Tor Christensen is the CEO and one of the founders of Aurora Spirit distillery. Six years ago he left his successful job as CEO of an eco-business to invest all of his and his wifes money, time, career and assets on what many considered a ludicrous idea - to build his very own distillery in Norway. With no background in whisky, Tor and his co-founders decided to visit Scotland and a number of well-established and new emerging distilleries on Islay and in Speyside. With each visit they became more inspired and gathered a wealth of knowledge to take forward in their own venture.
We were lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Tor to find out more about Aurora Spirit distillery, production techniques and their limited edition Bivrost Niflheim Whisky.
What inspired the creation of a distillery in such a spectacular yet remote location?
I grew up in the area and have an enormous pride and passion for the community, history, heritage and the environment. The purity of the air and the water is essential, and the rich, unspoiled, and diverse fjords and Alps add to the attraction of the area.
The inspiration for the distillery came following a trip to Islay in 2013. It was interesting to see the production of whisky in a remote setting, the total sense of community and the welcome offered to visitors. The link between whisky production and tourism was one which we wanted to nurture, supporting the local community and linking it to tourism providers and encouraging innovation. In seeking a location for our distillery we were looking for a stunning location, close to the fjord to help with maturation of the casks, but also to provide a local community centre and offer of activities and accommodation for visitors, thus promoting the Lyngen Alps.
The centre is a perfect location for viewing the Northern Lights, we have beautiful views over the fjord in both summer and winter. The ex NATO base (part of which was also a German military base in WW2) is an attraction in its own right, and the tunnels and bunkers serve as excellent storage facilities for our casks. We run fast RIB trips on the fjord from the distillery, offer accommodation, outdoor Jacuzzi experiences, snow shoeing, cross country skiing and snowmobile safaris nearby. The area is very peaceful, a beautiful spot to just to relax and take in nature; including a pod of Orcas drifting past if you are lucky!
What is it like to live and work within the Arctic Circle?
Living in the Arctic has its clear challenges: 8 months of winter, constantly dealing with the harsh elements, closed winter roads and 3 months of just pitch black darkness shapes the people living up here. FROM MID NOVEMBER TO THE END OF JANUARY WE SEE NO SUNLIGHT WHATSOEVER! The weather is unpredictable, often changing from one hour to the next.
But then again - we live on a place like no other on this planet – this is one of the best places in the world to experience northern lights and the midnight sun. Few other places do you feel the seasons more intensely than here. The intensity of it all makes you appreciate the good moments – a great summer day, a clear winter night with northern lights sets our souls at peace.
Did the location pose any significant challenges when the distillery was first being set up? And then subsequently when you commenced distilling activity?
We did not meet any significant challenges that we had not thought of (we did 2 years of intense planning before implementation started). We began building the distillery in February of 2016, probably not the best month in the Arctic, the average temperature was minus 17 degrees but the structure of the distillery was erected in 3 days, thanks to the tenacity of the construction company employees, lots of coffee and good thermal gloves!
Overall the location does mean extra costs in sourcing raw materials with transport and shipping becoming a major factor in the overall strategy.
What are the aims or guiding principles of the distillery? What do you hope to offer whisky lovers around the globe?
We look to provide a community hub and place of employment for the local community, we will always support local businesses and providers and link to help and support complementary tourism businesses in the area, to grow Lyngen as a tourism destination in its own right whilst protecting the fragile environment in which we live and work.
We take a sustainable approach to much of our operation. We have a high focus on using locally harvested ingredients; it being the unique Arctic cloudberry we use in our gin, or helping local farmers transition their fields to grow barley for whisky production.
We have an open team approach with a flat structure, no set work pattern, we all do what is necessary to achieve our goals and help each other out where required. We feel it’s important to create an atmosphere that inspires innovation, and puts quality front and centre.
ABOUT BIVROST NIFLHEIM ARCTIC SINGLE MALT WHISKY
What are the defining characteristics of Bivrost Niflheim? Where were the casks sourced and how were they selected?
Niflheim is quite unique and its development has been fairly labour intensive, primarily because we wanted to keep a close eye on its development. There is an interesting mix between classic bourbon dryness on the nose with coconut and vanilla overtones but the sherry then punches in from behind to give a luscious dried fruit finish and a good mouthfeel, the flavor just lingers on forever.
There are many casks on the market but you really have to watch where you get them from. We had an initial delivery once from a Norwegian supplier and around 25% of them leaked like sieves. The casks were so dry it was hard to believe you would get anything good out of them. So it is important to build a rapport with your suppliers to ensure you get what you want, sometimes this comes at an extra cost but the quality is well worth it.
We are lucky to have one of our co-founders, Colin Houston, living in Scotland and actually around 45 minutes from Speyside cooperage where we source the majority of our casks, we also buy directly from Spain. For the Speyside casks these are personally selected by Colin who checks on the condition of the cask and the aroma of the previous spirit or wine content. We are quite particular with our ex bourbon casks only taking from the smaller producers, Heaven Hill or Wild Turkey as they do not rinse the casks out prior to shipping, hence we get a lot more bourbon content in the devils share.
The close liaison with Speyside cooperage also means that Colin is alerted to special limited casks when that arrive, these we often buy for experimental releases.
We also work with Neil Cameron, ex distillery manager at The Glenturret with 40 years of experience in the whisky industry. Neil is the ‘nose’ of the operation regularly checking on cask maturation and keeping us straight when it comes to selecting the final cut.
Do you feel the location has had an impact on the maturation of the spirit and resulting whisky?
Even though we are situated 1000 km above the Arctic Circle we experience good fluctuations in climate during the year. We have access to several ex-NATO bunkers on the premises, but are only using one particular bunker right now for whisky maturation. This bunker is suitable for long term storage as it is not too far underground (just underneath) and it is very close to the sea (10 meters). The temperature fluctuates throughout the year and it never gets too cold, internal dunnage temperatures vary from plus 6 degrees C to plus 16 degrees C. We do have an angels share, or Odin’s share as we like to call it, of around 1 to 2 percent which we are happy with, our initial worry was that the dunnage would be too cold to enable this process and therefore maturation would be slow.
We also really like the fact that we’re re - using (recycling) an old NATO bunker, this storage facility was actually intended to be used as an army lasarett (emergency hospital) during wartime.
With 3 years of experience now we see that our products mature at a satisfying rate. We do however only purchase smaller casks (125 – 250 l), which give more wood contact which helps the maturation process.
Can you provide any insight into the production techniques used to create Bivrost Niflheim?
Bivrost® Niflheim Single Malt Whisky is based on Nordic barley and pilsener Malt. The yeast is Brewers yeast, Saccharomyces eubayanus (Lager yeast). The water is sourced from the local spring, which receives melted glacier water from the Lyngen alpine range. The wash is distilled 3 times in Aurora Spirit’s bespoke copper pot/column still. Average distillation time ranges between 8 – 10 hours, average strength heart collected of undiluted new make is around ~75%abv. The whisky was stored in carefully selected sherry casks, virgin oak casks and bourbon casks. It has been allowed to mature for the required three years in underground storage vaults, which were previously part of a network of tunnels in a Cold War NATO base.
ABOUT BIVROST WHISKY
We understand that your next release later this year will be a bourbon matured expression as part of your ‘Collectible Series’. Can you give us any insight into future releases in this series?
Over the last 3 years we have been laying down a core range of casks these are primarily Bourbon barrels at 200L and sherry casks at 250l and smaller.
We also use quarter casks which aid maturation and for these we have 125 L first fill bourbon and also 125lL ex-islay casks to give a slight peaty edge on the nose. These last two will form the basis the next release in November, Nidavellir.
Going forward we will have a Rum based release, not a finishing cask but full maturation in Appleton Estate Rum casks. Being an Aquavit distiller we will have an aquavit cask finish release, Norwegian cask aquavit has to be matured in ex sherry casks, in our case Oloroso so it is a natural cask progression. Other releases will have elements of Sauterne, port, madeira, red wine, Palo Cortado and ex-rye cask finish.
These are all experimental releases, our whisky is new to us but also to the consumer. So, the key is to release them and let the consumer tell us their preference. This will then help us to develop our house style or styles.
Long term we aim to produce some standard 8, 12 and 15 yo Bivrost whiskies, but for the next 6 years we will be producing distinct, special releases with a variety of different washes (Peated and non-peated) and various finishing casks (as mentioned above). These experimental releases will probably be a regular feature and in addition to our core range going forward. The theme we have selected for these first limited releases are “the nine worlds of Norse mythology”.
You’ve said your first standard release should happen in 2025, are you able to give us any insight into what this will be?
Well yes and no.
The experimental releases will be just that, an experiment to gauge consumer reactions, likes and dislikes, which will steer our 2025 release. It’s really too early to say whilst we will have a ‘standard release’ one thing is for sure it won’t be a ‘standard’ whisky! I also believe going forward we will supplement the standard release with a few limited releases. One thing about our development so far is that the whole team at Aurora Spirit look forward to seeing the outcome of the experiments. To end up with just one standard whisky would take away from the fun factor and experimentation.
Where would you like to see Aurora Spirit distillery and Bivrost whisky in 5 and 10 years time?
Our aim is to establish a solid presence in the Nordic whisky scene. We are small, and we are still learning, but we have faith in our raw materials, our production, and our team. In time we hope that Aurora Spirit as a distillery, and Bivrost as a brand, will be something people want to keep an eye on. That we can play our small part in the global development of whisky by making the best whisky we can.