Despite being relatively new, Nordic distilleries such as Mackmyra
are well sewn into the fabric of world whisky, and spirit from the Nordics has become some of the most consistently interesting in recent years. While it’s clear to see what distinguishes them from one another, what’s more difficult to pin down is whether there are particular characteristics that unite their whiskies and if these commonalities might indicate the emergence of some kind of Nordic regional style. With different countries, landscapes and consumer preferences to consider, a debate now rages as to whether there can be a unified ‘Scandi’ approach, or if each distillery’s spirit style is fiercely unique in its own right.
The Nordics, or what in the UK is generally thought of as Scandinavia, comprises Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, along with Greenland, the Faroe Islands and a scattering of other associated island territories. These countries have a long and proud distilling history, having made akvavit – a grain or potato spirit usually flavoured with herbs and spices including caraway and/or dill seed – since at least the 16th century. Despite this, the region’s thirst for Scotch is long established and so it was perhaps inevitable that local whisky making would begin – and thrive.
Though the Swedish government monopoly company Vin & Sprit (Wine & Spirit) bought pot stills from the Lowland Scottish distillery Bladnoch
in the 1950s and some (by all accounts terrible) blended whisky was produced, it was not until 1999 that the distilling revolution really kicked off with the opening of Sweden’s Mackmyra – the first pioneering Nordic distillery to make a mark on the global stage. Its 2006 release was the first Nordic malt whisky and inspired many other intrepid entrepreneurs. As a result, there are now at least 50 whisky distilleries across the Nordics; the majority are in Sweden and Denmark but you will also find a distillery on the tiny Faroe Islands and the world’s most northerly distillery in Norway, at latitude 69˚ North. To decide if there is a Nordic style, or even a singular approach that marks out the region, let us dive into each country and look at some of the more distinctive distilleries.
Famed for its plentiful and lively whisky clubs, Sweden could be considered to have some of the most knowledgeable whisky consumers in the world. It’s no surprise then that it also has the highest number of distilleries in the Nordics.
Mackmyra started in 1999 on Sweden’s east coast and began the new wave of Nordic whisky distilleries. Available internationally, Mackmyra forged the path that others followed by producing both peated and unpeated expressions. Led by master blender Angela D’Orazio, Mackmyra is known for experimentation, including an AI-inspired release and the use of unusual wood types, such as ex-mulled wine casks. However, the backbone of its production is a commitment to sourcing ingredients locally, which includes using Swedish oak and peat. Mackmyra’s commitment to the environment is best appreciated in the unique design of the distillery: opened in 2011, this seven-storey plant uses the force of gravity to power many processes, reducing energy use by 45 per cent compared to a more conventional layout.High Coast (formerly Box) Distillery
followed in 2010. Though it aims to produce whisky that is ‘elegant and drinkable, approachable, but still multi-layered’, the team are clearly peat heads at heart and take inspiration from Islay, with stills of a similar shape to those at Kilchoman. People talk of High Coast as a deeply precise whisky maker and this shows in its delightfully geeky website, which boasts a ton of information about fermentation times and cut points.
On a smaller scale, Smögen was founded in 2009; simultaneously, the world lost a lawyer and gained a distillery owner who loves heavily peated distillate aged in wine casks. Today, Smögen’s hyper-limited releases have a significant international following. The distillery focuses on quality over locality, with its peat imported from Scotland. As its head of marketing says, “Although we will be happy to use completely local ingredients, this effort will be subordinate to the quality aspects.”
Doing things very differently are the new kids, Agitator, who proudly claim to have read every single page of the Scotch Whisky Regulations.
“We understand and we master,” they say. “Then we do as we please.” From vacuum distillation to experiments with different types of wood, reinforcement rods in storage barrels to their two pairs of stills, these mavericks have built a chemistry set to make whisky for an untraditional audience.
Other notable distillers include Spirit of Hven
and the Isle of Lime Distillery.
Though not the first whisky distillery in Denmark, Stauning is probably the best known internationally. Founded by nine friends in 2005 in a remote village on Denmark’s wild west coast, it has come a long way but still sticks to its ‘Nordic terroir whisky’ approach. This means using locally grown rye and barley, floor-malting, and small fire-heated pot stills – a whopping 24 of them! In 2011, the world famous three-star restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, delisted all other whisky in favour of Stauning. Its releases are still quite young, due to limited production in the past, but it claims to focus on flavour rather than age. As well as peated and unpeated single malt, the distillery’s speciality is rye and its range includes mezcal and vermouth cask–finished expressions.
Stauning Whisky Distillery
Founded in 2015, Copenhagen Distillery isn’t beholden to the past. “We don’t want to do Scotch because someone else has already done that, we don’t need to do it again. We do Danish whisky,” says export director Marcus Christensson. This includes smoking grain at a local meat smoker and a zeal for the organic and the sustainable: from its entirely windmill-generated power, to the bottle stoppers made from recycled cork. The team does use Hungarian oak instead of Nordic, however, as they feel the latter is not suitable for long-term maturation. The team’s aim is to create more than the spirit alone; Copenhagen Distillery could be described as more of a lifestyle brand with the spirits and the distillery experience all part of the mix, which includes a huge bar and event space.
Other distilleries of note include Braunstein, where the team use their own yeast strains (a natural development, given that they started as a microbrewery); the tiny Fary Lochan, which aims for ‘Scottish tradition the Nordic way’ by smoking some barley with stinging nettles; and the irregularly released spirit of Vingården Lille Gadegård, where the first Danish single malt was produced in 2008. Lastly, we can’t quite leave Denmark without mentioning Faer Isles, on the Faroes. Funded by whisky fans from 22 countries in 2020, the team behind it believe that the location, water and climate make for an interesting addition to the Nordic and world whisky categories. They expect to be laying down spirit sometime this year.
The accolade of ‘world’s most northerly distillery’ does not say anything about quality but it certainly hints at the remoteness of Aurora’s site, which is utterly stunning, and the dedication of the founders, who began commercial whisky production in 2017 using wash sourced from a friendly brewery. Released under the name Bivrost, the shaking road to the mythological Norse Kingdom of Asgard or, more plainly, the ancient Norse name for the aurora borealis (northern lights), its limited-edition whiskies are named for the nine worlds of Norse mythology and are placating an eager audience in the run-up to the regular release of spirit distilled at the site, which is anticipated in 2025. Unusually, Aurora’s casks are stored in former NATO bunkers which allow for unexpectedly good temperature fluctuation while reducing ‘Odin’s share’, as the team calls the annual loss of water and alcohol to evaporation. The whole site was originally a coastal fort built by the occupying German forces during World War Two and is quite unique.
Next up we have Myken, the world’s first Arctic distillery, which was founded in 2013. This ridiculously remote island distillery can be found just north of the Arctic circle and it takes one and a half hours to reach by boat. The distillery was founded by six couples (known as the ‘Myken dozen’) through something uniquely Norwegian called ‘dugnad’. There is no direct English translation (probably for good reason) as it describes people joining together to work for free towards a common goal. The production is tiny – just 5,000 litres per year – but despite this it has already released a prodigious number of peated and unpeated expressions, with just a little venturing beyond Norway. “It would only make the Norwegian whisky nerds upset if we exported too much,” jokes co-founder Roar Larsen. Look out for a UK release soon.
Why make an imitation Scotch or Bourbon
if we can make something uniquely Nordic?
The Finns were early pioneers of Nordic whisky making as far back as the 1950s, but these early efforts were not met with much success and died out. Then, in 2002, the fun-loving Teerenpeli Distillery was founded on the back of a successful brewery and bar business. Though its ‘good time with a flirt’ strapline – proudly displayed on its homepage – might not give the impression of a ‘serious’ distillery, it nevertheless has some serious sustainability credentials and is powered by renewable energy from its own wood-pellet power plant. The team expanded their operation in 2015 to become Finland’s largest distillery and now produce up to 160,000 litres of pure alcohol per year.
The dream that became Kyrö Distillery
started in 2014 and was, of course, conceived by a group of friends in a sauna. The distillery’s fixation is on production of rye spirit, which is perhaps not surprising as, according to team Kyrö, Finns consume six times more rye per capita than the world average. Kyrö’s marketing proclaims that it is a ‘brutally Finnish dream come true’, speaks of the company’s ‘wild ideas’ and features an above-average number of naked people.
Finally, we have Iceland
, where for the longest time it was too cold to grow barley. However, thanks to – ahem – global warming, this has changed and Eimverk Distillery was founded in 2009. It produces a whisky called Flóki using 100 per cent Icelandic barley and has several young releases including the somewhat unsettling Sheep Dung Smoke expression. Historically, dried sheep dung has been used as a source of heating in Iceland and Eimverk has decided to use this to dry the malt. It is certainly unique!
Vor and Floki
These profiles highlight just a small slice of the distillery landscape in the Nordics, but it’s enough to show both the distinctions between each and the similarities. Irrespective of country, there’s a preference for local ingredients, especially Nordic grain and oak; a focus on flavour over age statement; precision engineering; and a commitment to the environment which unites Nordic distillers – not to mention their preference for the smoky stuff. As for whether there’s an emerging Nordic style of whisky, the jury is still out.
Henrik Persson, CEO of Sweden’s High Coast Whisky, thinks we’re not there quite yet but that in time a more solid identity could emerge: “In design and other elements you do see a Scandinavian or even a Swedish style. So why not in whisky as well?”
Meanwhile, Troels Knudsen, UK ambassador for Stauning, has high hopes for an emerging regional style: “I feel it’s about making a product that echoes the values and characteristics of the local community. Why make an imitation Scotch or Bourbon if we can make something uniquely Nordic?”
Billy Abbott, ambassador at drinks retailer The Whisky Exchange, which stocks many Nordic whiskies, feels it’s more about ethos than character: “They are pushing against the traditional and trying to make something different. It’s an attitude of looking where things can go next, building on the past and looking to the future of whisky.”
Though many distilleries are only supplying to their home markets, some are following Mackmyra on to shelves of international bars and specialist whisky stores. Crucially, this shows a reversal of the historic tendency in the region for the drinkers to look down on locally made whisky.
Outside of whisky enthusiast circles and specialist bars, however, the general consumer is a little more traditional and price sensitive. Ingvar Ronde, creator of the Malt Whisky Yearbook, recognises this as a potential sticking point. “It’s often difficult to preach in your own country,” he says. “One would think that Swedes would embrace the first Swedish distillery – ‘wow, let’s support them’ – but Swedes are a bit different.”
According to Billy, things play out a little differently on the international stage: “Nordic whisky has broken out of the geek circles into the world of the adventurous – people looking for new things and unafraid to step outside of their comfort zone.”
This international appraisal is starting to change local perceptions too. Leigh Fitzgerald, owner of the Dispensary whisky bar in Copenhagen, finds it a really exciting time: “It’s a relatively young country in distilling terms, you get a lot of five to eight-year-old whiskies... There is a growing culture that is getting to know that it’s being made here and made well.”
Marjana-Maja Kozul, who manages the whisky-focused Bishop’s Arms pub in Malmö, Sweden, thinks the future of Nordic whisky will be driven by a younger audience: “Younger people have curiosity. They have less money, but they spend it more wisely.”
Henrik is buoyant about the Nordic scene: “I’m hoping and betting that Nordic whiskey can, in the mid- to long- term, come close to what the Japanese have achieved. The quality is there, we have the interest. I don’t know what could stop Nordic whisky from taking over the world.”