With this month’s Nordic Whisky Forum taking place in Sweden, now seems the perfect time to explore the Nordics as a whisky region. Recently, Master of Malt reported on the top 5 nations in growth of whisky: Nordic nations made up three of the five countries on the list. So, going from no distilleries at the turn of the century to over 40 today, we explore what makes a Nordic whisky, why they are becoming so popular and regional variation.
Rooted in Heritage & Place
In the 2000s, the early days of Nordic whisky, brands marketed themselves as being adjacent to Scotland, just across the sea from the spiritual home of the spirit. Today, however, this has been firmly moved away from, with distilleries exploring the heritage of their home regions to create truly local whiskies that are unique to their nation and area. A sense of terroir is a key trend in the whisky world at the moment, with consumers and collectors looking for something unique in a busy market and Nordic whisky distilleries are benefiting from this. The growth of whisky has reached even the more remote regions and converted many to support its journey: Faer Isles distillery in Faroe received funding from 23 countries, allowing the distillery to begin production earlier this year.
Whisky Auctioneer has partnered with Aurora Spirit in arctic Norway to release bottles 1-20 of their inaugural Bivrost collector's series over the past few years. These releases are inspired by Norse mythology, with names such as Asgaard made familiar worldwide by the Marvel films in recent decades. International interest has shown, with key markets including Scandinavia, Germany and the UK, but also present as far away as Australia. The distillery’s recent Fram release, in partnership with the Nansen Trust, celebrated the Norwegian Polar Explorer and Humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, with bottle number #1 becoming the most expensive Norwegian produced spirit ever. Clearly, this link between whisky and the celebration of Nordic heritage is successful.
Fram Whisky by Aurora Spirit, Norway
Over 1,500 km away in Northern Jutland, Thy distillery feels and looks more like a farm than a distillery. This makes sense, however, as Thy is a single estate distillery where everything is grown on the farm which has been family operated since the 18th century and fully organic for the past few decades. With cows still kept on the farm, even the biproducts usually shipped to farmers as cattle feed is kept at home at Thy. The proudly Jutlandic countryside spirit of the farm-distillery also carries through to the whisky, with one of their most popular releases being their Bøg smoked whisky. Named after the beechwood used to smoke the grain (Bøg in Danish), this release makes great use of Denmark’s national tree, simultaneously rooting the whisky to its homeland and also making innovative use of a more sustainable alternative to peat.
Innovative releases have also celebrated the historic but somewhat forgotten ties between Scotland and the Nordic region. This may be in subtle ways - for example, the Fram polar exploration ship was designed by a Scottish-Norwegian boat builder – or explicitly, as in the case of The Sänderbud (The Envoy) release, a collaboration between the Ardnamurchan (Scotland) and High Coast (Sweden) distilleries. The whisky married the Scottish and the Swedish malts to celebrate Collin Campbell, a prominent Scottish-born lawyer and merchant in Gothenburg, Sweden, during the launch of the city in the 18th century.
Through The Sändebud whisky we witness the interconnections of two whisky cultures, one old and one new, and the transformative power of collaboration. While High Coast Distillery and Ardnamurchan Distillery may be separated by geographical distance, both distilleries embrace their unique surroundings, adding value to their own local circular economy and drawing inspiration from their natural landscapes to create distinct and characterful spirits.
Jenny Karlsson, Marketing Communications Manager, Adelphi Distillery Ltd.
Gyrup Farm, Thy Distillery, Denmark
The most northern distillery in the world has, on the surface, little in common with the pastures of the Jutland countryside or the wind-swept North Atlantic islands of Faroe and Iceland. However, key trends can be seen that make Nordic whisky a coherent category of its own. Throughout the region, there is a consistent focus on sustainable, locally rooted whisky, making the best use of locally grown raw ingredients. With Nordic cuisine famous around the world for sharing many of the same focuses, this also feels fitting for Nordic whisky. Design is also a well-known focus in the region, famous for mid-century furniture, exciting young fashion labels and much more: this also shines through in releases, with many distilleries collaborating with local artists to create unique labels.
Starting in 2010, making whisky as farmers, we were eager to explore whether our local terroir and grain varieties would create unique flavour in a spirit. We were inspired by the basic philosophy of “New Nordic” to base our production on local tradition and ingredients that work out particularly well in our climate and landscapes.
For us that meant exploring Danish heritage barley varieties, beechwood smoke and rye, spelt and other indigenous grains in whisky. It also meant keeping production 100% single estate, organic and sustainable from field to bottle.
– Jakob Stjernholm, Co-owner & Master Distiller, Thy Distillery
Playfulness is also a key theme. WIthout the tradition and set production methods that have developed in older whisky regions such as Scotland or the U.S., Nordic distillers can experiment with characteristics of their whiskies with a high degree of freedom. This can be seen in innovative uses of wood, where the freedom to use any kinds of casks results in interesting, new ideas. Sweden’s Mackmyra distillery created their Preludium collection to explore different cask finishes and production methods all the way back in 2006-2007, in the early days of whisky in the Nordic region. More recently, Aurora Spirit finished their Bivrost Vanaheim in teak casks, utilising a wood better known for mid-century Scandinavian furniture to bring tasting notes such as apple pie to the release.
Given our location deep within the Arctic circle, we're far from everyone. It can at times be challenging, as you feel a bit detached from the industry at large, but it has also given us room to play and innovate in ways we might not otherwise have done, from wild yeast experiments, to using teak casks.
- Tor Petter Christensen, CEO, Aurora Spirit Distillery
Aurora Spirit Distillery, Norway
Rye is a key ingredient in the Nordic diet, with rye bread eaten daily in most Nordic cuisines, chosen as the national dish of Finland and possibly best known internationally as the base of the fashionable Danish smørrebrød (open-topped sandwiches). Despite rye whiskey being generally consigned to America, it was therefore natural for it to be tried in the Nordic region. And, in countries where rye was so popular to start with, it fit right in and has become an internationally-lauded success: Kyrö Distillery’s malt rye whisky was one of only 50 releases to receive the Gold Outstanding award at the 2020 International Wine & Spirit Competition, bringing the Finnish distillery headlines in the U.S., where rye producers realised they now had European competition.
Like the proud Scots who perfected the art of whisky making, the Swedes have emerged with a formidable force, offering a unique expression of their own.
- Jenny Karlsson, Marketing Communications Manager, Adelphi Distillery Ltd.
In all Nordic nations apart from Denmark, alcohol sales are state controlled to various degrees. Strict alcohol laws have played an important role in safety and health, but have historically hindered the development of commercial production of high alcohol content spirits in the region. Despite the growth in the industry in recent years, whisky is still slightly unknown, with rum playing a larger role in spirits drinking historically. Home distilled Aquavit was also the choice drink in the past, with smuggling a prominent issue - even fishermen from Shetland partook in this evasion of the authorities, smuggling the spirit from Faroe. How to ensure the growing whisky industry develops sustainably and healthily is a key question for the Nordic Whisky Forum and going forward.
Community is at the heart of any successful distillery, from the locals who work there to nearby businesses who benefit from whisky tourism, and online communities of loyal customers and followers who have fallen in love with a particular distillery. Nordic whisky has gone from a small, niche category to an internationally recognised one in only two decades, with bottles appearing on the secondary market allowing customers from around the world to purchase even the relatively small releases of Nordic whiskies. In two decades from now, who knows in which direction it may have spun? Whatever way it goes, what is clear is that Nordic whisky has a future as bright as a summer Polar Day, and will increasingly play a role in the international world of whisky.
Today we also supply other Danish whisky distilleries with malts grown by their local farmers and malted and smoked to their specifications. My hope is that by offering this malting infrastructure to our colleagues, we can help Danish Whisky become the strong terroir driven category it has the potential to be.
- Jakob Stjernhom, Co-owner & Master Distiller, Thy Whisky
Curious? A range of Nordic whiskies are available in our global online auctions each month. Explore and discover unique Nordic flavours, or even start a collection. Have Nordic whisky to sell, or maybe even interested in working on a project with Whisky Auctioneer? View our seller form to learn all about our options, wherever you are in the world.
Whisky Auctioneer has been an incredibly important part of our international success so far. We're a new and small distillery based in a country where the industry is still in its infant stage, and having Whisky Auctioneer take us as seriously as they did from the beginning meant a lot to us. They have helped us reach a global audience we could only have dreamed of, and have over the years become one of our most important partners.
- Tor Petter Christensen, CEO, Aurora Spirit Distillery