Remember all that time ago where I was banging on about Swedish Single Malt Whisky? Well, it’s actually been quite some time since I’ve talked about the whole genre, let alone a specific distillery. No reason for that – other than the fact that it has been quite some time since I’ve talked about anything on Malt. Perhaps I felt like I had done my thing for the moment, and stirred up our small ripple of interest in the interesting things being produced in Sweden, and it was time to look elsewhere.
But anyway, news came of two new Smögen whiskies, and once again my eyebrow was raised Roger Moore style in the direction of our Scandawegian friends. And in fact, I was surprised at ourselves on Malt for not actually, so far, having spoken to Pär Caldenby, the fellow who has quietly turned Smögen into the Chichibu of Europe (I believe Serge at Whiskyfun used that phrase, which I have presently stolen? Was that right Serge?).
I like Smögen and don’t hide from the fact. It is a distillate-forward operation, which means it is clearly paying a lot of attention to what goes into the wood, not just banging on about the wood as if that was the only thing to define a whisky’s flavour. I said to Jason how much it surprised me that we hadn’t, actually, ever taken a proper look at the distillery, other than of an intro to several reviews of its whiskies, which have always performed well around these parts. I’ve dealt out a couple of 9’s in the past and seldom have things dipped below a 7. We are keen advocates of the simple fact that flavour is created before the barrel, in a number of interesting ways, yet had overlooked one of the distilleries – distillers – who are doing as much as anyone to put good spirit into good wood.
So for a change, I decided to reach out to Mr Pär Caldenby, lawyer-turned-distiller, to get under the bonnet of Smögen. Warning: if you are of a nervous disposition when it comes to reading robust information on creating flavour in whisky, just skip ahead…
You produced your first spirit a decade ago now, if I understand correctly. You’re no longer the new kid on the block; you’ve been around for some time by modern craft standards! What would you have advised to yourself a decade ago, knowing what you do today? What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far?
Pär: Yes, production was commenced with the first mash going in on the 4th of August, 2010. The first cask was filled on the 20th of August, 2010 – as one of only 26 casks filled in 2010, some very small at that. My advice to my younger self would have been to have produced more, early on; but we did not have the funds to finance that, nor really the warehouse space to house more casks, as the first real warehouse was only ready in 2013, with the first few years’ worth of production going into a very cramped room that is now the small bottling hall. But as of today, there are only seven casks left from 2010 and 2011 and 2012 do show some serious gaps as well. Having older – or more mature – whisky will never ever be a bad idea.
Your production capacity was around 35,000 litres if I recall. Is that still around the same – on perhaps on whisky drinkers’ terms, how many barrels are you currently filling each year?
Pär: Production capacity remains unchanged. But actual production has never come up to that level, as I have literally made every single drop myself and couldn’t produce every single day of the year (though from 2009 through to 2015, I actually did work every single day of the year, except Christmas and New Years). I do fill plenty of different sizes of casks, from 30 L for the private ones and some octaves for the distillery itself, all the way up to a few huge Gorda sized ex-Oloroso Sherry casks at over 600 L volume. But on average, not counting the small private casks at 30 and 55 L, around 70-75 casks would be typical.
Barley – something that gets too little airtime in whisky, which is surprising given that’s what it’s made from – is clearly a focus for you as well. What’s your philosophy on sourcing your grain?
Pär: Barley gets way too little attention and I have used and filled spirit made from a handful of older strains plus obviously the modern ones such as Optic, Concerto and Laureate. To me, it is crystal clear that different strains of barley CAN make a difference in flavour and feel of the spirit. Golde Promise, for instance, is clearly more viscous and with a pronounced malty aroma and flavour. The downside of older strains is that they cost a lot more – think double or more per tonne – and yield quite a bit less than modern strains. But they do make a difference and offer an interesting perspective. This is however not to say that modern strains of barley are rubbish, because they are not. In addition, I would also add that the mode of malting seems to be able to make a difference as well…
You mention the importance of malting, which is one of the unsung heroes of whisky production – that is, after all, how the barley flavour becomes properly available; and different varieties and growing locations can require subtly different approaches to the process. But what have been your observations on the art of malting and the influence on your own distillates?
Pär: I have two direct comparisons, firstly in the form of heavily peated distilling malt (“HPDM”) from Bairds using the old Saladin boxes at their plant in Inverness and then Crisp, using more modern GKV vessels at their plant somewhere on the Speyside coast, both using Optic barley grown on the black isle, both using peat from the same peat bog up in the Cairngorms somewhere and both peated to just over 50 ppm phenols in the malt. Thus, with the only real distinction being the mode of malting, I would say that the Bairds HPDM was slightly more spicy and wood smoky (and also gave very slightly more yield) while the Crisp one was giving more malty and fruity notes, with a more peaty/earthy kind of peatiness; not that the differences were by any means huge, but they were very obvious when mashing and still remained identifiable in the new make spirit. Secondly, I’ve tried unpeated Maris Otter barley that has been malted by Crisp, both from normal GKV vessels and from floor malting (their ”MO19” style of Maris Otter pale ale malt). The difference here being that the GKV malted one gave more yield while the floor malted one gave the same flavour profile, but a little bit ”thicker” both in the flavours present and in the viscosity of the spirit. These are the two direct comparisons that I have witnessed myself. And I have also taken up the malt from a Swedish farmer who’s ventured into malting, using his own barley (Laureate at present) and also using very generous doses of local peat for peat only kilning – this has not been measured for phenol content but it is absolutely massive in its peat reek and interestingly, with an equally fat malty base still easily shining through the smokescreen. Some obvious variations between the first test batches can be observed, but after about 7-8 malting batches it seems to have stabilised and with a very interesting character that I reckon will bode well for Smögen in some 8 years time.
What impresses me most about the Smögen project is the focus on creating good spirit, first and foremost – before it goes into wood. What would you say are the essentials of creating good spirit the Smögen way?
Pär: Give it time and never stress anything in the process. The quality and character – typically heavily peated – of the malt is where you start. Then the mashing process is important, as I only use two waters and do not sparge the mash bed for return as the first water in the next mash; this means I do not extract as much tannin-rich flavour congeners from the malt and thus get a much lower level of grassy characters in the worts/wash/spirit. Obviously, the very long fermentation of six to seven days allows plenty of flavour development. And then the slow rate of distillation, with condensation in worm tub condensers, will give a clean but very flavoursome spirit. Naturally, the cut points will also have a distinctive influence, but that would be true of any malt distillery, so does not really set us apart.
You’ve produced some of what I would phrase as the most ‘intensely’ flavoured whiskies I’ve consumed: heavy peat flavours, but also long fermentations and the likes, before it then goes into very active – sometimes very small – barrels. It creates an intense drinking experience. Was that something you deliberately set out to do? Is there room for Smögen to produce more mellow spirits?
Pär: Yes, it was completely my intention to produce a whisky that would be very flavoursome and that would stand out in character, as well as in quality. More mellow will to some extent come with age, as the oak and air softens the whisky, if ever so slowly. Naturally, changing the aforementioned parameters could result in a more mellow or even more bland spirit, but why do that?
How many territories are your whiskies available so far? And given the limited production capacity, are you able to expand your reach?
Pär: We’re selling around 90 percent of our whisky – quickly – at home on the Swedish market and have little room for exports, but we’re getting up to having a bit more stock that is – in my view – mature and good to bottle. Aside from Sweden, small volumes have gone to Norway, the UK and one shipment of two whole casks went to Taiwan in 2019. I will be looking at Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, possibly France and Japan, for some future sales. The point is however that only markets that have a real interest for malt whisky are likely to be good ones for our flavoursome and high-end product (that’s high-end content-wise, I don’t compete with fancy packaging or low prices).
What do you hope that the next few years of Smögen will bring? Are there any new experiments that you wish to try out?
Pär: Apart from using more or even solely Swedish peated malt – refer to above – for our mainstay peated spirit we will be able to bring somewhat larger batches to market and thus be present on the shelves for a bit more than just a flash, plus obviously some new export opportunities beckons. Apart from that, it is business as usual and the focus is on flavour and strength of character.
Malt: Thanks so much to Pär for taking the time out to speak with us. Now to taste a couple of these new whiskies…
Smögen Whisky 100 Proof Review
Heavily peated optic barley, matured in – unusually – quarter-sized ex-Oloroso casks. 6 years old. This is available from Master of Malt for £94.25.
On the nose: now then. A hint of sweet funkiness, but here it really works. Figs, raisins, a slight smokiness that balances so well against heather honey, and yet the barley – the thing malt whisky is made from – is still expressed, carried on in the distillate. A dash of water and jasmine rises up. Madiera wine, Bakewell tart; with time some beautiful strawberry jam notes. After a while, things fade to eating those sweet treats by an open wood burner, which is precisely how evenings should be spent.
In the mouth: That intense, cloying, dry with notes of raisins, blackberries, cranberries. Then comes a wonderful bright tartness; a hint of salinity that is absolutely in balance with the sweeter notes. With time it drifts further into sweetness, with a slight meaty marmalade-roasted ham. Very, very thickly textured, and the peat is mighty compared to what the nose suggested. This is herbal, slightly dirty even, but yet it feels very fresh, a distillate that is full of life. This is my kind of thing, lots of big bold flavours crashing together. If you like Port Charlotte and Octomores, then you’ll find a heck of a lot to enjoy with this. In fact, I think it might be my favourite to date. Very much my kind of thing; so much so, that I instantly bought a bottle – so money where my mouth is etc.
Smögen Whisky Cask 48/2011 Review
This is an 8-year-old single cask filled 11 Sept 2011, matured in an ex-bourbon barrel, using local barley and heavily peated. Bottled at 61% ABV and costs £153.60 from Master of Malt..
Colour: yellow gold.
On the nose: exceptional notes of hay barns, with a dusty minerality and lots of cereal-forward aromas. Pears, honey, vanilla, yet it’s quite tightly bound-up before water is added. Peaches, grapefruit, lots of soft fruits to be honest, mellow, with the peat ever so gentle (this is not the peat bomb of some of those younger whiskies). Hemp, seaweed, more than the whiff of the old seadog. Husky still: oatmeal and cinnamon.
In the mouth: oof, a very old school Ardbeg note here, just a tough too much salinity until water opens up the sweetness. Peppery, vibrant, citrus, with an admirable texture. Very, very dry and mouth-puckering, some pleasing vegetative noes and huge minerality. Lemon curd, but then lashings of nutmeg, mushrooms, and a lingering note of blackcurrants. It is not the best single cask from this distillery, whose standards I have set at a very high level, but it is still very good. Just a touch too savoury for my tastes perhaps.
And of course, in traditional Malt style, I mixed the Bourbon-cask in with the sherry-driven 100 Proof, and voila! We have a little extra fun; a denser spirit, though in this case, I think the 100 Proof was best left alone for its sweetness. The ex-bourbon cask is just a shade too sour, though still a very whisky in its own right.
I note how I gave an earlier sherry octave whisky from Smögen a 9/10 as well, so the 100 Proof seems to continue the tradition of me liking this combination from Smögen. It reminds me of the intensity of some of the best Port Charlottes or Octomores – where there is complexity as well as intensity, I should add. Lots of big, bold flavours fighting it out in the glass, and somehow it really just works. If you were thinking about that Islay peated dram by the fire this Christmas, perhaps this will be an ideal substitute. Around £100 a 50cl bottle or thereabouts, but you are paying for high production values, which is pretty much all I care about these days.
Anyway, well done, Pär.
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