Innovation – not only frequently overused, but also regularly misrepresented as synonym for anything remotely new. Whilst I suppose we should blame the tech world and ‘shiny’ new products for the immeasurable eye-rolling, I don’t think anyone would have expected a time when every new flavour of yogurt would be by-lined as an innovative new development. Alas, whisky is far from immune from off the shelf marketing speak – in fact, most of the press releases that cross my desk are riddled with it. It’s the easy option. The path of least resistance. But when I think about genuine innovation – the thinking skills, and behaviours which turn an idea into a solution that truly adds value – I’m afraid that for the most part, I don’t immediately think of Scotland.
Whilst Sweden isn’t so great at tennis nowadays, the country’s long-term focus on research and education has nurtured knowledge-sharing and advancement across a variety of fields and industries. This is not a new phenomenon - Europe’s first banknotes were created in Sweden back in 1660 to counter the growing size of copper coins that had ballooned in weight to keep up with the price of silver. The standard three-point seatbelt, used the world over, was developed in Sweden by Nils Bohin for Volvo in 1959. Whilst a little shorter in life-span, this attention to invention and modernisation can be seen in Sweden’s growing distillery scene – not only is the country in the top 10 Scotch consuming nations, but its own producers have taken their boundless enthusiasm for whisky and adapted it to create products where the word innovation might actually mean something.
If you ignore an abortive attempt to produce whisky in the 1960s, Swedish whisky properly started with the founding of Mackmyra in 1999. Not as a conglomerate, not as a crowdfunder - just a group of friends on a ski trip with a shared love of whisky. It took the eight friends quite some time to get going - three years to formulate the company and build the (initial) distillery in an old mill and power plant in Mackmyra, a couple of hours drive north of Stockholm. Another four years before the distillery’s first release – Preludium 01 was launched. Success was immediate – the bottling sold out in 20 minutes.
But, looking at how the company has developed, a strong vein of actual real innovation is obvious. Mackmyra’s new ‘Gravity Distillery’ outside of Gavle is an impressive feat of modern architecture and engineering – 35 metres high, and running from top to bottom – gravity doing all the work moving the liquid in-between the processes. Inventive, and with a particularly green foot-print. Similarly, the distillery’s range reflects its contemporary outlook – the Seasonal (Säsongswhisky) collection utilises a wide range of precursor liquids and finishing casks to forge a link between Mackmyra’s spirit and the particular season that the bottling is released in. These are often far beyond the usual sherry and port woods you’ll see most producers messing around with – birch sap, cherry, mulled wine and glühwine – it’s the sort of thing that’s just not allowed under current SWA rules and regulations.
Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I’m an ardent supporter of the SWA – but, there are times, when you do wonder whether protecting the past stifles the future. Nevertheless, as it stands, it allows Mackmyra to have a variety of points of difference to Scotch whisky – whilst the core of the processes might be the same, the ethos, attitude and experimentation with liquids and cask sizes are a fantastic USP – and result in whiskies that are quite unlike anything else being produced in the world.
You probably won’t like all of Mackmyra’s expressions – but that’s not the point. Innovation is not about producing a bunch of whiskies that all largely taste the same – it’s about cross-category inspiration, increased diversity and of being unorthodox. You can clearly see worldwide producers reaching for new ideas and breaking new ground – but until innovation becomes part and parcel of whisky production it’ll largely remain a catchphrase – rolled out on every possible occasion, until PRs and marketeers start to believe their own hype. Disruption takes balls, not words.
Bottle Name: MACK
ABV: 40% Distillery: Mackmyra Region: Europe
The entry point to the wider Mackmyra core range – MACK – was released in the latter part of 2015. It’s an NAS single malt that has been aged in American oak. Not much to go on, but, I’ll applaud Mackmyra for clearly listing the use of caramel colourant on the product sheet.
The main points of interest with this bottling are its ABV and its positioning. 40% is a common sight across most places in the world – but not to my knowledge in the Scandinavian countries, where higher ABVs, even for entry-bottlings seem the norm. This lower bottling strength (and accompanied chill-filtration) have no doubt has been selected by Blender Angela D’Orazio to sit easily with MACK’s brand proposition – a whisky for younger people that’s ‘great in cocktails but also on its own, straight or on the rocks’. Rather the Haig Club suggestion of doing whatever you want with your liquid. It’ll set you back £34.50 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Candy apples and pear drops dominate – sweet and confectionary-like. A backdrop of vanilla, caramel and wood varnish follows in support. Light and fruity, but largely one-dimensional.
Taste: Easy-going, but essentially thin. Quite saccharine with icing sugar, pear drops and lemon peels – balanced by ginger, marzipan and vanilla sponge cake. Nothing offensive, but few moving parts here – simple stuff.
Finish: Short, still quite sweet and emphasising vanilla
Personally, I'd view MACK as a mixing whisky. As a neat single malt alone, it’s bright and fresh, but lacking in both depth and development – resulting in a bottling that’s harmless but ultimately dull. I can attest that with ginger it’s a perfectly fine aperitif, however, taken within the broader category of mixed spirits, it’s still up against some stiff competition – a bottle of JW Black can be picked up for 25% less here in the UK. The Dramble doesn’t score for long serves and cocktails – just straight up, neat whisky……so…..
Bottle Name: Brukswhisky
ABV: 41.4% Distillery: Mackmyra Region: Europe
The mainstay of the Mackmyra core range, Brukswhisky is the distillery’s bottling that I tend to see the most across the bar selves and stores here in the UK. This is possibly because it’s one of the Mackmyra's earlier releases, launching in Sweden in 2010 and finding its way over to the UK two years later. But also, likely down to its accessible price point. The two year delay in Brukswhisky reaching out beyond Sweden has as much to do with demand as it does with supply – for the first few years the Swedes were buying up all the available stock for themselves. Fast-forward to 2019 and Mackmyra are starting to realise that the international market is a lucrative place to operate in – Brukswhisky can be found far and wide.
The expression is composed of a marriage of four different cask types - unpeated 1st fill ex-bourbon, 1st fill Swedish oak, 1st fill ex-sherry casks and peated 1st fill ex-bourbon. A rather typically Mackmyra complicated medley of precursor liquids and cask sizes. The bottle is delivered at 41.4% ABV and can be picked up for £35.25 from Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Fruit forward with sugar-coated green apples and orchard pears. Malt loaf and yeasty bread support, alongside Peruvian chilli chocolate, vanilla pods and honey. In the background, dusty furniture, clay, copper coins and Lemon Pledge with a hint of pine. Reduction adds a savoury aspect with oatcakes and crackers as well as emphasising the peaty constituent of the blend with light mineral smoke.
Taste: A sharp and tangy arrival with sweet and sour fruits. Apple, pear and lemons sitting with barley and porridge oats, crème brulee, desiccated coconut and vanilla. The development introduces an increasing amount of oakiness – young, sappy, somewhat drying and with an growing peppery tang. The addition of water results in toffee flavours, together with rolled pastry and light minty herbalness.
Finish: Short to medium. Both lemons and limes are joined by fading pepperiness and toasted pine needles.
Brukswhisky is a solid, easy-going ex-bourbon focussed expression. Mackmyra’s apple/pear + spicy character speaks loudly throughout, and whilst things remain simple, nothing is either overdone or undercooked. Well-priced for the quality on offer and a good introduction point to Swedish whisky.
Bottle Name: Svensk Ek
ABV: 46.1% Distillery: Mackmyra Region: Europe
Svensk Ek has been matured in ex-bourbon and Swedish oak casks. Both Quercus Robur and Quercus Petrae grow extensively across Sweden – indeed, nowhere else in the world does oak grow indigenously as far north. But, there are a variety of other, more exotic Quercus species (Cerris, Coccinea, Frainetto, Macranthera, Palustris and Rubra) growing across the country – particular in the south. The ones used for the production of Svensk Ek hail from the island of Visingso – east of Gothenburg. A rich source of oak since the Swedish Navy planted over 300,000 trees in the 19th Century to provide a source of timber for ship construction. There’s hundreds of acres of oak on Visingso, but its use for whisky cask production is somewhat limited due to the tress growing unusually tall, straight and skinny.
As to the precise type of oak used for the Svensk Ek casks, your guess is as good as mine. I asked - it's apparently a trade secret. But, as you’ll see from my tasting notes – the Swedish oak has imparted some uncommon, unique aromas and flavours on the composition. The bottling consists of 50% 1st fill ex-bourbon, 40% ex-sherry and 10% Swedish oak (matured for a minimum of 18 months). It’s delivered at 46.1% ABV and can be purchased for £41.25 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Quite light and dainty with trademark Mackmyra apple and pear joined by oven-baked buttery pastries, toasted cashew nuts and vanilla cream. Running throughout is plenty of menthol and eucalyptus alongside buttered bread and cut grass. Reduction introduces some floral/herbal aromas – lemon verbena and thyme.
Taste: Piquant with sharp spices and taut wood. Champagne yeast and proving bread mingles with orchard pears, breakfast cereals and heavily toasted cask ends. Spicing pushes through quickly with ginger and pepper offering sharpness, but also harking back towards the high levels of oakiness. In the mid to back-palate, burnt caramel, chopped thyme and aromats – cedar, chestnuts and dusty vanilla. Dilution brings more candy apple to the party, but also more oak – pencil shaving and wood chips and a darker, roasted cask note – part caramelised sugars, part heat-blasted resin.
Finish: Medium in length with champagne lees breadiness, putty, clay and drying wood.
Svensk Ek is a whisky with a highly modern outlook – on the one hand, it's dominated by its casks, but on the other, those casks have imbued a discernible difference to the end result. There’s curiosity here, and whilst Ek is not entirely to my (largely spirit driven) personal tastes, I still have to respect its uniqueness. One for the wood lovers.
Bottle Name: Svensk Rok
ABV: 46.1% Distillery: Mackmyra Region: Europe
Mackmyra do peated whisky a little differently to most distilleries. The traditional method for smoking food in the country was over burning juniper twigs – Mackmyra have taken this tradition and mashed it up with some modernity – adding juniper branches (and I believe sometimes moss) to their kiln.
Svensk Rok (Swedish Smoke) is composed of whiskies that have been matured in ex-bourbon American oak and Swedish oak and casks ‘saturated with oloroso sherry’ (presumably another way of describing sherry seasoning). The smoke here comes from the juniper-influenced peated barley – a neat twist. The expression was launched in 2013 and comes at the Mackmyra ‘standard’ bottling strength of 46.1% ABV. The price for this one seems to vary greatly – the larger specialist retailers in the UK are showing it as presently sold out, and you’ll find it at some slightly more obscure outlets for around £54. However, you’d be paying considerably more than you can pick this bottle up for in Europe. Perhaps those of us in the UK should show a little patience?
Nose: Quite herbal with bracken, moss and lichen mingled with a dry, but vegetal smoke – not quite burning, but slightly ashy and with hints of seafood. The backbone of the whisky remains ex-bourbon with toffee and vanilla – though there’s less of the expected Mackmyra orchard fruit than in other expressions. Honey provides life of sweetness, whilst liquorice and anise give addition depth. Reduction adds a putty-like aroma – clay, earth and tile filler. It also brings out a bready note that I often associate with Mackmyra – yeasty and oaty.
Taste: Starting with citrus – preserved lemons – but moving onto a wider variety of green fruits – gooseberry and greengage. Partly sweet, partly tart. The development is all about the smoke – light, but enveloping – cigar box, fresh golden tobacco leaf, ashy embers and a good ladle of briny water. The back-palate presents a slightly mineral edge – chiselled seawalls with olive tapenade, and aromatically spiced (aniseed) cedar wood. Dilution takes things away from the ‘green side’ and accentuates creamy fudge and milky latte coffee – the smoke is still present – wispy, earthy and herbal – but the brighter top notes have been subsumed into something more buttery and velvety.
Finish: Long with plenty of leafy greens, white pepper, and tobacco. Smoke lingers with citrus and flecks of salinity.
Svensk Rok feels very calm and controlled. There’s a precision here which comes across as an equilibrium between spirit, cask and smoke. Whilst I don’t detect juniper outright, the peat influence is certainly vegetal and forest-like – this adds an extra dimension to the aroma and flavour palate of the underlying Mackmyra spirit in a manner which feels both natural and integrated. Likeable and quaffable too.
Bottle Name: Appelblom
ABV: 46.1% Distillery: Mackmyra Region: Europe
With Spring just around the corner, Mackmyra’s Appelblom, will shortly join the distillery’s Seasonal range (Säsongswhisky). The expression is formed from a selection of 100 to 200 litre ex-bourbon casks and 200 litre virgin American oak casks which are then finished in 30 to 225 litre ex-calvados casks from Christian Drouin in Gonneville, France.
Like other bottlings in the Seasonal collection Appelblom focuses on an unusual finishing cask – though in this instance, the cask choice weds directly in to what I’d suggest are characteristics of the distillery’s spirit – namely orchards and particularly apple. Virtually all my Mackmyra experiences (and tasting notes) emphasis strong apple and pear connotations – so, the question is, whether Appelblom, with its additional boost of calvados-driven flavours can both harmonise with the spirit, but also accentuate it.
Appelblom like other Seasonal, and Moment expressions is bottled at 46.1% and should be arriving in UK stores imminently. The retail cost is listed as £60 – though travellers to mainland Europe will already find it available there, and for a touch less. Boo to exchange rates.
Nose: Bright, vibrant and garden fresh – orchard is strong with this one. Candyfloss sweetness alongside caramel coated apples and freshly picked pears sit with vanilla cream, popcorn and toasted bread. At times, I almost feel as If I’m nosing a bourbon – brown sugars and macerated cherries also play their part – with butterscotch, desiccated coconut and a good whack of toasted cask head. The addition of water picks out some barley water and honey sweetness, but also a mineralitic side – limestone cliffs.
Taste: Orchards – but in confectionary form – apple and sour apple Jolly Rancher hard candy – sweet, sour and tangy. These give way to sharp lemon and growing spiciness – white pepper and nutmeg. There’s some interesting development with chopped almonds, and marzipan, before things return to more habitual ex-bourbon flavours – vanilla, toffee and a slab of sponge cake. Reduction adds a really rather pleasant creaminess – mille-feuille layered pastry with chantilly cream, and roasted nuts. Over time, a chalkiness starts to develop – crushed aspirin.
Finish: Medium with peppy white peppy and a fair wallop of modern sappy oak. The tangy apple-driven tart fruitiness is sustained and eases perception of the drying wood.
I’m not sure I can fully judge whether the Calvados has amped up the underlying flavours of the Mackmyra spirit here – certainly there’s a boatload of apple and pear – but I find that to be often the case with this spirit anyhow. Perhaps more pertinent, is the fact that the finish has not pushed anything out of balance – the result is fresh, quite precise and incredibly crisp. If anything, Appelblom represents a more single-minded expression of Mackmyra’s underlying character and in that regard I find it rather successful. Orchards a-plenty.