There are so many interesting Scotch distilleries and independent bottlers, that we too often overlook whisky producers from all over the world. And that’s a pity, because behind every brand you can find amazing stories of products, adventures and people which deserve to be told.
Mackmyra’s story certainly is worthy of being described. It’s the main Swedish whisky distillery, but unfortunately our tasting experience of its products is limited. Their bottlings aren’t officially distributed in Italy, so we can taste them occasionally, during a Festival in UK or in Germany. Here you can find our review of Mack, here the Vintertradgard‘s one.
All that said, let’s talk about the distillery. Opened in 1999 in Gävle, one hundred miles North of Stockholm, has been gaining favor amongst devotees in the last ten years, being awarded as the Best European Whisky in Jim Murray’s Bible (2010) and as “European Spirits producer of the Year” in 2012.But since it’s hugely boring to list awards, we prefer to ask for secrets and stories of this viking whisky to its creator: Angela D’Orazio, which has been in charge of distillation, recipes, bottlings, cask sourcing and selection… In layman’s term, she runs the show. So she has a lot to tell…
First of all, Angela, your name can’t lie. There’s a bit of Italy at the head of Mackmyra…
“Exactly 50 per cent: mom from Sweden, dad from Italy. He used to cook great. Actually, at home everyone could cook great, so I learned from an early age to be curious about tastes, aromas and sensations. I grew up in Sweden, then I’ve been living in Siena from 17 to 27. I visited amazing places, I worked as a model and as an anchorwoman, I took a job in wine business… And I discovered single malt!”.
The first one is never forgotten…
“When I was a teenager, I tried blended whiskies and Southern Comfort at parties. I pretty disliked them. When I moved to Italy, a single malt nation, I tasted Glen Grant, Glenlivet and Macallan and I had an epiphany: whisky was not only a cool drink for guys, but a real pleasure”.
Dai primi dram fino a diventare master distiller a Mackmyra però il From your first drams to a job as Master Distiller at Mackmyra. How’d you recap your career?
“Well, I attended tasting lessons and I went to the Brewing & Distilling School in Edinburgh. I started helping Swedish whisky distributors at festivals, where I met Glenmorangie staff. I joined them as brand ambassador, initially at Stockholm Airport Duty Free. When I moved to Scotland, I literally fell in love with Scotch culture. It was like I found Jesus…”.
Then you moved back to Sweden, and…
“And I started working with my former husband for the Akkurat whisky bar, managing the Swedish clan of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. I used to hold two tastings a day, every single day of the week. At that time, I met Mackmyra’s owners. They were looking for a consultant for some sensory panels. Two years later, I became master blender. Even if this is not my actual title…”.
Oh, yes! You’re “Chief Nose Officer”. We sort of envy you for this…
“Ah ah! You can’t guess how many men are jealous of it! I’m really proud of my title and I use it, too. It was created by chance: a board member pointed out that every company has a chief, executive or financial. So I became Chief Nose”.
You use your nose at the distillery and as a judge during spirits international competisions. Is the nose the core of your job?
“Indeed it is. I always had a thing for scents. As you know, our job is to taste hundreds of samples every day. But it’s not a party: if we tasted them focusing on palate, we would have huge problems. In this job, who has a tendency of drinking doesn’t last long…”.
Back to Mackmyra, “the” Swedish whisky by definition. You grew up together, we can say you’re part of a whole…
“Well, it’s been a while since 2004, we can say we’re fellow travelers. Before Mackmyra, the only whisky distilled in Sweden was Skeppet. It has been produced by the State company Vin & Spirit from 1958 to 1972, with stills from Scotland. It was a blended of Swedish grain whisky, heavily peated Scotch and even potato spirit. Just to be clear: during the great strike of 1972, Skeppet was one of the two brands left on the shelves, along with Bols Egg Liqueur… Basically, it wasn’t exactly popular. So in the ’90s, during the Scotch comeback, Mackmyra decided to focus on quality and on single malt, creating its own proper style. A fresh, vivid and anti-conformist whisky”.
This is the main philosophical debate in the whisky world: better to imitate Scottish maestros or to find new ways?
“We choose the second school, we’ve been trying to develop our own style and personality. I respect and admire Scottish craftmanship and tradition. They inspire us everyday. But simply we don’t want to replicate their job. Perhaps it’s because of my rebel nature and punk-rock youth – and maybe even because of Scotch stricter regulation -: we’ve always been enjoying exploring new directions. There are already enough Swedish whisky producers wearing kilts…”.
Why is your style so pioneering?
“First of all: raw material. We only use Swedish barley, with three levels of smokiness: Elegant, unpeated; Smoke/Rök, lightly peated; Extra Rök heavily peated. Local water, Swedish baking yeasts, which give the spirit a particular bouquet of fresh and fruity aromas, and a huge variety of casks, mainly Swedish oak”.
Exploring your range is like going to the luna-park. Among over 70 bottlings, there are incredibly unusual ones… Could you please describe them?
“Sure, let’s start from the very last one: it’s called Grönt Te and I think it’s unique for two reasons. First of all, it’s finished for 19 months in casks that previously contained Oloroso sherry, infused with four different varieties of green tea leaves. Secondly, because it’s our first bottling produced with whiskies from both our distillation lines: younger spirit from the Gravity Distillery (opened in 2011, ed) with more aged one distilled in the former site (Mackmyra Bruk, now used to produce Lab Organic Gin, recently awarded at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirit competition, ed)”.
Green tea leads us to another passion of yours, holistic dance.
“It’s called NIA, it’s a technique from California that combines dance, fitness, martial art and mental wellbeing. I’m a black belt, and an instructor”.
Back to your revolutionary whiskies: we’re curious about them!
“Ok. Midnattssol, from our Seasonal series, is inspired by Northern midnight sun. The whisky has been matured in ex bourbon and ex sherry casks, then finished in birch wine casks. It’s a local drink, obtained at the beginning of the spring from trees sap”.
It’s not the only bottling with a special local finishing, is it?
“True. I’m quite experimental, and I use my colleagues as guinea pigs (she laughs). I used ex mulled wine casks for Vinterglöd; cherry wine casks for Blomstertid; cranberries and blueberries wine for Skog, from Moment series; cloudberry wine for Delägare. And again Äppelblom with ex Christian Drouin Calvados casks finishing, and Skördetid – meaning “harvest” – finished for six months in ex Amarone Masi casks”.
Ok, ok, stop, please! Along with the Seasonal series, you mentioned the Moment series. What is it?
“It’s focused on a simple motto: carpe diem, seize the moment. Actually, we explore the warehouses, looking for casks to use in small batches. Is this cask good to be bottled? Let’s do it!”.
Talking about warehouses. Yours are not usual, aren’t they?
“There are several storage sites, even one in Germany. Two are the main: one is on Fjäderholmarna, a little island in Stockholm bay; the other one, the biggest, is a huge cave 50 meters below the ground, in the old mine of Bodås. It used to be a storage site for trucks and drills, then it was used as a cinema for miners and even for mushroom cultivation. We choose it in order to age our bigger casks and the first part of blending is done here. There’s a constant temperature of 7-9° C and a humidity of 99%, so the angels’ share is really low, 1.6 per cent”.
A proposito di And what about the size of the casks?, vi siete specializzati anche in questo, giusto?
“We prefer small casks, 100 or 128 liters, because we want our whisky to be ready soon. As you know, our bottlings are usually NAS. Originally, it was popular in Scotland, too: the age statement was introduced when distilleries were packed with old whiskies, in order to value and sell them. We’re a young distillery, so we need to enhance our spirit and small casks are useful. For instance, 50 or 60 per cent of whisky in our First Edition was finished in Quarter casks”.
And private casks?
“Mackmyra Private has been a successful idea: customers love to choose and adopt a barrel. Since 2002, we’ve been selling more than 20,000. They’re 30 liters casks because our first still gave a distillation heart of 30 liters”.
Let’s talk about you. You were awarded as “Whisky Icon” by WhiskyMagazine and most of all you entered the “Whisky Hall of Fame” at 2019 WWA. Is this mainly manly world changing?
“Seat 58, third woman to enter the Hall of Fame: I still get excited every time I recall that evening! Mackmyra CEO Magnus Dandanell kept it hidden. He only asked me to travel to London because one of our bottlings was going to be awarded. Then, during the celebration, somebody started to talk about a woman of Italian descent practicing NIA… It has been an amazing moment, everything came together. Even if…”.
Let us guess: is there much more to do?
“Precisely. When I moved my first step in the whisky business, men used to think that a woman couldn’t know more than them. This was one of the biggest motivations, for a competitive girl as I was. I needed to prove that I was qualified for this job. It’s a common experience between whisky women. Now the marketing is becoming more gender-neutral, but it’s still easier to focused on male customers which are already here than on female customers yet to come. There are some scientific papers about the alleged superiority of female nose, but I can’t say if it’s true: it’s all subjective. I definetely know that women can provide a different approach, a new point of view. That’s why in America the proportion of femal employed in the whisky business is massively increasing”.
You mentioned the “different approach”. Like creating the first AI whisky?
“Well, I know that Intelligens has been rather controversial… Let me explain the project. First of all: no Artificial Intelligence can replace master blender’s taste and experience. None. But it can help the master blender. We worked with Microsoft and the Finnish company Fourkind in order to use big-data for this purpose. Algorithms are useful at every step of production. We decided to use them for the recipes development. We enter a huge amount of data about our whiskies: barley variety, dosage of yeasts, wood type, ageing, even awards won by our bottlings. The computer processes them and it provides a thousand recipes”.
“Hold on, hold on. Initially, no recipe was decent. Too peaty, too little product… We needed to tutor the system. We’ve been its teachers. So, from the second recipes round, we selected five of them which could work. I choose recipe n.36, and so was born Intelligence, the first AI created whisky”.
Is it good?
“A Swedish journalist called me to say that it’s better than my old whiskies… Of course – I answered -: it learned from us! Now the project could be considered terminated. But we still have hundreds of possible recipes…”.
Some random final questions: why is the whisky so special?
“Because its wide range of nuances makes me feel at home. It’s perfect for me”.
One of your flaghip whiskies (in the core range along with Brukswhisky, Svensk Ek and Svensk Rök) is Mack, described as “great in cocktails”: will mixology be an opportunity for whisky?
“I really love whisky cocktails, even if I’m not good at making drinks. In cocktails, I look for the freshness and for the spirit’s character: whisky must be recognizable in it. Now that said, I think the perfect whisky should be nosed neat and drunken with water, at 30% ABV”.
Several distilleries and independent bottlers are sprouting like mushrooms. What do you think about it?
“IB are passionate and inspired guys, they play a role in enriching the whisky industry. Talking about producers, I see some similarities with this dramatic Covid moment: during crisis situations, the competition intensifies and there’s always a natural selection. The best in making whisky (and selling it) will survive”.
The very last one: we know you master blenders treat your whiskies as children and you can’t choose a favorite. But you know, there’s always a secret mama’s boy…
“Good comparison. Some of them make you furious, exactly like children! Anyway, if I had to choose one whisky, I would say Sommartid, one of the first seasonal bottlings, matured in ex bourbon and ex cloudberry casks. I am fond of it because I insisted on using only 2008 vintage. There have been long debates on it, but eventually it was the correct choice. I would say the more difficult is a whisky to produce, the more it will be satisfying”.