On an idyllic location along a river, on the High Coast of Sweden, in Bjartra, roughly 480km north of Stockholm stands an old factory where once, during the 19th Century, wooden boxes were made for export to England. A huge fire destroyed the factory in 1890. A power station was built on the site about 1912, but only operated for 12 years. The buildings were used for storage and then stood derelict after the 1980s. Then, in 2010, the appropriately named Box Distillery started to make whisky on this beautiful spot. Hans and Becky Offringa checked it out for the first time in 2015 and came back in 2016 to re-assess what's going on in that neck of the Scandinavian deep, dark woods.
This is an area historically known for its timber industry. Trees felled further up north were floated to the sea via a network of rivers. No wonder a wood-processing factory once found its place here. But now Mats de Vahl, an artist who originally started an art gallery on site, owns the buildings. A visit to Scotland with his brother, Per, changed his plans. Both men were infected with the whisky virus and decided to rebuild Box and turn it into a genuine distillery. Letting no grass grow under their feet, they immediately applied for the licenses needed. On 23 December 2010 the first cask was filled with new-make spirit. A consortium was set up to participate and generate cash for growing the distillery into a serious ongoing business.
Roger Melander, master distiller from the very start, takes all the time to explain what's happening here.
He starts with the barley, partly purchased from Viking Malt in Halmstad. This is unpeated pilsner beer malt. Simpsons of Scotland delivers a peated variety about 45ppm, but Melander switches to Belgian malt whenever he can. That beer malt, dried with Scottish peat, is his preference. According to him, this type of barley delivers less alcohol but more flavours.
Since Box produces both peated and unpeated whisky, both barley types are stored in separate containers. Every four weeks 25 tons are delivered. During the first three years of production Box made 50 per cent peated and 50 per cent unpeated malt whisky. Today it is more of a 25-75 percentage respectively.
The four-roller Boby Mill, originally from a beer brewery near Heathrow, was built in 1912. The grist consists of 18 per cent husk, 71 per cent grits and 9 per cent flour. Box processes five mash rounds per week, with 1.25 tonnes for each batch. Per mashing cycle, three charges of water are used. "We want a Japanese style of wort, very clear. We recycle the worts through the draff at the bottom of the mash tun before we pump the liquid to the washbacks. The temperature of all three waters is kept below 80 degrees Celsius, to prevent tannins from the grain influencing the wort." Roger is very specific about what he wants and what not. "The draff is used as fertiliser, since we do not have cows in the area to feed. The process water comes from Bålsjön and underway is filtered through layers of sand and coal."
The three stainless steel washbacks each have a theoretical capacity of 8,000 litres but the maximum filling level applied is 6,300. In the beginning, different yeast strains were used for the peated and unpeated version, but in a later stage Roger switched to one kind - a French dried yeast. Each washback takes approximately five kilos of yeast when filled with wort. "I especially look for citrus notes that arise during the third day of fermentation."
The wash still has a capacity of 3,900 litres and is filled half full with the contents of one washback. A run takes 5.5 to 6 hours and delivers 'a cleaner spirit with lots of character.' The cooling water for the tube-and-shell condensers is taken from the nearby river. "We are not short on cold water up here. About eight months a year the water temperature is below five degrees Celsius." Roger is convinced this
fact contributes to the success of their whisky. It needs to be said, Box's spirit is highly appreciated by connoisseurs worldwide.
Most of the whisky matures in casks containing either 250 or 500 litres. The contents have so far been bottled in a standard 50cl bottle, the design based on an old bottle found in a nearby lake. "Customers can purchase 40 litre casks and have them mature at Box. An old Swedish measure was 39.25 litres, that's why. Our customers can choose among different woods: ex-Bourbon, ex-sherry, as well as Hungarian, French and Swedish oak. The Hungarian oak delivers an agreeable spicy note to the spirit."
The Boxers have also decided to launch a special 70cl whisky for the international market. Not only their whisky comes out of the box, but their marketing ideas, too. Watch these fellows, I expect a lot from them in years to come!
Malt: Unpeated pilsner malt and peated malt 45ppm.
Mashing: Semi-lauter mashtun, 1.25 tonnes mash. 5 batches per week.
Fermentation: 3 stainless steel washbacks. Charge 6300 litres. 80 hour fermentation.
Distillation: Two Forsyth pot stills. Charge 3,150 litres wash and 1600 litres low wines.
Casks: Mainly first-fill Bourbon barrels but also sherry casks and virgin oak. About 4,000 casks sold to private customers since 2011.
Distillery capacity: Approx. 127,000 LPA. Annually production 102,000 LPA.