Let me take you to a land of volcanoes and glaciers, rugged coastlines and deep fjords, Viking legends and the aurora borealis. The Nordic region is admired for its contemporary interior design, inspiring architecture, and timber summer cabins tucked into forest clearings. Now, Nordic whisky can be included in that array. It’s a vibrant time for distilleries from the Jutland Peninsula to the Arctic Circle and across to Iceland, the land of fire and ice. The spectrum of this region’s whisky flavors is as diverse as the Nordic landscape itself. Over the past two decades, distillers throughout the region have built a culture of craftsmanship and innovation, turning this special place into one of the world’s prime locations for making whisky.
Teerenpeli Distillery—Founded 2002
Teerenpeli is located in Lahti, about 60 miles north of Helsinki, and operates a brewery, seven restaurants, and a downtown distillery with a new visitor center. The distillery draws water from a substantial underground aquifer of glacial meltwater that’s filtered through a deep gravel bed. It also has a ready source of native barley from local malting suppliers. The only missing element is local peated malt, so its new U.S. release, Teerenpeli Savu, uses Scottish malt peated to 55 phenol parts per million (ppm) that is blended with Teerenpeli’s local malt. Both standard and small casks are used for maturation, and Teerenpeli ages all its whiskies inside insulated shipping containers where the ventilation can be adjusted and the temperature monitored. Founder Anssi Pyssing expects to use this maturation method for all the distillery’s whiskies for the foreseeable future.
As Teerenpeli passes its 20th anniversary, a handful of other Finnish spirits producers have emerged in recent years. The newer ones are turning to rye whisky and single malt, while also producing gins and aquavits. Pyssing’s goal is to create greater cooperation among Nordic distillers to help the region’s whiskies gain wider worldwide recognition.
Stauning Whisky—Founded 2005
Taking its design inspiration from local farm buildings and fishing huts, Stauning opened its current distillery in 2018 with an ingenious custom-designed malting floor—the barley is turned with a unique system of spinning rakes like a combine harvester—24 squat stills, and an annual production capacity equivalent to Springbank Distillery’s 750,000 liters of pure alcohol (lpa). Co-founder Alex Munch likens the climate on Denmark’s west coast to Islay, but emphasizes that his goal is to craft Danish whisky, not Islay-style scotch.
“We want to create a Nordic terroir,” he says. “We have a lot of farmland here, great clean water, and local grain.” Barley and rye are locally sourced and malted on-site. A Highland-style Danish peat is used for Stauning’s peated malt, but it has augmented its smoky batches by burying local heather under loose peat in the kiln to add flavor.
Stauning’s whisky has a weighty mouthfeel, the result of a long fermentation producing more fruity esters that create pear, apple, and citrus flavors. Its kiln is heated with the hot air produced by its 24 direct-fired pot stills, and distillation is slow. “Making whisky will never be super energy efficient, but we’re really trying to do better,” Munch says.
Eimverk Distillery—Founded 2009
In its pursuit of authentic Icelandic whisky, Eimverk embodies the admirable qualities of autonomy, freedom from convention, self-sufficiency, and sheer inventiveness. Although the distillery first gained notoriety for using sheep dung rather than peat, there’s much more to its story.
Iceland is the closest whisky-producing Nordic country to the U.S., and that proximity has had a decided influence. “We’re in the middle of the Atlantic, and there’s always been a strong connection to the U.S.,” says Halli Thorkelsson, founder of this family-run enterprise on the outskirts of Reykjavík.
Eimverk, producer of Flóki whisky, mashes equal ratios of malted and unmalted Icelandic barley. It uses old milk tanks repurposed as wash stills as well as other hand-built equipment to run in-grain fermentation and distillation, where the grains are still in the solution when added to the fermenters and wash stills, rather than being drained off after mashing—quite unconventional for Europe. The distillery taps into Iceland’s abundant supply of geothermal water, passing it through a heat exchanger to lower its energy footprint. Predominantly using charred virgin oak casks lends Eimverk’s whiskies a bourbon or Tennessee whiskey slant. The distillery has an active finishing program, using sherry casks but also more unorthodox choices like birchwood, Icelandic craft beer, and mead casks.
This island nation is at the limit of the world’s barley-growing zone, which presents a fundamental challenge to making whisky. Eimverk uses native barley grown and malted on the family farm. Two species of two-row barley are planted, specially selected for these tough growing conditions. The resulting harvest is typically about half of what a farmer might expect in Scotland, and each ton produces 10% to 20% less alcohol. Barley grown this far north is inherently spicy, with a relatively low amount of sugars due to the short summer, imbuing the whisky with fresh grassy tones and a distinct spicy pepperiness.
Eimverk Distillery has the capacity to make 34,500 lpa, and it ships Flóki whiskies to 19 countries. “We’re in this for the long run,” confirms Thorkelsson. “We’ve even planted some oak trees, but it’s going to take a while to get our own barrels!”
Aurora Spirit Distillery—Founded 2016
Winter is the most spectacular time in Norway; you’ve got enormous snow drifts, clear skies, and the aurora borealis,” says Colin Houston, cask program manager at Aurora Spirit Distillery, the northernmost distillery in the world. Situated in spectacular surroundings within the Arctic Circle, over 1,000 miles north of Oslo, this facility was built on the site of a former WWII German military fort. At latitude 69°N, this is the land of the midnight sun and the polar night; in the depths of winter the sun doesn’t come over the horizon for two months.
The distillery makes a variety of Arctic spirits using its hybrid pot and column still, though it brings in a pilsner malt-based wash from the Mack microbrewery, located 50 miles away, for its whisky production. “I’ve watched the Mack delivery lorries come up here with enormous studded tires and chains as they belt their way through the Arctic weather to get to us,” describes Houston.
For maturation, quarter casks are typically used, though many of Aurora’s experimental casks are even smaller for faster maturation. Virgin Hungarian oak, chestnut, cherry, sauternes, madeira, rye whiskey, palo cortado, and aquavit casks are all in the pipeline. The small barrels are rolled into the tunnels of a nearby former NATO base to mature, though a new warehouse resembling a Viking longhouse will soon be completed.
While there is no oak growing in the Arctic, Aurora’s distilling team started the Arctic Barley Project two years ago with the aim of growing local barley for its whisky in collaboration with neighboring farmers. The first year produced about seven tons and, using an old farmer’s yeast on the unmalted barley, Aurora made a grain whisky and filled two casks. “The flavors it gives are insane,” beams Houston. “We’re getting a mixture of floral and fruity notes that I’ve not experienced in other whiskies.”
Aurora Spirit’s debut European releases, Bivrost Niflheim and Bivrost Nidavellir, sold out quickly. Currently Aurora Spirits is in discussions with U.S. importers, and plans twice-yearly Bivrost releases in Europe with the anticipation of greater availability by 2025. The nascent craft spirits movement in Norway has encouraged around 10 distilleries to make whisky—with Myken, Det Norske Brenneri, and Feddie all worth watching.
Look for a U.S. release of Bivrost within the next one to two years.
Mackmyra Whisky—Founded 1999
Vertical distilleries are uncommon, but Mackmyra has pioneered the concept (and is now being followed by Edinburgh’s Port of Leith Distillery, currently under construction). Mackmyra opened its second production site in 2010, a distinctive 35-meter-tall gravity distillery. Aside from the energy efficiency of the operation, it offers visitors the opportunity to take an elevator to the top to learn about whisky production as they descend floor by floor. Mackmyra makes the quintessential Swedish whisky, and with the skill of master blender Angela D’Orazio, it captures the essence of Sweden through the use of local barley, peat, yeast, oak, and finishing casks.
Mackmyra uses a Swedish white moss peat packed with forest matter. Distinctively, the distillery adds twigs of freshly cut juniper to the peat. Its malting facility is a customized shipping container where it smokes the peat for 36 hours to achieve peat levels of 50 to 60 ppm. “The Swedish peat gives us a rather herbal character, but adding the dominant flavor of the juniper twigs, we get this oilier, cold barbecue aroma into it, which is fantastic,” enthuses D’Orazio, “It has this Swedish forest essence to it.”
Mackmyra works extensively with Swedish oak, which has its own unique flavor profile with lower levels of wood sugars than American oak. “Our oak is very slow-growing, and it gives us quite massive flavors, similar to French oak,” says D’Orazio. “It has a beautiful, oriental aromatic composition when it’s fresh, with notes of ginger, coriander, aniseed, cedarwood, sandalwood, and tobacco leaf. Together, it’s like a most beautiful perfume.”
Mackmyra stores much of its whisky 164 feet underground in the Bodås Mine, an old iron ore facility that opened in 1857. It has six other satellite warehouses, including Europe’s highest warehouse at the Lofsdalen Skybar restaurant, but it’s the chambers in the mine that are cherished for their stable temperatures of 44° to 48°F.
Mackmyra is a fruity whisky, with notes of citrus, pear, and grassy herbal tones, plus ginger and aniseed spiciness. While the U.S. only has one expression of Mackmyra at present, D’Orazio oversees an active program of experimental casks that capture different seasonal moods, from lingonberry, cloudberry, and birch sap wines to coffee, amarone, Japanese green tea, and calvados, which have helped Mackmyra cultivate a strong identity among its legions of European fans.
Spirit of Hven Distillery—Founded 2007
This Swedish island distillery is situated between the Danish and Swedish mainland in the strait of Öresund, where it makes single malt and grain whiskies and organic gin, and collaborated on the first Swedish blended whisky. Grain is sourced on the island, with much of the barley being certified organic; a unique microclimate means it enjoys greater humidity and more hours of sunshine than most of Sweden. Conscious that everything needs to be transported on and off the island by boat, founder Henric Molin hopes to source 100% of his raw materials from the island by 2023, from cereal grains to gin botanicals. He maintains a strong focus on organic barley: “We want to do the best for the environment and meet our sustainability goals while being as efficient as possible with the local harvest.”
Spirit of Hven started making single malt whiskies, then added a lab, a grain facility with column stills, and a rare wooden Coffey still. “Our objective from the beginning wasn’t world domination, but to be small and interesting and seek out those different flavor characteristics,” says Molin. While every Swedish distiller has their own unique approach to making whisky, Molin sees common ground. “It’s not like we smell this and say this is a Swedish whisky, like you might identify bourbon or an Islay scotch, but I think we still see a Swedish profile. It’s very intense in flavor, and tends to be quite peppery and spicy compared to scotch.”
High Coast Distillery—Founded 2010
The High Coast of Sweden is a UNESCO World Heritage site and High Coast Distillery (formerly Box Distillery) stands here on the bank of the colossal Ångerman River. While it uses soft, clean water for making whisky, it takes full advantage of the mighty river and the 128,000 gallons of ice-cold water that pass every second to cool the vapors in its condensers. Distillery manager Roger Melander says, “Really cold cooling water is integral to the flavor of our new-make spirit.”
Melander experiments with maturation by varying cask size, heat treatment, oak species, and filling strength, taking into account the performance of the variables against the large seasonal fluctuations in warehouse temperature. He prefers bourbon casks and American oak sherry casks. During maturation, alcohol strength increases slightly at High Coast, so Melander has adjusted the filling strength from 63% down to 60% and is contemplating cutting to 58% to produce even better flavors.
In stark contrast to many distilleries, High Coast revels in temperature fluctuations inside its warehouse, which can vary over a range of 100°F. The black warehouse roof absorbs heat in the summer highs of around 82°F, but in winter it can drop to -22°F, resulting in ice forming on the surface of the barrels. “This interactive maturation forces spirit in and out of the pores of the oak,” explains Melander. “Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido, Japan is the only distillery in the world that has similar seasonal temperature changes, but unfortunately, they mature nearly every drop at Miyagikyo Distillery in Sendai.”
High Coast has a bigger U.S. presence than any other Nordic distillery, and Melander is confident about the long-term prospects for Nordic whisky overall. “Japan started making whisky almost 100 years ago, and today the market for Japanese whisky is enormous. Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark could easily be the next Japan.”
Mackmyra 1st Edition—91 points, 46.1%, $90/liter