Interview

Building on a blank canvas

Mackmyra’s master blender, Angela D’Orazio, speaks of Scandinavian identity and innovation in whisky
By Jacopo Mazzeo
A selection of Mackmyra's finest
A selection of Mackmyra's finest
Infusing a Scandinavian identity into her creations is Mackmyra master blender Angela D’Orazio’s primary ambition. “We really like to see what we can bring to the table from where we are,” she says of her modus operandi.
Angela D’Orazio drawing samples in the warehouse

Swedish distillery Mackmyra had only been in operation for a few years when, in the early 2000s, she joined the crew, quickly becoming a key figure for the brand. “When I started at Mackmyra, we didn’t have a master blender so I developed together with the distillery,” she explains. With Swedish whisky production in its infancy, D’Orazio and the team had the opportunity to work on a blank canvas, nurturing the distillery’s unique personality by complementing an innovative mindset with flavours inspired by local traditions and ingredients.

Mackmyra’s pioneering ethos meant that D’Orazio could physically integrate Swedish and Scandinavian flavours into her blends by using local malt and experimenting with different cask finishes and local wood. “My inspiration with finishes has been finding things that are Scandinavian, that are ours. You don’t have to bring them from the other side of the world to make things work. [If the ingredients are] local, the whisky is therefore sustainable as well.”
Surveying the landscape over Fjäderholmarna, where one of Mackmyra’s satellite warehouses is located

Mackmyra’s finishing casks are indeed seasoned with a range of quintessentially Swedish alcoholic drinks, including birch sap wine and berry wine from local producer Grythyttan Vin, mulled wine and cloudberry wine.

The wood itself has a significant impact on imparting Mackmyra’s Scandinavian terroir, as a substantial amount of its whisky is matured in locally sourced oak. “We get most of the small casks we have in our warehouses constructed for us. The Swedish oak is sourced by us then given to a Swedish cooperage to make 30-litre, 100-litre, and a few 200-litre casks. Usually we use our Swedish oak casks fresh, but also first and second fill,” Angela says.
Tasting Mackmyra Svensk Ek

Svensk Rök (Swedish smoke), one of Mackmyra’s core whiskies, represents the apotheosis of D’Orazio’s search for a Swedish identity. Not only is it exclusively made with Swedish ingredients, it also boasts a quintessentially Scandinavian smoky aroma. The process of curing fish or meat – including herring, salmon, and reindeer – by smoking it over burning juniper twigs is commonly used across Scandinavian cuisines. By smoking its malt with juniper wood rather than peat, Mackmyra harmoniously integrates Scandinavian traditions into its spirits. Meanwhile, Moment Körsbärsrök (Cherry Smoke) goes one step further, as it complements Mackmyra’s characteristic smokiness with warmly comforting fruity flavours that are derived from the time the whisky spends in small cherry wine–seasoned casks.

Smoke has been defining Mackmyra’s character since its inception, yet D’Orazio explains that the distillery has only been able to maximise its potential since production moved from the original site to the new facility just outside of Gävle, around 100 miles north of Stockholm. The new distillery features two external silos, one of which is entirely dedicated to storing around 40 tonnes of Mackmyra’s own juniper-smoked malt.

“The new site opened in 2011 but the decision was made a couple of years earlier,” says D’Orazio. “We were quite restricted in the old distillery… we could only produce a small amount of smoky whisky because we couldn’t smoke the Swedish malt ourselves. Now, it’s smoked by us.”

The new Gävle site, deeply immersed in the Swedish woodland yet just a stone’s throw away from Gävle city, is a testament to Mackmyra’s innovative spirit. Standing 35 metres tall, this eco-friendly, vertical distillery was designed around the production process, with each of its seven floors dedicated to one step of whisky making. Firstly, the malt is collected from the silos and raised to the top; then milling, mashing, fermentation and distillation follow each other, harnessing the force of gravity, until the new make reaches the bottom level ready to be filled into casks. The design, says D’Orazio, reduces the distillery’s energy usage as pumps get help from gravity when transporting the raw materials down the building. “In terms of energy, we save proportionally nearly half of what we used to spend in our old distillery.”

Together with providing a more sustainable production process, D’Orazio highlights that the new design had to be able to maximise functionality for visiting enthusiasts. “When we started to actually go ahead with the plan we wanted to have a visitor-friendly, sustainable distillery. We had a peek at other buildings and, even though very different, we liked the idea of the great Guinness warehouse in Dublin [where visitors] go from floor to floor. It came forward quickly that it was going to be a gravity distillery, because [that design] was going to help towards sustainability, but it would have also been very pedagogical.”

Mackmyra’s ambitions for educating visitors involved tapping into the global success of the New Nordic Cuisine movement, the focus of which is on local, natural and seasonal produce, resonating with D’Orazio’s search for a Scandinavian whisky identity.

“For me personally, [food] is a big inspiration; we’ve always worked a lot with food to [promote] our whisky,” she says, mentioning that Mackmyra now has its own restaurant, located right next to the Gävle distillery. “Taking our first chef [Marcus Torgeir] was really great. Marcus and I cooperate. We create food pairings together, and that was when I discovered that Mackmyra was such a great whisky to match with food. With all the Swedish finishes, the spiciness that we have in our whisky goes very well with our cuisine.”

With food playing such a key role in Mackmyra’s promotional work, D’Orazio claims that the new site doesn’t necessarily just attract traditional whisky drinkers. “We get people with all kinds of interests,” she adds, “but especially the Swedish foodie, who knows about us and who has an interest in tasting things on a more elevated level.”

However, Mackmyra is not limited to ‘conventional’ innovation in its whisky making. In 2019, it embarked on a project in partnership with tech giant Microsoft and Finnish tech firm Fourkind, with the goal of creating the world’s first whisky developed with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI). “When the AI idea came along, it fitted very well with our company [ethos]. It started as an interesting experiment to see what modern thinking can bring to a modern distillery like us,” says D’Orazio. Overall, the project generated excitement, yet D’Orazio points out that it was a cause for concern for some, who warned it could have marked the beginning of the end for the master blender profession: “Because of the issue of having a computer doing my job, everybody told me, ‘You will be challenged. You are a master blender, you should not be wanting to do this’. I thought, ‘Will the computer take my job?’ I was worried that [people could say] ‘oh, this whisky tastes so much better, let’s kick her out and use the machine instead’. ”
Looking up to the distillery

Without her participation, Mackmyra wouldn’t agree to partake. Despite the warnings, D’Orazio decided to act as
the project’s supervisor. “I like doing challenging things, I don’t like to be in the middle way, I like to be uncomfortable,” she says of her willingness to take the risk. As it turned out, the project was a success, but confirmed that the human master blender’s role remains crucial in developing the final product. The machine learning model, powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and cognitive services, was fed with Mackmyra’s existing recipes, sales data and customer preferences – a task that entailed significant human input.

“Whatever AI project you work with, you need to have a [human] supervisor who takes all the decisions. With 1,000 different blends [for instance], the expert will eliminate 990 out of those then put in new parameters. After that there are more recipes to exclude and new parameters to input. Then, when you have something you can work with, you do the blending, you taste, retaste, and then you decide: ‘This is the blend’. I was the person taking AI on the right path,” she says proudly. “For me it was fun and had a huge impact, it was a really nice learning project.”
The Mackmyra stills

Following the analysis of such a vast amount of data, D’Orazio was eventually able to identify just five market-worthy recipes, the first of which was launched in 2019. Initially, the project was meant to lead to a one-off release, yet the master blender reveals the distillery will eventually roll out four more.

“We think of ourselves as modern, progressive and experimental,” says D’Orazio, who believes the distillery’s future will be characterised by a continued pursuit of innovation. “A lot of things have come out of Mackmyra because we have grown organically from zero. We are children of this period – we don’t necessarily think in the same way as the old guys – and we are children of Sweden.”