Early history of spirits
The spirit that is most quintessentially Norwegian is aquavit – or ‘water of life’.
So, the story of spirits in Norway is largely tied to the story of how this local speciality evolved into a very contemporary alcoholic drink.
In fact, the production of spirits in Norway dates back to the 1500s, when churchmen began experimenting with the gentle art of distillation. At the time, alcohol was considered a medicinal product, a way to relieve pain and suffering, and a cure for most diseases.
From the mid-16th century, distilled spirits became more common, particularly along Norway’s coastal regions. Among the upper-classes, fine imported drinks from France and Holland were sought after, whilst the general public had to make do with home-brewed spirits.
In the centuries that followed, spirit production evolved into a more modern industry, and many of the aquavits produced by Arcus today can be traced back to the first half of the early-1800s.
From stills to distilleries
In the first half of the 19th century, Norway’s spirits business went through some dramatic changes.
In 1833, the country was home to some ten thousand registered distilleries. By 1845, this had plummeted to 700 and five years later just 40 of these primitive stills were still operating. This rapid decline was due in part to new legislation, which made it less profitable to distil small volumes, and the arrival of new production methods that increased the availability of rectified spirit – a far purer form of ethanol, which also benefitted from a more neutral taste.
In Norway it was Jørgen B Lysholm who famously modernized the distillation process. When setting up production in Trondheim in 1821, he installed a new type of still that had recently been invented by the German master brewer Johannes Pistorius – which not only brought increased efficiencies, but also a far better quality of spirit than anyone else could offer at the time.
Industrialisation of spirit production
The process of industrialisation accelerated into the second half of the 19th century, based on new and more sophisticated equipment, which was capable of repeatedly distilling agricultural ethanol until it became pure. Building on this technological wizardry, still owners joined forces to establish new distilleries that could purify and blend a variety of finished products - including aquavit, cocktail bitters, liqueurs and punches.
The distilleries were built close to the markets in the towns and cities. The first, Simers & Co was established in Oslo in 1857. In 1871 Løiten Brænderi's Destillation followed, also in Oslo. To the west of Norway's great inland lake, Mjøsa, the local still owners came together in 1872 to form Oplandske Spritfabrik, based in Stenersgaten. And, in central-Norway, in Trøndelag, Jørgen B Lysholm's distillery was established in 1821 – which then acquired an up-to-the-minute Pistorius-style still in the late 1840s.
By around 1900 there were also a number of smaller distilleries in operation, including H. Poulsen & Co in Hamar, Tangen Brænderis Destillasjon in Oslo, and Gerner & Søn in Moss.
The prohibition years started in 1919 when, following a referendum, the sale of all spirits was banned in Norway.
Norway, however, remained a nation of private stills, illicit spirit trading flourished, and smuggling was rife. Meanwhile, if prescribed by a physician, spirits could still be purchased for medicinal use. This legal loophole soon led to a new phenomenon – the so called ‘spirit doctors’ – who, in 1923, wrote a staggering 1.8 million such prescriptions.
As the illicit alcohol trade continued, Norway experienced policy and diplomatic issues with wine- and spirit-producing countries such as France, Spain and Italy. It became clear to the government that something had to be done. As a compromise, a state monopoly was proposed, in order to regulate the sale of alcohol.
The result was Vinmonopolet, which was established in 1922. In fact, Norway’s prohibition years endured until 1927, when the law was overturned in a second people's referendum.