Aurora Spirit Distillery and the Northern Lights.
Dutch football player Johan Cruyff was known for a lot of things, not just his efforts on the pitch. Some of his sayings have gone on to live a life of their own. One of them applies to whisky distillers who have chosen to set up shop in remote or extreme locations.
These distillers can be found in distant places where trucks get snowed in on the regular, delaying deliveries of barley or other supplies; where the sun never sets for prolonged periods; rainfall is a rare occurrence; or the angels’ share is often as high as 25 per cent. Challenging? Sure. But these kinds of circumstances offer opportunities too. Or, as Cruyff once so aptly said, “Every disadvantage has its advantage.” This mantra has been embraced by distillers around the globe.
Situated 69 degrees north of the Earth’s equatorial plane, Aurora Spirit Distillery was built comfortably within the Arctic Circle in Norway. It’s surrounded by the Lyngen Alps, nearby Lyngenfjord, and has stunning views of the Arctic wilderness. Lucky visitors might also get a spectacular view of the Northern Lights.
The distillery collaborates with local farmers and makes whisky from Arctic barley, which was the most important grain in northern Norway until the Second World War. It’s shipped down to the south for malting, although one of the farmers once attempted to process the barley himself. The extract was low and not as efficient as it could’ve been, since malting in cold weather has its challenges. That’s part of why Aurora Spirit has applied for an on-site malting drum. Another big reason: the expenses and the carbon footprint of sending barley all the way down south doesn’t sit well with the team’s sustainability views.
“Being the northernmost distillery sounds great on paper, but the reality is that it has its challenges in transport, costs and availability of things,” says Alejandro Aispuro, head distiller. “Much more than for most other distilleries.”
While temperatures can dip below -20˚C in winter and rise to 20˚C in summer, the climate in this coastal area is relatively moderate compared to most of the Arctic Circle. The Gulf Stream has a marked influence on the region, keeping the ports of northern Norway ice-free all year long. During the first few years of production, all Aurora Spirit’s casks were stored in former NATO bunkers. The distillery now has its own Viking warehouse, though it isn’t very large and the barrels aren’t stacked very high. Daily temperature swings inside the warehouse are modest – usually only a couple of degrees – and seasonal differences aren’t huge either, from an average of 5˚C in December to 16˚C in July. On the other hand, in the Arctic Circle there are periods when there’s no night-time darkness at all, meaning a particular side of the warehouse gets hit by sunlight continuously for three months on end. Aurora Spirit has yet to do any research into if or how this impacts the spirit, in terms of angels’ share for example, but the team plan to more closely monitor this in the future.
Aispuro doesn’t buy into the idea that the Arctic Circle might be too cold for maturation and that Aurora’s spirit ages too slowly, pointing out how their cask management impacts the spirit. Casks range from giant ex-solera butts to small 40-litre vessels with a high surface-area-to-volume ratio.
Aurora Spirit Distillery in winter
Aurora Spirit matures in different types of wood, too, including some casks made from teak, which Aispuro says have developed admirably in just a few months. “Most people would consider our cold climate a problem, because maturation is slower. But we are a whisky distillery, and the process is supposed to be slow. If you want it fast, you’re not in the right business.”
Literally on the other side of the world, New Zealand distillery Cardrona is one of the southernmost distilleries on Earth. Nestled within the Cardrona Valley in the Crown Range, the distillery sits at an impressive elevation of 600 metres above sea level. During winter, inverted clouds drift in from nearby Lake Wanaka, hugging the water before reaching the shore. But the valley is elevated high enough that it avoids that kind of cloud trek. Therefore, Cardrona is usually blessed with clear, crisp winter days.
The climate is arid: annual rainfall is limited to just 400 millimetres. “Humidity is almost non-existent and that poses challenges,” says Sarah Elsom, head distiller at Cardrona Distillery. For instance, if empty casks aren’t filled immediately, they are at risk of drying out quickly. That’s especially the case during summer, when temperatures can hit 40˚C, which is why Cardrona pre-fills all its casks with 10–15 litres of new make on arrival.
Initial plans for Cardrona included not releasing any whisky before the 10-year mark, but that changed after seeing how the spirit developed and receiving glowing feedback from the likes of whisky writers Dave Broom and Charles MacLean, and Adelphi director Alex Bruce. “We realised that we needed to be bottling whisky that was at the very least a progress report, but also celebrating milestones,” says Elsom.
The extreme temperature fluctuations that occur year-round at Cardrona play a big part in the spirit’s quicker-than-expected progression. The difference between day and night can be as much as 30˚C, while seasonal differences are even more extreme.
But it’s not just these swings that change the energy of the maturation cycle. The humidity plays its part, too. At 2.9 per cent average bulk loss per annum, the whisky evaporates slightly quicker than in Scotland, where the average angel’s share is two per cent per annum, but the low humidity changes the ratio of alcohol to water that’s lost. Originally filled at a strength of 66% ABV, some Cardrona casks have seen a rise in alcoholic strength of 1.5% or more in just a few years.
All these factors combined seem to be causing the whisky to mature at a much faster rate than originally anticipated. “You’re always going to get your colour quite quickly, especially when you’re working with Pinot Noir casks like we are, which are slightly more tannic,” says Elsom. “But rather than it being sweet and oaky and quite clunky, we were seeing interaction and a mellowing in the middle that we thought would be further down the road for us.”
While Cardrona and Aurora Spirit are simply working with the hand that they’ve been dealt – and reaping the benefits of it – an Israeli distillery is seeking out extreme conditions on purpose. M&H Distillery is based in Tel Aviv, where the weather is hot and humid. But ever since the distillery was founded, in 2013, the team has been planning to mature whisky in the different climate zones of Israel. It was the late Dr Jim Swan who first suggested the idea. “He thought Israel would be a nice playground to experiment within,” says Tomer Goren, head distiller at M&H Distillery. “It was his idea and we continue his legacy.”
There are ongoing maturation experiments by the Sea of Galilee, in the Jerusalem mountains, and in the Negev desert, all of which are in the early stages. But the results of the first experiment were already shared last year, when the inaugural edition of M&H’s APEX Dead Sea was released. As the name implies, this whisky matured near the Dead Sea. Or partly, at least, because they don’t do any full-term maturation there. The truth is, they wouldn’t have any whisky left if they did: the angels’ share at that location is 25 per cent a year on average. “Also, the spirit would become like a syrup or a wood extract. Not whisky, in my opinion. So, we mature at the Dead Sea for one year, maybe a little longer. Then we send the casks back the Tel Aviv for the rest of maturation,” explains Goren.
Moving Aurora’s casks in winter
M&H Distillery has even struck a deal to store its casks on the rooftop of a local hotel. There are 30 casks in the Dead Sea warehouse currently, although ‘warehouse’ might be too generous a word. At the very least it doesn’t conform to the traditional idea of a place where one might store whisky. It’s more like a cage. And it was purposefully designed like that, to ensure the elements would have free reign and the casks would be exposed to the extreme climate. Temperatures near the Dead Sea rise to a maximum of 48˚C while the humidity hardly ever exceeds 40 per cent (and drops to an average of 23 per cent in the summer).
But it’s the altitude that makes the Dead Sea even more of a unique location. Its shores are the lowest land-based elevation on Earth, at 423 metres below sea level. “The low altitude causes more pressure inside the cask. It is closed and warm. The pressure inside the cask is even higher than it is on the outside. That pushes the liquid into the wood even more,” says Goren.
One factor that doesn’t impact the whisky maturing at the Dead Sea is the lake’s hyper-salinity. It’s almost 10 times saltier than ordinary seawater and one might expect this has some impact on the whisky, but that’s not the case. “Some people may find salty notes, but I think that’s more psychological. There is no actual salt inside the whisky. That’s a fact, we checked it in a laboratory setting,” Goren states emphatically. Most of the casks at the Dead Sea are first- or second-fill ex-bourbon, and STR casks respond well to the conditions, too, but wine casks result in spirit deemed too extreme.
“In general, the whisky style that I want to create is very balanced and not too excessive in flavour. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t want a whisky that is too ‘hot climate-ish,’” Goren concludes. Then again, he is still experimenting with the Dead Sea, along with every other climate zone available to him. As is the case for his peers elsewhere around the globe, only time will tell him exactly how these extreme environments will shape the flavour of his nascent single malt long term.