Whisky Saga profile #1 - Nick Ravenhall (Cask Norway)
Cask Norway is one of the exciting whisky importers in Norway. The company was established in January 2009 when Marius Vestnes purchased Spirits AS, an established beer and spirit importer in the Norwegian market. Cask Norway AS is part of the Cask Owners group and have a sister company in Sweden called Cask Sweden AB. Cask also owns the Swedish company Cap Brewery, and are part owners of Cask Finland. Their first big deal was made with Glengoyne and Ian Macleod Distillers, and Glengoyne is still a very important part of their whisky portfolio. Today they have a lot of other whisky brands on offer as well, including Tomatin, Nikka, Chichibu, Balcones, Stauning, Compass Box, Teeling, Kilchoman, and Mackmyra.
In 2008 Cask started importing BrewDog beer, first in Sweden then in Norway. This was an almost instant success. Today Norway and Sweden make up about 30 % of the total market for BrewDog, which is quite cool and a bit surprising. Cask is selling 200 000 liters of BrewDog Punk IPA in Sweden per month!
Around summer time in 2010 Cask and Ægir started cooperating as well. We can safely say this is another beer success story here in Norway.
For Cask Norway BrewDog and Ægir make up about 75 % of the total turnover, and whisky make up about 10 %.
We sat down with Nick Ravenhall, Marketing Manager - Cask Norway and Managing Director - Cask International. Nick should be a familiar name and face for most whisky lovers in Norway. He has been at Cask since the end of 2012, but before that he worked at Interbev and MBD (Morrison Bowmore Distillers). He has also been involved with the Oslo whiskyfestival run by Chris Maile, as well as doing innumerous tastings and events around the country.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background, Nick?
Well, I first got into whisky when I was working at the first whisky bar in New Zealand. It was called ‘Whisky’ by the way. I learned a lot and fell in love with the history and the product.
Johnnie Walker was Nick’s favorite whisky at the time, and he looked into getting a job at Diageo. They did not have any positions in New Zealand, but he found a job opening as a sales rep for Diageo in Australia.
It wasn’t so much malt whisky at that time - bourbon was massive, and I really got a passion for it. I was still learning as much as I could, got involved with any whisky tasting possible.
From Australia he went to Scotland and got a sales job for Diageo. After a while a position appeared at Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD) as sales director for the Nordics and brand ambassador. Nick took the challenge and was soon responsible also for Eastern Europe and Russia.
This was a great experience. We made the Nordics the largest foreign market for Nikka globally. This got a lot of attention back at the HQ in Japan.
Nick also played a major part in building Bowmore to be a major brand in the Nordics. While he does not say so directly, it is my understanding that it was love that brought Nick to Norway in late 2010. Due to visa troubles he was unable to continue working at MBD, which was a big blow. He soon found a job at Interbev, however.
This turned out to be a very welcome break from whisky. I was working with gløgg, akevitt and Koskenkorva vodka. It gave me a bit of distance, and a better perspective on what I was doing and why.
Now, working for Cask, he certainly seems to have re-kindled his love of whisky
I really enjoy working with a wide portfolio of distilleries and brands.
Any thoughts on the development in the market recently?
You see more younger people at festivals. A larger number of people show up with no favorite whisky or any other bias, they are just curious. For us it is very important to teach and not put people down. Whisky should be enjoyed, forget the so-called ‘rules’.
We also see that there are more bloggers now, more bars, more festivals - more voices in the conversation.
Touching on the issue of NAS (No Age Statement) whisky, Nick has no problems with this – what is important is that the whisky is well-made.
What is more of a problem, I think, is that the style of whisky produced now is becoming rather homogeneous. Most distilleries use the same yeast, and the same fermentation time. Ownership is more and more consolidated. Production is standardized. It feels like the selection of whisky available is less wide than it was or should be.
If you want to try to explore this yourself, try a blend bottled in the 80s or 70s if you can. You will be surprised by the great character most of them have.
I do not believe this is just a case of ‘old bottle effect’ or companies using older stock in the blends. I believe this is down to the business not being standardized and homogenized back then.
To round off the interview we ask Nick what his view is on whisky festivals in Norway.
They should definitely be whisky and beer festivals. The beer brings in a broader audience. A beer person can understand whisky.
There is something they all lack, though – more focus on the entertainment side. They do not fully recognize that people give up a full day of their normal schedule. The festivals are competing as an entertainment event. As such they should try to make it more fun. Break up the drinking a bit, add more of a carnival atmosphere.
With beer and some entertainment, it is easier to bring along more people to the festivals – people that are not already whisky enthusiasts. We have to speak to the people that don’t already drink whisky. That’s what really counts, as I see it.
Just as we are about to end the interview, Nick reveals a little bit of news – quite exciting news:
Yeah, we are setting up Oslo Håndverksdistilleri (Oslo Craft Distillery), at Bryn in Oslo, near the Cask Norway offices. We will focus on spirits and spices – aquavit, gin and bitter. There will be some whisky laid down in casks as well – but that will be more like an experiment. We get the stills around summer 2015. Making bitters will be our first focus.
Keep an eye out for more news from Cask Norway later this year.
PS! I wrote this article for the festival magazine for the Bergen International Whisky & Beer Festival 2015. I gave myself permission to re-print the article here.