Aquavit: Water of Life

12 December, 2013

Arguably the most important person in aquavit these days is Halvor Heuch, Arcus master distiller and vice-president spirits. Ex Coca-Cola and Philip Morris, Heuch calls himself “a brand man” but a colleague describes him as “Mr Aquavit, Norway”.

Arcus now owns what was Danish Distillers and therefore all the Aalborg aquavit brands. Previously, DD was taken over by Vin & Sprit – the Swedish government-owned alcohol monopoly that also owned Absolut vodka. It then briefly became part of Pernod Ricard before being sold on to Arcus.

Heuch tells Drinks International that when he joined what was then the Norwegian monopoly more than 20 years ago, it was essentially a wine company and spirits were frowned upon because of their association with heavy drinking.

He sums up the Nordic spirits drinking habits thus: “The Swedes drink whisky, the Finns like Cognac and the Danes like aquavit and bitters, specifically their own Gammel Dansk. The Norwegians like aquavit.”

Heuch has worked hard to get aquavit reappraised and move it away from the hard-drinking association and just shots out of the freezer. He has developed a system of classification based on Cognac. So, there is ‘three-star’ – Gammel, which means old and is the equivalent of VSOP, and Extra which aligns with XO.

He has found recipes from towns and cities around Norway and reproduced those spirits –all Norwegian aquavit has to be distilled 95% from domestic potatoes and then aged in oloroso sherry casks. He has even gone to stemware specialist Riedel and developed a specific aquavit glass.

He says the brief was to highlight “one third the herbs and spices, one third the barrel maturation flavours and finally the distillate.”

Cutting edge

While Heuch is at the cutting edge, he also has responsibility for what are probably the most interesting and complex aquavit brands.

Arcus produces the Løiten and Lysholm brands and the story of the ‘Linie’ aquavits is worth telling. Linie means ‘Equator’ and the story goes back more than 200 years to when spirit stored in casks was transported to Indonesia along with a consignment of fish, ham and cheese. The spirit was rejected and back it came, via 35 countries, between 12 and 14 months at sea, stored on the deck through differing climates.

On its return the producers really rather liked this smooth, complex, brown spirit and so the tradition of sending aquavit to the Far East, crossing the ‘Linie’, and back was born.

A rather facetious review was found on Amazon. It says: “A delicious drop of Norway’s finest. It has the coarse heat of Cognac on the back of your throat and could stun an elephant at 50 paces. No wonder they use it instead of anti-freeze in the Arctic Circle! Wonderful.”

Linie retails for approximately £37, US$60, E46 while Aalborg Taffel and Jubileum go for around £26, US$46, E30, for a 70cl bottle.

At Drinks International’s recent The World’s 50 Best Bars event during London Cocktail Week, the guys from Ruby in Copenhagen, which came 22nd in the list, attended. They were asked about aquavit.

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