The artist and aquavit among Norway's strange summer nights.
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl once compared looking at Edvard Munch’s paintings to “listening to an album of a certain blues or rock song that, once upon a time, changed my life. I can’t hear the songs, as I can’t see the Munch images, without recalling earlier states of my soul, as if to listen or to look were, beyond nostalgia, an exercise in autobiography. Each song, each image, reminds me of myself.”
I was thinking about this around 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning as I walked back to the Hotel Munch after an evening out in Oslo. I’d met some lovely people who’d taken me to a country music club to listen to a band called the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, and then to a rock club where a heavy metal cover band played Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” for its last number, with everyone totally singing along.
By then, it was late, or early, and I had to wake up in a few hours to meet some liquor industry people for a tasting. As I walked home, past lines of people waiting for kebabs and hot dogs, the sky was that amazing shade of dark blue it only turns during a Nordic summer, when the sun never quite goes away.
The Hotel Munch provides clean, agreeable accommodations for budget travelers on a side street in downtown Oslo. It’s a nice enough place, a step up from the dormitory at the youth hostel, though the rooms are small and a bit overheated. One hot shower will turn the poorly ventilated space into a sauna for several hours afterward. The shower will also leave water all over the bathroom, because “shower” is a loose term referring to a curtained-off corner where water spills down into a drain on the floor. I could tell you I chose to stay at this hotel only because its namesake is an artist whose work, like Schjeldahl, I have always loved. Though that is true, I was also staying at the Hotel Munch because it’s as cheap as downtown rooms get in this ridiculously expensive city.
That beautiful Saturday morning, at my hotel, I was scheduled to meet representatives from two small, craft-distilled Norwegian aquavit brands. I had not intended to host a tasting of premium spirits in my steamy little room at the Hotel Munch. I don’t believe the thought of a premium spirits tasting has actually ever crossed the mind of anyone at the Hotel Munch. I’d planned to do our tasting at a restaurant, perhaps the same restaurant where we also planned to have lunch. But the day before, the distiller for both brands, Ole Puntervold, e-mailed saying, “Norway is a civilized country, so tasting should perhaps be in your room at the hotel, not in a restaurant while you are eating lunch!”
At first I thought he was kidding, but no. Two brand representatives, Henrik Holst and Sven Hauge, showed up at the hotel before noon with bottles and promotional material and aquavit glasses. We took the elevator up to the third floor and entered the room; the air was still muggy from the shower and redolent of the previous late night. We set up the glasses on the tiny IKEA-like table next to my skinny single bed strewn with dirty clothes. I dumped out the dregs from a paper coffee cup, which would serve as a makeshift spit bucket. Munch, who reveled in this type of shabby bohemian milieu, probably would have been pleased.
We wiped the sweat off our brows, and Sven and I had to take our jackets off. Meanwhile, Henrik took up the prime position next to the window, the kind of Northern European window that you can only open the merest crack at the top. We all chatted awkwardly, trying to avoid eye contact with my dirty socks and unmade bed, and then began our tasting.
“Well,” said Henrik with a nervous chuckle, “I guess we can call this a David-versus-Goliath tasting.” The Goliath he was referring to was Arcus, the giant Norwegian distillery that, until 2005, had for decades operated a state-run spirits monopoly. Arcus produces about 50 different aquavit brands, and the day before I’d tasted about 15 of them. Henrik’s and Sven’s were two of the first spirits brands made by independently licensed distillers in Norway.
Traditional Norwegian aquavit must be made with potato-based spirits, infused with herbs and spices that must include a predominant profile of caraway, and matured in sherry casks. Aquavit is a very strange spirit, though really wonderful, and a good match with the traditional winter Scandinavian fare of pungent fish, sharp cheeses, and heavy meat dishes.
I started our hotel room tasting with Henrik’s brand, Nansen aquavit. Nansen had already launched a Norwegian-owned cognac that had gained popularity when France was testing nuclear missiles in the South Pacific in the late 1990s, which Norwegians firmly opposed. “People were saying, ‘I want a cognac, but not a French cognac,” Henrik said. In 2007, they launched an aquavit.
Nansen’s flagship aquavit tasted a lot softer than many of the ones I’d tasted previously, light with bright citrus fruit, and a bit of approachable vanilla, which comes from younger oak casks. Henrik had a marketing reason for this: “It’s a tradition in families to drink aquavit at Christmas, but maybe only three people in the family really like it. Women and young people say it’s too rough. They sit through Christmas dinner saying, ‘Skal’ and pretending to like it.”
I’d heard the same thing the day before at Arcus. There seemed to be a great deal of concern that people only drank aquavit at Christmas — and these were mostly the older men of the family. Close to 90 percent of Norway’s aquavit consumption actually happens during that season. There was talk of finding a wider audience and diversifying the aquavit market. Arcus has recently rolled out a label called Sommer Aquavit, which like the Nansen’s had lighter, brighter citrus notes. Sommer Aquavit was targeted at, of course, young drinkers — the Red Bull crowd, particularly young women who liked vodka cocktails.
It’s still unclear how successful this effort has been, though I can say that I saw an awful lot of bottles of Sommer Aquavit on deep discount at Duty Free in the Oslo airport. Generally, I find that changing an ingrained tradition — such as Aquavit Only At Christmas Dinner — to be nearly impossible. Creating a market for summertime aquavit seems as elusive as recapturing the mythical summers of one’s youth.
After tasting Nansen’s second aquavit, a more traditional caraway-flavored offering, Sven, now having fully sweated through his dress shirt, unwrapped and presented his new aquavit brand: Edvard Munch Premium Aquavit, its label in English.
He also handed me a press release: “Edvard Munch was a forerunner of the expressionist art movement. His best-known composition, The Scream, is part of a series The Frieze of Life in which Munch explored the themes of life, love, fear, death, and melancholy. Therefore we are proud to present this exceptional, luxury aquavit as a taste of his art.” Fear and melancholy — not to mention Munch’s darkly erotic love-and-death axis — being ideas that one may or may not want to ponder when drinking shots of an 80-proof spirit.
To its credit, Edvard Munch Premium Aquavit is a lovely spirit. It spends 12 months in sherry casks, yet retains intense, fresh herbal aromatics and flavor. But I worried aloud about who was going to buy it, especially with its English label, and especially with the local aquavit market clearly declining among the younger generation. “Our plan is to find some partners outside of Norway,” Sven said. But most people outside of Scandinavia and Germany have no idea what aquavit even is.
Perhaps in answer to my skepticism, Sven expressed even more excitement about his second spirits project, to come out this fall: Scream Vodka, named after the famed Munch painting. “It’s French grain vodka, from Cognac,” Sven said. “Like Grey Goose.” Scream Vodka would be sold at Duty Free and directly target tourists.
Sven admitted that he really didn’t have much experience in the spirits business, but he did have a long background in the music and entertainment industry. He said one of the first big acts he’d managed was Norway’s winning entry in the 1985 Eurovision Song Contest, Bobbysocks (the duo won for “La Det Swinge”).
In a strange way, this career path made sense to me. I’ve often thought of spirits as sharing an emotional space with pop songs. And I’m guessing the generation who listened to Bobbysocks as young people is probably the same one that’s moved away from aquavit appreciation. Maybe they were drinking other things on those summer nights when they got drunk and fell in love. On my flight to Oslo, my Norwegian seatmate, a woman about my age (late 30s) nearly jumped out of her seat to point out a member of A-Ha, the 1980s Norwegian one-hit wonder, who’d wandered down the aisle. Later, when she asked what I was doing in Oslo, and I told her about my aquavit research, she said, “Ah, I only drink aquavit at Christmas time at my parents’ house.”
|Aquavit: What would Munch drink?|
After Hendrik, Sven, and I finished tasting all three aquavits, I dumped the spit cup into the bathroom sink — water still soaking the floor — and they packed up their bottles. Later that afternoon, alone and feeling some of the usual post-tasting tipsiness, I started thinking about Edvard Munch and summertime, and decided to pay a visit to Oslo’s Munch Museum.
The Munch Museum was the scene of a brazen art heist in 2004, when masked, armed bandits stormed in and stole both “The Scream” and “Madonna.” Both were eventually recovered, and now you must pass through a metal detector to see the paintings. “The Scream,” of course, is the highlight that most tourists come to see. And in the gift shop, you can buy Scream t-shirts, Scream mouse pads, and perhaps Scream Vodka in the near future. I actually bought Scream tote bag because I needed something to cart all my aquavit samples home.
But the painting I came to look at was “The Voice (Summer Night),” which depicts a woman, with her hair let down, standing in a secret lover’s spot near the shoreline on one of those endless Scandinavian midsummer nights. Most agree that the painting depicts Munch’s great unrequited love, Millie Thaulow (the wife of his benefactor’s cousin), with whom, as a young man, he had an affair one fateful summer in the coastal village Aasgardstrand.
“When love grew!” wrote Munch in diaries. “Nature gave of her beauty and you became more beautiful the summernight cast over your face and your hair — only your eyes were dark — and sparkled with a mysterious glow.”
After their first tryst, Munch wrote, “something very strange happened — I felt as if there were invisible threads connecting us — I felt the invisible strands of her hair still winding around me — and thus as she disappeared completely beyond the sea — I still felt it, felt the pain where my heart was bleeding — because the threads could not be severed.” Eventually, inevitably, Millie ended the affair, and that summer rendezvous haunted poor Edvard for the rest of his life.
The thing about Munch is that, no matter how dream-like or metaphorical or obvious or depressing he becomes, the landscapes he paints are somehow always right. He catches the seductive-yet-ominous mood of those midsummer nights. He knew better than anyone that the flip side of the glorious midnight sun is the long, dark, melancholy winter to come. That even within the moment of great happiness, it’s already swiftly moving into the past tense.
I have stood, literally, in similar Nordic landscapes. But I have also been there figuratively. Perhaps it was a late August, many years ago, in a lifeguard stand on a midnight beach, in Ocean City, New Jersey. Perhaps with a girl with whom I was hopelessly in love, but who would go back to college in September and never call again. There was a bottle of sloe gin (or was it peach schnapps or Jagermeister?) and “Livin’ on A Prayer” was surely playing on a cassette tape in a boombox.
In his essay on Munch, Schjeldahl writes, “My heart pledges allegiance to old revelations of truth — truth-to-me, truth-of-me, truths involved in the project of being a person — that seem still true. I may be humbled to reflect that I have advanced little on those lessons since receiving them years ago.”
I stood before the painting that afternoon, the taste of aquavit in my mouth, similarly humbled, and feeling the distinct tug of those unsevered summer threads. • 14 August 2009
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the "Spirits" column for the Washington Post.
Article image: Edvard Munch: "The Voice, 1896." Oil on unprimed canvas, 90 x 119.5 cm, Munch Museum, Oslo. © Munch Museum / Munch Ellingsen Group / BONO 2009; photograph © Munch Museum.
Story image: Edvard Munch: Summer "Night's Dream (The Voice), 1893." Oil on canvas. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.