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Discover Nordic whiskies 

Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway are producing distinctive whisky with local character that’s well worth exploring. Richard Woodard introduces the distilleries you need to know and recommends bottles to try. 

The Nordic nations love whisky. Famously passionate, knowledgeable and – let’s face it – just plain geeky on the subject, it was only a matter of time before the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns started doing their own thing. And very exciting that thing has turned out to be.

According to Thomas Øhrbom, who runs the highly informative Whisky Saga website, there are now about 50 distilleries making whisky across the region. Roughly half of them are in Sweden, with the rest spread across Norway, Finland and Denmark – plus one in Iceland and two in the Faroe Islands.

The modern era of Nordic whisky making began with Mackmyra, established in Sweden in 1999. Since then, while many may have been initially inspired by Scotch, their whisky journeys have veered off in multiple different directions.

A distillery next to a river at sunset

Kyrö Distillery in Finland

Go your own way

For instance, the founders of Stauning on Denmark’s remote west coast so enjoyed a bottle of Ardbeg 1977 that they decided to recreate it. ‘We kept on doing that for a couple of years,’ recalls co-founder Alex Munch, wryly. ‘Then we decided to try to do our own stuff, with our own local produce.’

For Stauning, ‘local produce’ means, in particular, rye. ‘Rye is very Danish and is part of our culture and heritage,’ says Munch. ‘If you were to open the lunchboxes of kids going off to school, you would find rye bread.’

In Finland, Kyrö Distillery Company co-founder Miika Lipiäinen was in a sauna with some friends passing around a bottle of Rittenhouse Rye when the idea of making their own whisky was born. ‘In Finland, we grow up with rye bread, rye porridge, rye everything really – so why weren’t we making rye whisky?’ he asks, rhetorically.

But, if you’re expecting local facsimiles of American rye whiskeys, think again. The grain and the production processes are very different. Kyrö’s rye, for instance, is grown midway up Finland, where the summers are short, but intense, with up to 22 hours of sunlight a day. That, says Lipiäinen, results in smaller grains packed with flavour.

After malting, there’s a lengthy (six days) fermentation, double-distillation and cool-climate maturation. The result is a whisky that is ‘subtle and full of complexity’, according to Jonny McMillan, reserve whisky manager at Berry Bros & Rudd.

Hand pours a bottle of whisky into two glasses

Stauning Rye Whisky

Small is beautiful

Berry Bros is one of a number of independent bottlers keen to highlight the fascinating whiskies now emerging from the region, with two tranches of releases (so far) from its Nordic Casks programme. ‘These are mostly small distilleries, started by nerds, doing really interesting things,’ says McMillan. ‘A lot of these whiskies have a really idiosyncratic character.’

If there is a common thread, it is not flavour but mentality. ‘These distilleries are celebrating making their own style,’ says Dave Worthington, global brand ambassador of That Boutique-y Whisky Company, which has released a number of Nordic bottlings over the past six years.

For Stauning and Kyrö, that means rye. Meanwhile, Thy (pronounced as the French ‘tu’) is a single-estate Danish whisky maker using grains grown on a 500ha organic family farm. It’s malted on-site and processed via a slightly bizarre single distillation set-up.

Local character

According to co-owner and Master Distiller Jakob Stjernholm, that’s perfect to capture the individual characters of the pre-industrial barley, spelt and oat grains that Thy grows. Smoky whiskies are created with beechwood – traditionally used to smoke fish, meat and cheese – although there are plans to dig peat locally too.

Another Danish distillery, Fary Lochan, uses nettle smoke to flavour its whiskies; others, including Kyrö, use alder wood. There are also whiskies with echoes of Scotland, such as the fiercely peated Smögen from Sweden, or Finland’s Teerenpeli – but even here there’s a local accent that can’t be ignored.

It’s a proudly independent approach that’s encapsulated by Copenhagen Distillery, where the hand-crafting of the whiskies verges on the obsessional. The process includes 10-day-long fermentations, a complex distilling set-up to fine-tune the spirit and endless tweaking of the whisky as it matures in cask.

Two workers filling barrels in a distillery

Copenhagen Distillery, Denmark

Founders Lasse Öznek and Henrik Brinks had a eureka moment when tasting a particularly memorable cask at Bruichladdich on Islay. ‘We looked at each other and said: “We’re going to make Danish whisky back in Copenhagen”,’ recalls Öznek. ‘But we’re not taking Scotch whisky to Denmark and making that. We get to decide what we believe the taste of Denmark is.’

With so many distillers content to plough their own individual furrows, pinning down the character of Nordic whisky can be elusive. Øhrbom makes a comparison with Japan, in terms of a focus on quality and maximising distillate character.

For Billy Abbott, content and training manager at The Whisky Exchange, the keys are the ‘passion and vision’ endemic in the countries’ cultures. ‘They’ve taken the Old World tradition and put a twist on it,’ he says. ‘Their whiskies are not the same as everyone else’s, but very much Nordic – they’re a little bit experimental, a little bit different – and a little bit weird.’

Nordic whiskies to try

Copenhagen Distillery Raw Edition Batch No 2

Master Distiller Lasse Öznek fusses over every detail, resulting in a remarkable Danish whisky with maturity beyond its five-and-a-half years. Polished walnut, light caramel and a savoury/herbal note meld into a powerful palate of stewed plum and dark, rummy molasses. Alcohol 51.6%

Fary Lochan 6 Year Old Batch 1 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

Never mind the peat, Danish whisky Fary Lochan uses nettles to smoke its barley. Anyway, the smoke is fragrant and rather subtle here, with the fruit – Comice pear especially – to the fore, alongside rich mocha and just an edge of bitterness. Alc 60.2%

Helsinki Distilling Company 6 Year Old Batch 2 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

Hailing from Finland, this is delightful. The whisky, but also the fact that the distillery used to be a car wash. Another Nordic rye, and even the new American oak can’t detract from the distinctively oily, resin-scented, honey-sweet distillate, with just the right amount of rye spice and pepper. Alc 58.9%

High Coast 2013 (Berry Bros & Rudd, Nordic Casks #1)

From the Swedish distillery formerly known as Box, this is hard to find, but track it down if you can. It’s a bruising battle between rich, funky distillate and some meaty Sherry cask influence. The palate is the winner, with dark prune/liquorice, forest fruits and cask-driven spice. Alc 60.9%

Kyrö Malt Rye Whisky

Do American rye whiskeys really taste of rye (or oak)? Discuss. Anyway, this Finnish whisky has a distinctive rye tang, altogether more welcoming and complex than the US template. Honey and vanilla from the casks, but plenty of waxy, tangy fruit and lightly peppered cereal from the distillate. Alc 47.2%

Kyrö Rye Whisky x Monbazillac Cask, Kyrö’s Choice

This  Finnish whisky was a special bottling for last year’s Whisky Show in London. Bizarrely enough, the Monbazillac cask gives it a herbal edge (caraway?) that seems to root it even more strongly in its Nordic origins. Beyond that, the basket of ripe tropical fruits is very enticing. Alc 53%

Smögen 8 Year Old Batch 2 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

The richly earthy peat is a given – Pär Caldenby, founder of  Sweden’s Smögen is a big fan of Lagavulin – but here the citric edge of the distillate and the nutty, toasty influence of the oak is every bit as important. A whisky of interest to a wider audience than mere peat freaks. Alc 60.3%

Stauning Bastard

Denmark’s Stauning is a powerhouse of Nordic distilling, thanks to investment from Diageo, but it has remained true to its ethos of small, direct-fired stills. This whisky, finished in an ex-mezcal cask, shows how complex its rye whiskies can be. Cigar box, Demerara sugar, baking spices, mandarin – it’s all in there. Alc 46.3%

Teerenpeli 3 Year Old Batch 2 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

Just when you think Teerenpeli’s Finnish whisky is relatively traditional – single malt, peated – they mature it in a shipping container, giving huge temperature variation, and approachability at a very young age. Herbal smoke, tangy grapefruit, vanilla and light toffee from the wood. Alc 55.5%

Thy Single Malt 2019 (Berry Bros & Rudd, Nordic Casks #2)

There’s fierce competition to be the most exciting Nordic distillery, but Denmark’s Thy is right up there. This beechwood-smoked, quarter cask-matured malt is a shapeshifter, moving effortlessly from bonfire embers to sour cherry, a spot of citrus and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg. Alc 57.6%

Vindöga Blended Nordic Malt Whisky (Berry Bros & Rudd, Nordic Casks #2)

Again hard to track down, but worth it. Where do the flavours of apricot croissant, smoked ham, black pepper and dark chocolate come from? Given that this combines whiskies from Smögen, Fary Lochan, Teerenpeli, Mosgaard, Myken and High Coast – or in other words Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway – that’s a tough question. Alc 59.7%

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