Work life balance, high general happiness scores, thoughtful design and reasoned debate; Scandinavian countries are envied for many things. For those who travel there frequently or who are eager to explore the region’s spirits, you’ll find that it comes with its own quirks and – yes – a sauna or two along the way.
Beyond the clichés of excessive Viking-style drinking and ever-flowing Aquavit, Scandinavia is not that well known for its distilleries. It’s hard to understand why though – there’s a wealth of fantastic producers making world class spirits in each of the countries.
When taken as a whole, they exude quality. Meanwhile, when looked at individually you’ll see the spirits made there represent the people’s attitudes and the places they are from in an imitable way, showcasing the Nordics in all their nuance.
Here’s our guide to some of the region’s most interesting spirits and distillery tours.
The Scandinavian spirits scene
The Nordics have quite a complicated history with spirits where contrasting truths are difficult to reconcile. One of the biggest brands in the world, Absolut, is Swedish. It’s one of the largest spirits companies in the world and it’s not the region’s only giant booze brand either.
Yet, most Nordic distilleries are completely unheard of, even to locals.
Each country differs, but there are now at least 50 whisky distilleries across the Nordics. The same is true for the other categories, with hundreds of gin makers. On one side, you have the ginormous scale of Finlandia Vodka et al – on the other, the borderline anonymity of countless “bränneri / destilleri / tislaamo”.
It’s a contradiction of epic proportions. So too is the monopoly system where state owned shops are the only retailer of spirits.
It is both problematic yet loved. It allows for competitive advantages through a shared buying power, yet presents immovable challenges for brands looking to navigate it. So why do they have it? The monopoly system in place across Norway, Finland and Sweden came about through a complex web of circumstances. Its birth stems from when much of the population turned to alcohol as a source of comfort during the industrialisation of the region, and a desire to fight rising issues with alcoholism.
Propelled by the sober ideals of the temperance movement, many of the Nordic countries adopted a policy of banning sales outside of state-owned stores. Over the years it shifted drinking culture towards more responsible drinking and in this respect, it can be hailed a success.
It’s key to understanding the region’s relationship with spirits and how it’s evolved over the last century.
The various monopolies are amazing in their respective ability to stock so many products (compared to the likes of a supermarket in the UK), and their purchasing power is so formidable it really does enable them to make great products available, and at a great price to shoppers (should they want to).
Equally, it’s incredibly limiting for those looking to build brands as there is a need to conform to their system. The store controls so much of the consumer behaviour, the discovery, the prices and more. Meanwhile, selling direct to consumer online is a growing issue for producers there, as both technology and consumer expectations have shifted yet craft distillers are not afforded the same ability to engage with fans as their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
The other knock-on effect in this new era of craft distilling is the legalities of what’s allowed while touring a distillery has been quite controlled to date, and the idea of domestic distillery tourism has been slow to pick up.
No wonder then, that craft beer drinking culture still dominates the agenda, especially for younger generations of drinks enthusiasts.
The Sights - Scandi distilleries to visit
Despite all of the above Scandinavia has some truly inspiring producers to visit, from destination distilleries to those so weaved into the fabric of a city’s hospitality offerings, you only realise that the bar you’ve been perched at is in fact, the front room of a distillery.
Let’s kick off with these tiny urban operations. You’d be forgiven if you missed the custom made 180L hybrid still at HIMKOK even if you went a few times. Despite its demure nature, it produces big flavoured Norwegian Aquavit, Gin and Vodka.
What we like most about distillery-come-bar is the way their distillers collaborate with the bartenders to create unique and exciting flavours that can be used in cocktails. That end use and end context is so often missing from distilleries and closing the loop has already lead to innovative and exiting micro batch spirits.
Added bonus; you get to hear all about it, see it being made, taste it neat (if you ask nicely) and taste it in the cocktail without having to leave the bar stool!
Over in Finland – you can visit Helsinki Distillery on their organised tours (Fridays and Saturdays), but their distillery bar is located in a historic two-story former power plant, that also acts as a home for their visitor centre and hosts tastings through the range. A great place to taste their spirits and while nothing compares to a tour, it’ll give you a good sense of their personality too.
One of our favourite urban Skandi gin makers, Stockholms Bränneri, is situated in an old Jaguar workshop on the island of Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden. In the old workshop they create the city’s first craft gin, which was inspired by Nordic heritage, the architectural elements of the surroundings, and by the curiosity of their owners. It’s only open a few times a week only so plan ahead and book - but it's well worth a peak if you get the chance.
Copenhagen Distillery is built for guests and their two hour long tour and tasting is a lot of fun, as well as a chance to taste some exceptional spirits. You literally go through the entire range they make.
The gins are interesting (look out for the Angelica Gin where they’ve taken Aquavit’s dill and caraway and balance it against gin’s juniper, angelica, turmeric and pink pepper), the whisky’s full of character and their aquavit’s are creative – especially the Scandinavian Summer, which takes a traditional dill aquavit and tilts it to become fun, floral and fruit-forward.
Those who venture further into the countryside with a mind to take in some sights (and some stills) are richly rewarded across the Nordics.
Yes, each country is home to envious beauty, the great outdoors, the pure air, water and more – but in amongst the bucolic countryside you’ll also find some memorable spirit makers too. Take our word for it – it’s a perfect way to punctuate a trekking holiday, or take a time out as you sail around the lakes over the summer.
Forget what Stauning Distillery makes for a minute – absolutely delicious whisky - and revel in the architecture of their distillery. Karyn Noble gave her insight on the space and how it came about, and we can’t think of a better place to combine an interest in Danish design with an equal desire to taste world class whisky than through a visit…
Over in Sweden, Mackmyra also have an impressive series of sites that make for an immersive experience. The Whisky Village is where you’ll find their 35-metre tall gravity distillery, famous for its sustainability and efficiency. The hidden Forest Warehouse is also located on the same site alongside a smokery, the restaurant, conference rooms, sky bar and more – all resulting in an epic day out.
If visiting a distillery isn’t what you like the sound of (or need to account for others who might not be as into the idea as you) the Hällsnäs Hotel & Restaurant is worth paying a visit for a very special Mackmyra Experience. Award-winning super chefs Thomas Sjögren and Ola Wallin (known from the Swedish National Chef Team) run the kitchen. The food experience together with our new whisky warehouse and the location by the lake is something special.
While you are in that part of Sweden, go to Hernö Gin. It’s a small space, but it’s filled with some of the highest quality gin you’ll ever get to taste. For gin fans it’s as much a pilgrimage to see one of the greatest producers as it is a distillery visit.
Sure, you can taste the range, tour and hear all about how they make gin – but our advice is to try and get hold of the Hernö High Coast Terroir. It’s a vintage gin distilled with locally picked botanicals and encapsulates a sense of place with panache and sensitivity. It’s always different too and for the 2021 release Hernö’s founder Jon Hillgren created a forest symphony with northern notes letting trumpet chanterelle add spicy notes balanced with the freshness from sorrel.
What 2022 holds is something many gin nerds are already excitingly gossiping about.
As for Norway - Oslo Håndverksdestilleri is our top recommendation. The distillery is located just a stone's throw from Oslo's longest river, the Alna, situated in the Bryn neighbourhood of Norway's capital city.
A long-established industrial district, traders first came to Oslo and settled in the area in the 1880s, and the distillery's original red-brick building dates back to this time. You get a sense of place from it, but more so from the spirits they make. They seem to capture the taste of Norway and the Nordic countries through distillation. They focus on using plants that grow wild (sorrel, wormwood, pine shoots, meadowsweet, blueberries), and almost miraculously you can recognise the smell of mountains, meadows and forests in the distillates. In particular - in their London dry gin Vidda.
You don’t need a distillery tour to make the Aurora Borealis special. You don’t need booze at all in fact – it’s one of nature’s most magical moments. That said, as you wait for them to appear in the small hours of the night, if they appear at all, having a special whisky tasting in cabins just off one of the northernmost distilleries in the world is a massive bonus...
So, for those up for a bit more of a trek (or just a ferry) Aurora Fjord Cabins are situated right behind one of the world’s northernmost whisky distilleries and you can book in and stay the night, as well as tour and taste Bivrost’s broad range of spirits.
A G&T with cracked ice from an iceberg, whisky from barrels stored in a Viking Longhouse? It’s worth the trip with or without nature’s nocturnal display.
Highlight Spirits - Scandinavian brands to watch
It’s hard to pick a couple of brands to focus on given there are hundreds across the Nordics. The two we’ve picked happen to be Finnish and both of these brands manage to combine the region’s dry humour, self-effacing style and ability to distil fantastic booze.
The first is Koskenkorva distillery, located in the village of Koskenkorva in Southern Ostrobothnia. It’s rural to say the least and sparsely populated - there are less than 2500 inhabitants in the village, and the closest town, Seinäjoki, is around 28 km away. What it does have though, is some of the northernmost barley in the world and most of Koskenkorva’s barley is sourced locally within a 200 km radius of the village, while the water comes from unfiltered and unprocessed pure spring water from Rajamäki.
The brand has a long history dating back to the turn of 1930s and 1940s when the Finnish alcohol monopoly, Oy Alkoholiliike Ab, bought land from the Koskenkorva family. In 1953 spirits production started and by the 60’s, the brand became the most popular spirit in Finland. Today, Koskenkorva remains one of Finland’s best-selling spirit brands.
Its sustainability creds are impressive - the distillery runs mostly on bioenergy generated by their own bioenergy power plant, they use 100% of every single barley grain, the recycling and re-utilisation rate is 99.9% and they’ve managed to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% since 2014. Fun advertising, green production and solid vodka – it’s one to look out for.
For Gin and Whisky fans, one of the better-known craft distilleries form the Nordics (and one we often gravitate back towards) is Kyrö.
Their story started in a sauna. As most things in Finland do. The soon to become co-founders began to ponder why nobody was making rye whisky in Finland and from there, the journey of Kyrö began. It’s out of the way to say the least but if you ever find yourself in Isokyrö, Finland there's a warm welcome waiting for you here – especially if you bring a sweater.
The gin has a classic styling to it and is loved by many. While it may be their best-known product now that their whisky has matured – expect drinker’s attention to turn to their Rye soon. Out of what’s been released so far, we like their Kyrö Wood Smoke Whisky, that combines sweet rye bread, vanilla and honey with a smoky backdrop. It’s made using an ancient northern tradition, where the rye is introduced to alder smoke in a 100-year-old "riihi" barn. Very cool. Very tasty.
Spotlight on Aquavit
We can wax lyrical about the wonder of Aquavit, but even our enthusiasm for it will not blind us to the inescapable truth; outside of the region’s domestic consumption, the spirit is not going anywhere fast.
Aquavit is a big part of Scandinavian drinking culture – it’s officially the national drink. It’s worth getting to know a little bit more about what it is and the regional style differences. Firstly, the “when”. Because of the culture behind the drink, it’s traditionally consumed at special events. Think Christmas, weddings, birthdays and other big celebrations.
What is it? Aquavit is a Scandinavian spirit that’s flavoured with different botanicals – namely caraway. Think of it as a caraway, fennel or dill flavoured vodka. It’s made in much the same way as you make gin (take a base spirit, add botanicals, distil) and bottled at a minimum 37.5% and up to 45%.
You can find clear aquavit as well as aged versions and just as with whisky, there are some creative cask selections to accentuate the botanicals, from ex-bourbon casks to sherry and more. One of the well-known brands of Aquavit “Linie" matures its Aquavit at sea, recreating what it might have been like when barrels used to travel for weeks on voyages from Norway to Australia.
The following are general rules of thumb, and in each case, a connoisseur will be able to state several exceptions but if you’re a newbie – this will help wrap your head around the national interpretations…
Danish aquavit is known to be quite bold and tend to have a stronger dill and coriander flavours, while most are not aged. Swedish aquavits tend to have a noticeable anise and fennel flavours in the mix. Most drink it straight and ice cold and it’s a good place to start as they are considered “archetypal” aquavit and a good way to familiarise yourself with the strong botanical flavours and how they build around the caraway seed.
Unlike most Swedish Aquavit that’s often grain based, Norwegian aquavit is frequently made from potatoes and have more cumin and citrus flavour. If you are into cask ageing, many Norwegian bottlings on the market are aged.
Again, these are just some starting pointers for what the historic country by country expectations would be. What we’re seeing more of in the last five years is producers taking a similar approach as they do to gin, with summer and winter editions, or those tilted to a flavour profile like floral, citrusy or herbal - expressing their creativity through how they build botanicals around a pre-dominant caraway (much as a gin maker builds around juniper). With that, it’s become a more diverse category and a more accessible one too.
Usually, Aquavit is enjoyed straight. In Sweden and Denmark, aquavit would probably be served ice cold and drank quickly (shots). Norway tends to differ, and more often than not, aquavit is served at room temperature in special tulip-shaped glasses and sipped slowly.