The Nordic countries have a proud tradition of distilling the water of life. Indeed, the earliest reference to aquavit dates back to the 16th century. Mostly distilled from grain, aquavit is flavored with a variety of herbs, the main of which are dill or caraway. However, aquavit distillation has long since made way for other, more popular spirits.
Specifically, over the past fifteen years, there has been a marked interest for single malt whisky in the Nordics. Unsurprisingly, this lit a fire under the local distilling communities and brought on the birth of many new distilleries. These facilities produce whisky either exclusively, or together with spirits like gin, bitters, vodka and yes, even aquavit.
RISE OF NORDIC WHISKY
With roughly fifty distilleries now active in five different Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—this new whisky region can no longer be overlooked. “It is the attention to detail, the willingness to challenge conventions and to try new approaches that makes them interesting”, says Thomas Øhrbom, the prolific blogger and whisky consultant from Norway.
The stills at Det Norske Brenneri / Photo Credit: Det Norske Brenneri
Good examples are Eimverk in Iceland, with its sheep-dung smoked whisky; Mackmyra from Sweden with a juniper-smoked expression as well as various offbeat finishes; and Kyrö from Finland with its focus on rye. Yet there are many other distilleries that are more or less trying to emulate Scotch whisky. Defining a Nordic whisky style is difficult, says Øhrbom. “If I were to try to sum up what defines Nordic whisky, it would be ‘quality over quantity’.”
Anyone with a love for whisky and an adventurous spirit should be on the look-out for some Nordic deliciousness. Of course, you’ve got to start somewhere. With that in mind, we’ve selected the most eye-catching examples of what this region has to offer.
Former lawyer Pär Caldenby established Smögen in 2009. By that time he had already written the book, “Enjoying Malt Whisky“. The Swedish distillery’s heavily-peated malt is imported from Scotland. His aim is to produce hand-crafted, smoky, Islay-style whisky in small batches. At a capacity of 35,000 liters of alcohol per annum, small is indeed the keyword here. The first release from the distillery was the 3-year-old Primör in 2014. Since then, there have been many limited editions from Smögen.
Smögen Distillery / Photo Credit: Smögen
Box/High Coast Distillery
Another Swedish gem is High Coast Distillery. Formerly known as Box Destilleri, it rebranded to avoid confusion between its products and those of independent blender and bottler Compass Box. Made by whisky nerds, for whisky nerds, the High Coast Distillery’s website gives an incredible amount of detail on each bottling. These range from the type of yeast to the length of each run, and from the average fermentation time to the source of the cooling water. Talk about transparency! The High Coast Distillery has been around since 2010 and is one of the biggest success stories in the Nordic whisky industry.
High Coast Distillery / Photo Credit: High Coast Distillery
Det Norske Brenneri
Det Norske Brenneri became the first private distillery in Norway after the state-run monopoly dissolved in 2005 following 80 years of implementation. Formerly known as Agder Brenneri, it first began alcohol production in 1952, but mainly focused on apple wine and cider. It wasn’t until 2012 that it launched Norway’s first single malt whisky, Audny, which means hope in the Old Norse language. It was named after a sailing ship from the late 19th century, the skipper of which was the grandfather of distiller Ole Puntervold.
A Det Norske Brenneri barrel / Photo Credit: Det Norske Brenneri
Braunstein is a Danish microdistillery, situated not far from Copenhagen, and run by brothers Claus and Michael Braunstein. In 2005 they began with a brewery, but soon after, the brothers obtained their own distilling equipment. The distillery’s production is mostly organic and mostly local, including using ice water from Greenland. Braunstein produces around 60,000 to 75,000 liters of alcohol every year. Not all of it is used for whisky, mind you. Braunstein does it all: gin, rum, vodka and liqueurs. Its whisky, called Danica, is both peated and unpeated.
The still room at Braunstein / Photo Credit: Braunstein
Kyrö Distillery Company
As the story goes, the idea for the Kyrö Distillery Company was conceived in a sauna by a group a friends who shared love of rye whisky. Rye is an incredibly popular grain in Finland, and not just for making whisky. In fact, the Finns consume six times more rye than the world average—rye bread is the official national dish. The friends found an old dairy factory, and after some gentle renovations, the stills were first heated up in 2014. The company’s Napue rye gin has won many prizes, and its first rye whisky was released in August 2017.
A barrel at Kyrö Distillery Company / Photo Credit: Kyrö Distillery Company