Myken Distillery: Arctic whisky is Go!
I first wrote about Myken back in April (see article in Norwegian). It is about time we caught up with Roar Larsen, Manager at Myken Distillery. Let's see what the current status is at this little gem just north of the Arctic Circle, and hear what plans they have.
First off, how is life on Myken now that Winter is setting in?
Life in Myken is – as always – great! In fact, we think that the distillery will have a strong impact on Myken as a tourist destination.
Now, with the winter upon us, Myken is neither as cold nor as dark as people might perhaps expect – even though we're in the Arctic. The Gulf Stream gives us a very temperate climate. So far we've barely dipped below freezing for a night or two.
The light is fantastic this time of year. And of course – at night, the Aurora is – literally – out of this world! People in the south of Norway may think that they've seen the Aurora, when they notice a faint green glimmer along the northern horizon on a bright night. They would be floored by the spectacle that we get quite often here this time of year – the light dances and sizzles and envelops the entire sky. It has to be seen to be believed!
Myken has a population 50 % larger than last year this winter, but of course, when the starting point is 6 people, that still means there's room for quite a few more.
Can you summarize what has happened on the project since last we spoke?
We have done a lot of work on the old fish factory that we bought, refurbishing and turning it into a very well suited locale for our purpose. The group of owners has a wide variety of backgrounds, and in this phase in particular, we've found good use for the carpenter and builder! A lot of the work was needed in order to fulfill the requirements set by the government for allowing distilling of alcohol at all: particularly concerned with locks, bars in front of the windows, and fancy alarm systems.
A big event in the early autumn was taking delivery of the stills! Three beautiful hand-hammered copper pot stills from Hoga Company in Spain arrived on the passenger ferry. The entire island got together to help us set up and mount these beautiful sculptures – a task which was accomplished in an astonishing time of less than six hours! So now the 1000-liter wash still, the 700-liter spirit still, and the pretty little 300-liter gin still have been waiting patiently for us to get going…
We are buying ex-bourbon Maker's Mark casks from the excellent cooperage Thorslund Kagge in Sweden for now. This way we know that there is already a good quality control in place which probably surpasses our own at the moment. We've also bought a selection of small casks of various oak types, allowing us to quickly get some up-front notion about how our spirit will mature.
You reach us at a very exciting time right now – only this week we finally got our distillation permit! We have no reason to complain about the Directorate of Health, they've been very helpful throughout the process. It took them only four work days to get everything through the bureaucracy once we had everything in place. Now we'll have to find a nice frame for the permit!
What feedback have you gotten so far, from the whisky industry and from people in general?
The last time you did a story on us, it more or less started an avalanche! The story was picked up by the Norwegian Broadcasting corporation, who made their own web-based news story as well as radio interviews. It seems that the tag "arctic whisky" has struck a chord around the world, and our story has been featured in web and newspaper editions from Alaska to Kuala Lumpur!
We are struck by how warmly we've been received by the industry also. People who will eventually be "competitors" seem to all have the very friendly view that the market is large enough for all of us. That we're all better off sharing knowledge and co-operating.
We've gotten to know resourceful and very nice people from all over the Nordic whisky industry, Stauning in Denmark, Arcus in Norway, Mackmyra in Sweden, and Teerenpeli in Finland just to mention a few. We consider our friends at Box Whisky in Sweden our mentors. What little we know so far, we've mostly picked up from Roger Melander.
Going to whisky festivals here in Norway this year has been fantastic. If everybody who said they'll come to Myken actually do, we'd better start planning for an invasion! When people like Dave Broom and Ingvar Rönde tell you they'd like to visit, you know that you're in luck, and that the future is as exciting as you can only hope for!
Two people in particular deserve mention: Nick Ravenhall, who has – literally – put us on the whisky map several times, and Chris Maile, who has helped introduce us to lots of important contacts. On top of that we have industry greats such as Jon Bertelsen showing enthusiasm for our project.
All this, together with a growing number of "likes" on our Facebook page, our only open web presence for now, has created a very positive environment for us.
What is the next big milestone for you guys?
The next big step is to perform the first mash, fermentation, and distillation! We've set our sights on December, aiming to fill at least one, perhaps two, ex-bourbon casks before the end of the year. It would be so nice to have casks in the warehouse with "2014" stenciled across the cask end…
We will be – as far as we know – the first arctic single malt whisky distillery, but we're not likely to be the last! We'll settle for being first, safe in the knowledge that nobody can take that away from us. This motivates us to get things done and have real progress. Also we're not getting any younger - we need to hurry up if we ever want to taste 20 or 30-year old whisky from our own production!
And your feet...getting cold now that you have the permit, or are you all set to go?
Our confidence has only increased steadily since we started. This has a lot to do with the feedback we've been getting, and with the small successes we've had all along the way. Now we'll just have to hope (and work hard!) to keep it going like that!
Another reason our stress level is low, is the make up of our group of owners. We are 12 people with a wide variety of backgrounds and networks.
A third and very important reason that we sleep well at night, is that we have really taken a very cautious approach financially. We can all survive if things do not work out, and we have avoided crippling bank loans which would slowly eat away at our capital base and potential earnings.
Could you reveal to us some of your plans for the near future?
What I personally look most forward to, is to get a wider arsenal of casks of different types and sizes to play around with. We also have some exciting ideas about the storage conditions themselves, but we'll keep those to ourselves for a little longer…
In terms of products, we do hope to create an arctic London dry gin during the spring/summer of next year. Taking inspiration from our colleague at Smögen Whisky, we already have one of Myken's best palates working on test recipes which include local juniper berries and other local herbs and plants.
We are actively looking at possibilities to market both the new make and distillate which has been maturing for some time in casks. Nothing has been decided yet though. First we need to get the new make flowing, and then we can better evaluate our options.
How about merchandising, is that a possible source of revenue?
We would very much like to create some cool merchandise for our company, but Norwegian regulations on alcohol advertising are challenging. We need to come up with something that does not make people want to buy our products, which is sort of counter-productive… We have not given up though, so you may very well see cool Myken stuff for sale in the not too distant future.
Many whisky enthusiasts will of course be wondering, will you sell private casks?
Definitely! It will have to be organized as a sale of the cask itself, with a reservation of the contents – for bottling and final "buy-out" through Vinmonopolet after three plus years. There will be a choice of cask types and sizes (probably 30 or 40 liters).
This will be very important for the economy of the distillery while we wait for the maturation of our whisky. We have not been actively promoting this possibility yet – we want to show that we are actually producing first. That being said, we're already getting a lot of interest.
As far as we know nobody has done this in Norway before, but we think we will be ready early next year. Again, we can't advertise it very actively, so we'll have to hope for "word of mouth" to help us here.
In the very preliminary estimates we have made the price level of a 40-liter ex-bourbon cask of non-peated whisky will cost around NOK 20.000. On top of this you get taxes and other extras when the whisky is eventually bottled and delivered through Vinmonopolet. Your name on the casks and annual taste samples are of course included – as well as invitations to come and take part in the actual filling of the cask.
If the demand for private casks becomes large, we may have to restrict it. We need to plan for long-term maturation and availability of more "standard" bottlings as well.
Anything else you can tempt us with?
One thing many people don't know yet, is that some of the people involved in the distillery are going to start a restaurant and bar on the floor above our production hall.
Myken used to have an excellent restaurant, which has now been closed since last year. We think that both tourists and others will need a new place to eat and socialize. There is no better place for this than the "top of the distillery" – with a grand view over the harbor and the ocean beyond. Here the midnight sun will bring out the glimmering golden colors of the whisky in your glass.
Our ambition is to create the best whisky bar in northern Norway, which some would say doesn't take a lot. We want to make sure people who come to visit Myken and the distillery will have a complete whisky experience.
This is also one of the few ways for us of making our own products available to visitors. In Norway we, as a producer, cannot sell our alcoholic products directly to the consumer.
Big thanks to Roar Larsen at Myken Distillery, and all the best for the future to his team of whisky vikings! Please do follow them on Facebook and give them your support.
Sláinte! - Thomas