It's a fair time for whisky in the Faroe Isles

It's a fair time for whisky in the Faroe Isles

From its home in a tiny windswept archipelago in the northern Atlantic, the Faer Isles Distillery is putting a thoroughly Faroese twist on single malt whisky.

 

Pictured: Founders Dánial Hoydal and Bogi Mouritsen (left and right) with head distiller Bjarni Lamhauge. Credit: Erla Ziskasen

Distillery Focus | 08 Mar 2024 | By Bethany Brown

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The Faroe Islands is a small archipelago in the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, roughly halfway between western Norway and the east coast of Iceland. The islands are home to breathtaking mountainous and coastal scenery, carefully preserved Viking architecture, some excellent sites for seabird watching — and now a working whisky distillery.

 

Faer Isles Distillery was founded by Faroese native Dánial Hoydal and his business partner Bogi Mouritsen in 2018. After a four-year process to get the distillery approved, commissioned, built, and equipped, it began production in February 2023. The distillery and its visitor centre are in Vestmanna on Streymoy, the largest of the archipelago’s 18 islands, with warehousing about 15km away in Kvívík.

 

Hoydal and Mouritsen met 25 years ago when they started a Faroese vocal group together, and while it was music that brought them together, it was over a love of whisky that they bonded. They founded the islands’ first whisky appreciation society, Einmalt, and even then dreamed of opening a whisky distillery of their own. But there was a problem — distilling spirits was illegal in the Faroes. The ban, part of a wider programme of prohibition across Scandinavian nations throughout the 20th century, was only lifted in 2012.

Inside the Faer Isles Distillery, which opened in 2023

Hoydal, a self-confessed “serial entrepreneur” who worked in numerous industries internationally before moving back to the Faroes, says the project turned heads from the get-go. Several Faroese ex-pats and local businesspeople have given their support — “people who could contribute with not only money but business development and passion” — and three rounds of crowdfunding since 2021 have raised 15 million krone (£1.7 million) for capital investment. To date, the company has signed up more than 1,000 investors in 31 countries. “They are the best ambassadors you can imagine, and it’s a truly great sensation that the distillery went from a project for a few people to a real community,” Hoydal enthuses.

 

In the founders’ minds, the Faroe Islands were well suited to whisky production. “Scottish whisky makers always claim that Scotland is the best place in the world to make whisky due to the climate: the salty wind, the high humidity, the stable year-round temperature,” Hoydal says. “But we have more of all of it, so the Faroe Island should be even better suited.” To realise their vision, they brought in experienced brewer Bjarni Lamhauge as head distiller.

The Faer Isles Distillery's warehouse is inspired by the opnahjallur found across the Faroe Islands, traditionally used for curing meat and fish

The business partners had a trick up their sleeve, one that would make theirs a truly Faroese whisky: a traditional food preservation method called ‘raest’. Used by Faroe islanders for centuries to cure meat and fish, this culinary process takes place in an opnahjallur, a building with slatted walls that expose its contents to the islands’ humidity, salinity, strong winds, and cool temperatures (5–9ºC is optimal).

 

Hoydal and Mouritsen wanted to adapt this technique for whisky making by storing their maturing casks in opnahjallur warehouses, exposing them to the same cool, humid, salty conditions and allowing the casks to breath in sea air (“the angels’ share is replaced with the Atlantic share, so to speak,” Hoydal quips). It takes the concept of ‘coastal maturation’ preached by Scottish distilleries including Talisker, Pulteney, and Glenglassaugh and dials it up a notch.

 

“Strangely, even if a lot of innovation has happened in the industry in recent years, this has mainly been in the distilling process — yeast types, fermentation times, heat levels, sugar extraction — but [there has been] almost nothing on maturation, even if this is where most flavour is developed,” Hoydal notes. “Almost everyone just puts their barrels in the most convenient warehouse.”

Inside the warehouse, where casks are exposed to the islands' humidity and salty sea air

As well as adapting this cornerstone culinary technique, the Faer Isles team have their eye on a local barley varietal that dates to the time of the islands’ Viking occupation and is now being preserved by the Faroe Islands’ National Museum. “We want to use this in the future for special editions and already cooperate with one of the farmers growing it,” Hoydal says. Peat is also available in abundance (possibly one of the reasons for this remote archipelago’s initial settlement) and has been employed to smoke its malt.

 

Hoydal, Mouritsen, and Lamhauge worked with former Scotch Whisky Research Institute director Gordon Steele — who helped the Isle of Harris Distillery develop its single malt whisky — to design a spirit recipe that ensured maximum enhancement of maritime flavours from the malt and yeast. They are aiming for a “full-bodied, complex, and well-balanced whisky”, aided by long fermentation times, with notes of spring flowers, tropical and orchard fruits, and light peat smoke.

Traditional Faroese opnahjallur are used for food preservation, but Faer Isles has adapted their design for whisky maturation

With production running at full tilt since August 2023, the distillery hopes to fill 660 casks in 2024 (primarily ex-bourbon barrels, in a nod to the Scotch traditions that have informed its whisky making). They have set a provisional first release date of November 2026. In the meantime, a limited number of casks are being made available each year. In 2023 these casks were made exclusively available to investors and members of its Founders’ Club, but the 2024 round (which went live in early March) is open to the public, with sales including 10 years’ maturation in its opnahjallur warehouses. More information can be found at faer.io/whisky.

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