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Swedish Distilleries Part 1

By Dominic Roskrow

Please tell me about Swedish whisky. Are you seeing a growth of new distilleries?

Yes indeed. There are actually 14 malt whisky distillery projects going on in Sweden at the moment. This takes Sweden high up the list in terms of whisky nations. Regarding the volumes Sweden can't compare to the top five countries. Maybe top 15.

What are the main ones, what sort of size, and how developed are they?

The pioneer was of course Mackmyra, which had huge success building its brand. When it comes to marketing and branding Mackmyra is one of the best. But Mackmyra is still a small distillery even if it did recently had open a new distillery some 20 kilometres away from the original one.

The second distillery to release three year old whisky was Wanborga at the Island of Öland. Wanborga is actually a wineyard and the production of single malt is very small, maybe 100 casks in stock.

The third distillery to release Swedish whisky was Spirit of Hven. Hven is a small island in Öresund just outside Malmo and Copenhagen. Hven is the first of the Swedish distilleries run by whisky enthusiasts. The quality is amazing, 88 points from the malt maniacs for a whisky about five years old.

Two other distilleries are on stream - Grythyttan and Box Distillery. Box is the most northern distillery in the world and has extraordinary conditions to produce whisky of the highest quality. The cooling water is the coldest in the world, the knowledge among the staff is truly deep and the quality of the new make is amazing. Lots of international respected whisky connaisseurs have gone blown away when tasting.

There are a handfull of other distilleries coming up but not producing yet. The biggest is Bergslagen but also Gotland, and a few others have ordered there stills from Forsythes and areplanning to go on streams shortly. The rest of the distillery projects are on the planinng desk working with finances and plans. Most interesting of them is probably Arvidsjaour way up north, in the polar areas.

What sort of whisky are they making?

Mackmyra is making a mainstream whisky compared to the rest which are more run by enthusiasts than entrepreneurs. Mackmyra is quite a big user of first fill Swedish oak, which makes it different. Four of five warehouses are in caves, deep under ground, with very low temperature and humidiity fluctuations.

The other distilleries are more focused on producing two base recipies, smoked and unsmoked. The peated barley is the same as in Scottland, but unmalted barley is mainly Swedish. They are all maturing mainly in small casks. It's necessary to try to speed up the maturaition time. Supply of casks is a problem. Today they are buying from brokers, Speyside cooperage and so on, but also from a Swedish cooper, Torslunds Kagge, who makes casks of very high quality but they are also the most expensive in the world.

Mackmyra has a distinctive style of its own. Would you see this as a 'Swedish style' and are other distilleries likely to follow suit?

I wouldn't say that Mackmyra has a Swedish style. In the future a Swedish style will be developed. No question about that. The climate can be anything from minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter and + plus 40 degrees in the summer and that will affect the whisky. The enthusiast-driven distilleries will create a style where great care, perfect cuts and exact mashing times and nothing left to chance will make its into the whisky. In the early years the high number of small casks will influence the whisky as well as the use of locally grown barley and environmental thinking throughout the production lines. There are lots of things to say about this.

Is Mackmyra suited to Swedish tastes or is its flavour coincidental?

No, it's not a Swedish taste apart from the use of Swedish oak.

How is Mackmyra perceived in Sweden?

Very very well.. When the first releases were launched the queues were hundreds of metres long at the monopoly shops. Lots of Swedes have also bought their own casks at Mackmyra and other distilleries. When it comes to the whisky freaks (there are lots of them in Sweden, more than 1000 whisky clubs) Mackmyra is respected.

The Swedish are known for their passion for whisky - how does Swedish whisky fit in to the picture? Is Mackmyra taken as seriously as Scotch?

Sweden is probably the most interested market in the world. Mackmyra has a lot to prove to be taken to the connosseurs' hearts. Everyone likes them, but few enjoy them. It is still more than twice as young as a standard malt from Scotland. Scotland has 1000 years of tradition and history- it's not easy to compete with a five year old young, small cask matured dram. Last year Mackmyra sold around 150 000 bottles in Sweden. Up and coming distilleries, specially Box and Hven, are more focused on the enthusiasts and their reputation will grow quickly.

What are the main whisky trends in Sweden?

The proportion of sales of malt compared to blend is higher in Sweden than anywhere else in the world - I think around 15 percent. Also peated whisky sells faster here than anywhere else in the world.. The trend is more and more for serious tasting rather than drinking. A lot of people now recognise the small tulip shaped glasses, many people have been to tastings and tried to analysing whiskies. Within the clubs there's a lot of blind tastings, drinking together with people sharing the interest in clubs or bars

Are other whisky styles - Irish, rye, bourbon, etc - loved and appreciated in Sweden?

Yes, but not at the same level as Scottish malts and blends. Bourbon rather than Irish, and rye almost nothing. The bourbon bar Saddle and Sabre in Stockholm has 400 different kinds of bourbons, which no other bar in the world can match. The problem is that the Swedish agents have problems working with the best bourbon distilleries such as Buffalo Trace. The American export laws make the whiskey expensive and hard to sell. Irish whisky has big sellers such as Tullamore and Jameson, but this is driven by price. Among the enthusiasts, Cooley has a growing reputation. 10. Do you think there will be more Swedish distilleries producing whisky in the future?

It's hard to invest a million pounds in a distillery, then invest a million pounds in marketing and staff, then wait ten years of maturing before you have any income. All of the 14 up and coming distilleries of today will struggle to survive, but on the other hand lots of them are very small, garage stills, with no other ambitions than being a small scale distillery.

How is whisky usually consumed in Sweden? Has there been much food and whisky pairing?

Traditionally mostly by binge drinking if you looking at the total volumes, but the trend is totally different: lots of serious tastings, whisky clubs, very educated consumers. There are lots of reasons for this but the main one is the state monopoly. It doesn't matter if you live in Stockholm or in a small village in the middle of nowhere, at your local Systembolag you can buy about 1500 different kinds of whisky. The malt trend was started when Diageo released six classic malts in a tasting pack, then it exploded.

Food and whisky is a trend. Many restaurants are trying to add a flavour of whisky mystique onto their menus. Its difficult to make it work. In all of our shops you can buy whisky chocolate, whisky cheeses, whisky chocolates and so on. Whisky itself is very much a trend.