In the pursuit of visiting as many whisky distilleries as we can, we often find ourselves heading 'up north' to gain an insight into the differences of whisky production in distant and far-flung locations of the Highlands. On this occasion though, Scotland, I'll see your remote glen or your craggy peninsula and raise you the Arctic feckin Circle.
Aurora Spirits is currently the world's northernmost distillery and (spoiler alert) the whisky it's creating is absolutely top notch. This is primarily thanks to Alejandro Aispuro, the head distiller. An alumnus of the Heriot-Watt Brewing and Distilling Masters programme, Alejandro joined Aurora Spirit Distillery almost a year ago, in February 2022, following (and building) on from his experience in the creation of mezcal and agave spirits. But more of that shortly.
It was Alejandro who showed us around the production areas of the distillery. As you can tell from the name, the distillery hasn't limited itself to just whisky. In addition, its output includes aquavit, gin and vodka as well as various liqueurs. For any new distillery, wherever you are in the world, diversifying in this way from the outset is one of the easiest ways to ensure cash flow in the early days whilst waiting for your spirit to mature into whisky. And, although whisky was the main focus of our tour, there was one non-whisky offering we were intrigued to try: Arctic Pechuga.
Alejandro explained (and this is mostly from memory so apologies if this isn't 100% correct) that mezcal de pechuga is mezcal redistilled with local grains and fruits with some meat (oftentimes chicken) hung over the still. So, for the Arctic Pechuga, local berries grown in the distillery's grounds are used and, instead of chicken, Alejandro opted for reindeer meat. Which kind of makes sense. During the two hour drive from Tromsø, we spotted a number of reindeer; two of which were hanging out nonchalantly in the middle of the road. On the other hand though, zero chickens were spotted. So, admittedly, not one for the vegetarians amongst you but, although this might come across as one of the most bonkers things ever, it was absolutely, deliciously bonkers; a stroke of (mad?) genius resulting in one of the tastiest non-aged spirits I've ever tried.
But back to whisky production. The distillery was founded in 2016 and early distillation was from wash made at the Norwegian brewery, Mack. However, they're now producing their own wash on site and have been since 2021. A few barley varieties have been used for production already but by far the most exciting is the use of Arctic barley. In comparison to the other strains, according to Alejandro, the yield was incredibly low. Later on, in the warehouse, we tried some maturing spirit made from Arctic Barley. Now, as this is a blog post and not a thesis, I'm not going to mention the T-word here; I'll leave that to the 'experts' over on that other T-word. All I'll say at this point is that the flavour profile was very different to what I was expecting. Although, after tasting spirit made with reindeer meat, I'm not exactly too sure what I was expecting to be honest.
In the still house sits a 1200 litre pot still from German producers, Kothe, with a side mounted column still. You'll notice the word Bivrost on the wall of the still house. Bivrost is the name under which Aurora Spirit Distillery's products are sold. It's also thought to be the Viking word for the Northern Lights: a combination of two ancient Norse words: 'biv' meaning 'shaking' and 'rost' meaning 'path' as they considered them to be a bridge between heaven and earth.
After the still house, we took our own shaking path to the warehouse. Well, to be honest, I don't think it was the path that was shaking; just me. Just in case it's not clear from the photies, it was pure baltic. Although apparently it was 'quite mild' for a January day. Ahem. There's another warehouse which used to be a NATO bunker in a previous life but we headed to the newer, recently built warehouse just across from the distillery.
Here we tasted a number of samples straight from the cask with Ingjerd Sorsand, head of marketing. According to Ingjerd, the Norwegian equivalent of HMRC hasn't quite caught up with the idea of how much spirit should and shouldn't leave the warehouse each year. Which was, incidentally, absolutely fine with us.
First up was a dram of Odin's Share. This is a sort of infinity cask in the warehouse where various samples are added as and when. It was my least favourite of the cask samples but fully appreciate that this is designed as a wee bit of fun and, if you'll pardon the dire pun, an ice breaker for the rest of the warehouse tasting.
The sherry cask sample was up next. A mere four years old, matured in an oloroso cask, yet as quaffable as. Following on from that we tried a sample of whisky of roughly the same age but from a bourbon cask. It was great to taste them side by side to see how the same spirit matured differently in the different cask types. The sherry cask was excellent but my preference was definitely for the bourbon cask. Based on just these two samples in an extremely cold warehouse, it was too difficult for me to describe any underlying spirit character coming through. They did most definitely seem like siblings though; kind of the same but different.
Following that, we tasted samples of the maturing spirit distilled from Arctic Barley: one around 15 months and the other around two years old. Neither of them was whisky (yet) but they both genuinely messed with my head - in a good way though! The younger of the two was as funky as and ridiculously complex for such a young spirit.
Back at the visitor centre, Alejandro presented two samples for us to try. The first was whisky matured in a teak cask. The second was some of the teak cask matured whisky blended with whisky from other cask types. So, teak? I mean, I have a coffee table made out of teak but had no idea the wood would work well for whisky maturation. But, for the avoidance of doubt, on this occasion it absolutely did.
To date, there haven't been any core range whisky releases from Aurora Spirits. However, there have been nine limited edition releases; two releases per year relating to the nine worlds of Norse mythology. And I bet the marketing team at Highland Park are not only kicking themselves but also each other for missing that trick.
Bivrost whisky in the UK is, to use a phrase from a certain Fife distiller, rarer than rocking horse shit. However, there is one retailer based in deepest, darkest Herefordshire which receives a very small allocation (which very probably sells out in milliseconds). And, you can, of course sell your soul like the rest of us and try to pick them up on the secondary market. Expect to have to remortage though.
If you fancy a taste of the latest release, Helheim, it's the first dram in a lineup of Norwegian whisky for next month's Edinburgh Whisky Group tasting: From Norway With Love. This isn't a Kask Whisky tasting so all profit from this will be donated to charity.
Being able to take a few samples back with me, below are my tasting notes for the sherry cask matured four year old whisky; Bivrost Asgard (the fifth release of the Nine Worlds) and, just for shits and giggles, the Arctic Pechuga.
Bivrost Asgard Single Malt Whisky
Nose: initial notes of porridge with runny honey; there's a new leather note which intensifies after a while; a damp soil note follows; after a while, citrus notes emerge; there's lemon icing and lemon drizzle cake (what can I say? I'm a 70s child)
Palate: barley sugar sweets and lemon bon bons to start; the whisky starts to become more biscuit like after a wee while; there are hints of Gingernuts and those Ikea Kafferep oat biscuits with cinnamon (of which I ate my bodyweight in over Christmas); the finish is medium to long with subtle hints of clove and a tiny, tiny hint of aniseed.
Overall: young yet extremely well balanced; enough cask influence without overwhelming the spirit.
Aurora Spirits Single Cask (Sherry) Single Malt Whisky
Nose: initial hint of strawberry laces; there's a hint of red apple together with ripe apricots; after a while a dusty note appears; the smell of old notes in a leather wallet; after a while in the glass, a slight menthol note appears.
Palate: cinnamon buns all the way; there's a hint of Lebkuchen after a while and that aniseed note from the nose is sweeter; more like aniseed balls and strawberry laces; there's a hint of Breakfast Tea (with milk, of course) into the finish which is fairly long.
Overall: there's a little more oomph to this than the Asgard although I prefer the latter; it's still extremely well balanced for such a young whisky.
Aurora Spirits Arctic Pechuga
Nose: notes of cedarwood and aniseed; there's a slight char note in the background; it's herbal with notes of celery; there's a hint of that resin you use for violin strings; raspberry coulis notes appear after a while.
Palate: intially there are notes of aniseed and pine nuts; there's a slight earthy note followed by caraway seeds; the aniseed note becomes more menthol; Fisherman's Friend sweets into the finish.
Overall: wonderfully weird and my nose didn't even turn red.
A huge thank you to Alejandro and Ingjerd for giving up their time to show us around the distillery and for demonstrating such generous hospitality. Also, a huge thank you to Katharina for being our designated driver.
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