One late May, I commandeered a thirty-foot catamaran in the fjords somewhere above the Arctic Circle. Did it need to be done? Of course not. Consider, though, that I’d gotten into the aquavit and been awake wandering nightless Norway for a week. Also, I’d only hopped behind the helm to snap a selfie. The catamaran dashboard had an indecipherable NASA feel to it, and the captain remote-controlled our cruise from his fore deck perch. Had I turned pirate, I couldn’t have sounded the horn, let alone explain myself to the authorities.
Really, I was fascinated with Norway. The stark mountain landscape, the shimmering water, the old kingdom vibe with its reindeer throws and easy welcome. Oslo felt like winter was nearing over. In Tromsø, 1,900 kilometers north at the 69th parallel, there’s Viking rugged yet. Winter refused to relent, constant sun be damned. Trees hadn’t dared risk leaves yet. Chill and drizzle settle over me—into me, despite my rookie layering attempt.
Tromsø is not a big town. We’d soon covered the museums and breweries and the centre city. We’d watched the seal feeding and taken the funicular to atop Fjellheisen. As for rugged, we’d done a midnight bonfire out on a part-beach, part-tundra. The mildly intrepid adventurer in me felt it now. It was time to experience the fjords. We hired a split-charter of that mighty catamaran.
Back to aquavit. Here and there, we were picking up its history and varieties. Norwegian aquavit isn’t what I’d recalled of the Swedish stuff. Norway’s version is brown from oak. It bristles with caraway. A particular blend known as linie—“line”—isn’t considered finished until its barrels travel not once but twice over the equator. A cultural gem, and it came about as such things do: from spectacular failure.
What was happened was, these Norwegian guys in their fjords were making potato moonshine. Potatoes weren’t first choice so much as the barrens didn’t offer much else ingredient-wise. Up there most anything that warms the core goes down fine enough. So these guys made a whole lot of potato moonshine, more even than required to steel against brutal cold. Being a seafaring bunch, these Norwegians thought ports south might want more hair on their chests. First, the aquavit got spiced with caraway and anise to dent the lamp oil taste. Next, the blend went into sherry casks, and the casks got loaded onto ships, and off they headed to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia.
Those ports south valued their stomach lining. That, plus aquavit stood no chance with tropical palates used to rum. Back to Norway the barrels went. Once home, the Norwegian guys opened those barrels up for warmth and consolation. This ocean-aged, twice-crossed aquavit tasted like herbal magic. It’s in the wave action, apparently, a constant stir. Fast forward two centuries, and linie aquavit is now a whole thing. You can find it at swank restaurants. I’ve scored a bottle at a Nashville wine shop.
Norway, the Arctic Circle, the equator, a distiller’s craft and devotion, what it means to cross life’s great lines. That afternoon on the catamaran, fresh off some aquavit myself, I gazed at those fjords and wondered who would cross such lines and why. This idea borne of booze and sleep deprivation eventually became a story about lines drawn and crossed. By good fortune, that story landed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That’s how it happens sometimes: great things from happy accidents. But, as that story explores, to keep crossing a line is no accident at all.