Linie’s Master Blender on the Challenges of Aging Aquavit at Sea
The story of Linie Aquavit begins in 1805. A shipment of potato aquavit set sail for the East Indies, sent by the Lysholms, a Norwegian trade family. When it arrived, though, no one was interested in purchasing the spirit, so off it went back to Norway. When the boat returned to Norwegian shores in 1807 the Lysholms tasted the aquavit again, and realized the journey had completely changed the flavor for the better. Since then, the distillers have never looked back. Every bottle of Linie Aquavit ages at sea, sailing across the equator twice—just like during the first journey to the East Indies and back again.
The aquavit itself is unique among similar spirits. Linie is aged in oak sherry casks, adding a bronze shade and a bit of sweetness, plus a vanilla flavor that plays off the traditional caraway and star anise spice profiles. The barrels sit in Linie’s warehouse aging for a year, then set off to sea for a four-month maturation process. Each bottle label shows the route that particular cask took around the world.
“The faster the ship is going, the shorter the maturation,” Ivan Abrahamsen, Linie’s master blender, remarks. “When it was on sailing ships, the journey took a bit more time.”
Aging spirits at sea is not without its challenges, though. According to Abrahamsen, the process relies on three important factors in order to ensure the spirit becomes as flavorful and smooth as desired. The first: movement. Calm seas throughout the entire trip do not a smooth aquavit make.
“When the boat is rolling and stomping in the sea, the liquid is moving,” Abrahamsen explains. “Think about this like when you put a teabag in your teacup. If you just leave it, it slowly extracts the tea flavors. But when you start to move the teabag, you immediately get a nice cup of tea.”
That plays off the second factor, which is using the right oak barrels to allow an accelerated maturation and extraction of flavors from the sherry—which may not happen as easily if the spirit weren’t sloshing around inside the barrels. In addition, the casks need to be exceptionally strong to withstand rolling seas. Abrahamsen says that the sherry casks are loaded into 20-foot cargo containers, lined up, and strapped in seatbelt-style to make sure they stay put for the entire four months, regardless of the weather outside the container.
That weather is the third major factor and challenge for Linie. It’s important to the company that the casks are placed on the top deck in order for the sun to beat down on the shipping containers.
“You have alcohol disappearing in the angel’s share,” Abrahamsen notes. “The humidity and the temperature outside the cask are really important. When that temperature is changing during the journey, you have different levels of evaporation from the cask, and you also have the temperature change in the headspace of the cask. The air is expanding, creating a changing microclimate inside the cask. We want the barrels on the top deck because when they’re in the sun, it impacts the product more.”
The result is an exceptionally smooth, vanilla-forward taste that separates Linie from any other aquavit on the market. And it’s been this way since the beginning in the early 1800s—the process hasn’t changed much since Linie started commercially producing aquavit in 1821. It’s still made from the same recipe of potatoes, herbs, and spices, and it still sails the world (Linie has been sailing with Wilhelmsen Line since 1927, Abrahamsen said). Alterations to the maturation are only a result of new technology.