We’ll get right to business: Swedish whisky is rather good. European whisky as a whole, is rather good, in fact. From craft to mid-size operations, Europe is being filled with distilleries that are making some excellent spirit. But Sweden, in particular, is doing something very interesting; and Box Destilleri is one of the newer outfits that has very much stood out to me as a distillery that is making very good spirit indeed.
Note I’m saying spirit here. I’ve been lucky enough to taste rather a lot of young whiskies in various stages of development, and a lot of new make spirit, and one gets a sense for rather well-made stuff. Hard to define as such, without the wood influence is too significant my preferences tend to be rewarded by viscous, mouth-filling stuff that’s not only chock-full of fruity flavour (whatever that really means – they all say they want a fruity spirit) but even at a high ABV remains complex and, well, tasty. An array of perfumed flavours spring forth, and there is plenty of quality spirit going into the casks. It’s not talked about often enough, but what goes into wood is equally as important, if not more so, than the wood itself. Otherwise, we could just mature water and be done with it.
So Box Destilleri was high up on my radar. During my Whisky Magazine tastings last year, I noticed them as being a stand-out distiller – because the spirit was good. I’ll hopefully be featuring a few more whiskies from them on the site over the coming months, and lining my whisky cabinet accordingly, but I reached out to the team there to see if we could get some more details about the distillery itself, and find out just what their approach is to making good whisky.
Malt: I wanted to start by going back to basics. Not thinking too much about how you started out necessarily, but as of now: what’s the Box Destilleri philosophy?
Roger: It may sound like a cliché, but our vision is to make the world’s best single malt whisky. For the first years we were rated “really good for a young whisky”. Today it is all about quality regardless of the age.
I’m impressed by a lot of your whiskies, but at the heart of what you do – for me at least – is character. You seem to embrace differences in the whiskies, little variations and so forth – which to my mind a great thing. So when you begin to create a new whisky, what is it that you’re actually looking to achieve?
We have two main recipes of new make, but thousands of casks that are all different in style. And it is really fun to have all those tools available when we create new bottlings. I am always trying to make a whisky that I like, and hopefully also our customers. For me it is all about balance, which can be a challenge to achieve with young spirits and active casks.
Let’s talk about your distillate. What are you looking for in your new make spirit, before it heads into casks? What measures do you take to ensure you get a very well made spirit – such as fermentation times, or deciding when to take the spirit cut?
For the unpeated recipe, I had a lot of inspiration from Japanese flavours. A fruity, clean and malty character with loads of body and mouthfeel. To get that we need to be extra careful with the choice of ingredients. We use a brewing malt from barley that has a rather low yield but contribute with body and flavours that we can’t get from distillers malt. We also use a yeast strain that gives us all the fruity esters, and to get these esters in the spirit you have to fine tune parameters regarding the gravity of the wort, temperature in washbacks, fermentation time and cutting points during distillation.
Can you share where you source your barley from and what you look for in a particular crop? How important is barley to the Box philosophy?
The unpeated malt is a pilsner malt with barley from the southern part of Sweden. The peated malt comes normally from Belgium and UK, but we have tried peated malt from other locations as well. Normally you get a higher yield from unpeated malt, but you get much more alcohol from heavily peated distillers malt than from the unpeated brewing malt.
Yield is of course important, but flavour and mouthfeel are always what we are looking for.
I note that you’re very happy to share lots of production information on your website, which is interesting for a geek like me. What made you decide to share this – is it simply because you can, or was there more to it?
We decided from the beginning to be as transparent as possible. We do not have any secrets regarding the process and we actually educate personnel from other distilleries at Box. It is a privilege to help others to make a better whisky. I started to lecture about whisky production in the nineties and as a geek I was missing study material at a deeper level. When I came to Box I had all the tools to produce this material that I missed twenty years ago. And the Advanced Master Class was born. So far we have made two AMC versions, but more will come. Number one was about heat treatment of oak and number two handled the physics and chemistry in the distillation process. We have since 2011, inspired by Bruichladdich, had a Whisky Academy at Box. Four students will under a week learn “all” about whisky with focus on production and maturation. In total, we have examined about 150 students.
One thing that craft producers do in general is to focus on quality rather than making profit.
Is there a Swedish ‘style’ of whisky that’s starting to materialise – and if so, how would you define the Swedish way?
I don’t believe that we have a particular style of whisky in Sweden. The only thing we have in common is that we all are rather small and young in the business. One thing that craft producers do in general is to focus on quality rather than making profit. The clean water and climate, especially in the northern part of Sweden, give us benefits you normally don’t see in other countries.
Does the lack of a long heritage like Scotch make innovation easier in Swedish whisky?
Yes, I believe that new distilleries are experimenting more than producers that have been going for centuries. Even if you are satisfied with the result, you can always improve something.
Can you share some of the more interesting experiments – from grain to maturation – that you’re currently working on?
We always have different ongoing experiments such as yeast strains, barley varieties, peat and production parameters. But the majority of the experiments is about maturation. We have spent a lot of time and money to evaluate different oak species, seasoning time, heat treatment, combining toasting and charring, filling strength, filling levels, cask sizes and climate in the warehouses.
What barriers to the whisky industry have there been for you simply by being in Sweden? Have things improved with the Swedish government’s handling of the alcohol industry?
I guess that Mackmyra, who was the first distillery in modern time, had a hard time to get along with all authorities in Sweden. It was probably easier for all the others that followed a few years later. We have among the highest taxes of alcohol in Sweden that effects our products. In Sweden all beverages above 3.5% ABV is sold by the monopoly Sysytembolaget. We still hope to be able to sell a bottle or two of our whisky at the Visitor Centre in the future.
What can we expect to see from Box in the coming years and what reputation would you like the distillery to have in a decade or so?
We have several projects in the coming years that I hope will be appreciated. We have recently made the first bottling in a new series called Quercus. With this, we would like to explain what different oak species contributes to the whisky. They are all unpeated and first matured in bourbon barrels, and then finished in virgin oak. Quercus I was finished in Swedish Quercus robur, and this will be followed up by Quercus alba, -petraea and -mongolica.
I hope that Box will have a reputation for being a transparent and interesting distillery with flavour profiles that suit the vast majority.