If you read my “10 World Whisky Fun Facts” article last week, you probably already know that Aurora Spirit, based in Artic Norway is officially the northernmost distillery in the whole world! As part of my partnership with the Craft Whisky Club (still haven’t checked them out? What are you waiting for seriously…), I wanted to find out more about their work and I therefore got in touch with distillery’s CEO Tor Petter W. Christensen, who kindly agreed to answer my questions!
First of all, could you please tell me a bit more about you: where do you come from, personal interests, background etc. and how did you end up creating Aurora Spirits, the first distillery in Artic Norway?
I come from a small town called Lyngseidet in Northern Norway. I have a background as a lecturer in the teaching profession but continued my education with additional training in ICT and business studies culminating in an MBA in 2010.
The last years I acted as CEO of a tourism organisation, Lyngenalp, and a company called Ecotech, a pioneering company in the field of incineration based eco toilets. Ask no more!
I am an avid scuba diver and feel at home above and below the waterline. With a great sense of adventure, I face all life’s challenges head on, from diving with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa to creating the finest spirits – here in the Arctic region.
I have a high environmental awareness and I’m keen to preserve our fragile Arctic region for generations to come.
A couple of years ago, me, my wife, Anne-Lise, and my doctor – friend, hans-Olav Eriksen were gathered in a cottage in Arctic Lyngen. Why and how is not important but, at some point we started discussing a common interest; local food and drinks. Although we have different backgrounds, we agreed that there was a serious lack of local quality drinks for the rapidly growing Northern Lights industry. Why must visitors to Arctic Norway drink foreign products? Why not make local drinks for tourists and others?
Hans, being an owner of an adventure company, had recently visited Scotland and noticed this magic country was very like Norway. The mountains, fjords, rivers and the people, their dark sense of humour and warmth and passion for the country they live in. One difference…Scotland has whisky! Could Norway have whisky too? It was during this conversation that Hans launched the idea of building an Arctic distillery.
I first suspected the good doctor of doing some experimentation in the medicine cupboard. But with my pragmatic business background, I dived into the numbers, statistics, legalities and hard facts of establishing an alcohol business in one of the most legislated countries in the world. Maybe this was not such a bad idea, after all? After several discussions with my wife, one evening I visited Hans: “I am quitting my job, and we are going for this”, I said. “Do you want to join in?” Hans spent about a nano-second to decide, now he was sure that I had been drinking some bad stuff.
But I did what I said I would do. After a couple of months I quit my job and started founding Aurora Spirit.
Funded by Innovation Norway, we investigated the possibilities further on the Scottish island of Islay. This brought in one of Hans’ connections; Colin Houston of the Scottish Highlands. The team was complete! Me and Colin realised we had a lot in common. Maybe too much, fast cars, fast boats, scuba diving, skiing, adventure and just a smidge of danger… which comes in handy when doing something crazy like this. Colin has a touch of knowing everyone, well at least the most important people to know. During the trip to Islay, we visited eight distilleries in three days and had productive talks with all the managers. Based on these inputs, we decided to build a combined distillery and visitor centre in Arctic Lyngen.
My wife Anne-Lise, being a creative entrepreneur and business owner, came up with a suitable name for the business; AuroraSpirit. Aurora from Aurora borealis – the Northern Nights – and “Spirit” as related to both state of mind or personality and the alcohol relation.
Inspired by the Northern Lights, the brand name was chosen. Hans discovered “Bivrost”. Bivrost comes from old Norse language and is one of the names used for the Northern Lights. Bivrost was believed to be a bridge between heaven and earth, guarded by the fierce god Heimdall. The brand was registered as an alcohol brand in the EU.
In spring 2015, the planning of the world’s northernmost distillery started and the equipment was ordered. The foundations were laid in December and, thanks to competent consultants, architects, entrepreneurs, Innovation Norway and a very helpful Lyngen municipality, the world’s northernmost distillery opened in the summer of 2016. At AuroraSpirit we make some of the purest drinks in the world, and guests can enjoy the spectacular visitor centre and learn about Arctic culture and making alcohol under the Northern Lights.
What’s your personal relationship with whisky: first sipped, any noticeable milestone in your malted journey, a favourite distillery/flavour profile/production country/bottling ?
42 months ago ago I didn’t know anything at all about Whisky. The trip to Islay was a real life changer for me. After several visits to different distilleries I was a completely changed man. At that trip I had an almost religious experience in the town of Bowmore. I was having a morning run, before the rest of the team stood up. Just above the round church of Bowmore I stopped. I looked at the church, the gravestones, the beautyful sunrise and decided right there: This is what I am going to do – I am going all in to this exciting business.
For the last three years I have educated myself in all kinds of whiskies, and I prefer rounded balanced Whiskis, not too peated. One of my favourites is the bunnahabhain 18yo.
Norway is known for its strict legislation on alcohol: what the journey from idea to the actual building of the distillery a tough one? Did you face any specific obstacles in the implementation process?
We did a thorough market research, and yes, Norway is heavily legislated with high alcohol taxes and a very difficult distribution system. Basically all our products for the norwegian market has to travel all the way from our distillery down to centralized warehouses. Then it has to be sent all the way back to the local wine monopoly for purchase. That means for a bottle from our distillery to make it to the local wine monopoly, it has to travel 4000 km (!).
Another obstacle is that we can not market our products in Norway, it is totally forbidden to do any kind of alcohol marketing. This causes problems for us – how can local wine monopolys know about our products if we are not allowed to tell them its there…?
When visitors come to our distillery, they are not allowed to buy any of our products, they have to buy it through the nearest wine monopoly.
The norwegian wine monopoly has a very intricate system for getting on the shelves. Basically we have to out – compete settled brands like Smirnoff, Absolut, etc. in order to get a permanent shelf placement. This is of course impossible for a small craft distillery, we can not compete with the prices they offer.
We knew all this before getting into the business. Our main strategy is therefore to get into export as soon as possible. Based on our market research we are pretty sure that there are open segments for our products adn USP (unique Selling points).
As a part of this we have already established Aurora Spirit UK, which will be our first hub for international marketing and exports. This company will be in full business from 01. may this year.
The climate in Northern Norway is unique – and pretty harsh! What is the impact of the climate on your spirits and especially on maturation?
The climate surrounding our distillery is not harsh at all, we are seldom below 10 minus degrees in winter and in summer we can experience temperatures as high as 30. We are close to the coast and are blessed with the Gulf stream passing by our coast line, which ensures a good climate. Our first warehouses for Whisky storage are actually old NATO bunkers, which have a good seasonal variation of temperature. We are not using large casks for storage, which makes the maturation faster.
In terms of «Angels share» we do not know the amount yet as we only have a couple of months old Whisky in storage. By the way: We call it «Odin’s share» up here 😉
While we’re talking about your products, could you tell us a bit more about your range of spirits: are you experimenting with uncommon grains, maturation strategies etc. ?
We are doing different batches with different barley. Our Distiller, Gjermund, has 28 years of expereince in the beer industry and has a good control of the malting and mashing process. We are doing both peated and non peated batches.
In terms of stirage strategies we want to make use of all the bunkers that we have access to on the surrounding premises. The whole area was an old coastal fort, established under second world war, by the Germans. Long term we are going to do some storage inlands as well, to experience the difference of arctic coastal storage and arctic inland storage.
What about the whisky market in Norway: have you noticed any changes those past few years when it comes to consumers profiles (younger people? females?), actors, consumption habits etc.?
The Whisky interest in Norway is increasing. More and more people are venturing into the world of Whisky instead of Cognac, which has been the favourable brown drink earlier.
Do you think “Nordic Whisky” is a thing or has a typical style of its own?
Not yet. However there is some movement inside the distillers of Norway to try to make a direction for Norwegian Whisky. This will actually be debated during a summer Whisky festival this year. I am attending the festival and the discussions.
If you had to choose ONE expression from your range, which one would it be and why?
«Bivrost – the Aurora Spirit»
We have the highest occurance of northern light in the world, and this is the warmest place in the world where you can see this celestial phenomena. And we make our products right under it.
Do you consider Aurora Spirits as a “craft” distillery, and if yes, why?
We are a craft distillery, yes. The reason for this is that we produce in small batches, we hand-select our botanicals and our production methods are very manual, where the distillers has to do a lot of hand craft jobs.
“Craft” has no official definition as you speak, so what be YOUR definition of a craft distillery?
We think it is related to the choices that a distiller has during the production. At our production facility the distiller has a lot of individual freedom every time he makes a new batch. He can tweak the recipe from batch to batch, he can insert special elements to the batch, he can make a special signature on the bottle, we can apply different methods and expressions as we see fit. This means a lot of manual work, but at the same time it gives us creative freedom.
With the ever-growing rise of micro-distilleries – pretty much everywhere in the world – do you think supply will exceed demand at one point?
No, I think that people are more and more aware of what they drink, and in terms of volumes the micro distillers are so far from the mass producing monsters out there, so I think there are room for a lot of new distillers.
Finally, how do you see the future for Aurora Spirit? How do you see the distillery in 5/10 years time? Any exciting projects in the pipeline or crazy dream you’d like to achieve?
In 5 years time we will be exporting to at least 10 different countries. We will have annual expeditions up to glaciers to get 10 000 year old ice which we use in our pot still and for drinks in the visitor center.
In 10 years we have our own glass 3D – printer which makes all kinds of different shapes to the bottles, you can order a bottle in the shape of your face (or your wifes) with the northernmost Whisky in the world.