renowned dinner buffets and the world’s only aquavit barn – choose our week-long holiday at the Spidsbergseter Hotel.
More about our winter holiday in Spidsbergseter >