Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tasting Mackmyra deeply: The IWSC European Distiller Of The Year

Mackmyra, the innovative Swedish distillery created by a group of friends following their dream at the end of the 20th century, is the IWSC's European distiller of the year for 2012. (Innovative Irish distillery Cooley had been the prior winner of that award for 4 consecutive years). Personally, I wasn't surprised in the least. I had just been tasting some of Mackmyra's Special releases and private cask expressions and had been thrilling to the rich and varied ways the unique flavor profile Master Blender / Master Distiller Angela D'Orazio had crafted - floral, piney, & mineral - had been manifested in stunning and august ways. It is extremely impressive how Mackmyra has crafted a completely new and unique flavor profile and is now taking this profile to elegant and refined heights. Part of this story is the uniquely Swedish ingredients that are used - including the use of juniper twigs in the fuel for drying malt, Swedish barley in the mash, Swedish oak contributing to the barrel management mix, and some barrels aging in Bodas mine - below ground level. Mine aging is cool aging - which is a way of keeping whisky warm in the cold Swedish winter. But Swedish aging is cold climate aging and that goes against the grain of other young whiskies making a stir lately which feature high temperature maturation such as Balcones in Texas, Amrut in India, and Kavalan in Taiwan. Cold climate aging produces a more delicate spirit. Given that most of the Mackmyra expressions reviewed here are around 5 years old, keep that in mind.

Angela D'Orazio - creative vision behind Mackmyra - with the IWSC Trophy

Yet, this award news may have caused some people in the USA to scratch their heads. The only expression for sale here is Mackmyra The First - a tasty, but decided light dram. It isn't the flavor dense monster that usually inspires major accolades and awards. (This link goes to my prior review of The First). The First had taken a while to show its charms to me. It takes time to bloom in the glass, and even then its charms are subtle. Yet these charms are deep (read that review linked above - it's about quiet gentle beauty), and it gets under your skin with time. The First has evolved into a beloved dram. Fortunately (for me) I had had the opportunity to meet with Jonathan Luks - Mackmyra's Country Manager for the USA and had obtained some samples of some exciting other expressions to flesh out my understanding of what they are doing (full tasting notes follow immediately below).

Jonathan Luks - Country Manager

Jonathan and I had a wide ranging conversation which has some very important implications for all American whisky enthusiasts - concerning an idiotic US trade restriction. And there's something concrete you can do about it right now. I had assumed that Luks was meeting with me in part to tell me about new expressions coming to the United States. But that isn't the case at all. There are no current plans to import new expressions to the US - and I was quite surprised to learn the reason: bottle size. Mackmyra bottles at the European and world standard of 70cl (700ml). The US forbids import and sale of bottles at this size. The US only allows certain specified increments of 1 Liter. Because our old size was 1/5th gallon and this is close to 750ml, so 750ml is our standard whisky bottle size. The First happens to be the airline duty free market expression for Mackmyra - so they already had a 1 liter bottling of it in production. Thus this is the only bottling they do that is legal for sale in the USA. They are not willing to take on the cost and expense of a special 750ml bottling for the USA market because the cost of retooling is high, plus demand for their juice is plenty high elsewhere, where they can sell the 70cl bottles they already make. Suddenly the fact that interesting single cask bottlings are rare in the USA became obvious. All those fascinating German, Belgian, and UK bottlings are 70cl! As it turns out there is now a petition on to change this rule. It reads as follows:

"we petition the obama administration to:

allow for 700ml (and other sized) bottles of distilled spirits to be imported for sale into the United States.

According to the "Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Section 5.47a, Metric standards of fill", only certain bottle sizes of distilled spirits are allowed to be imported into the United States. For example, that Section prohibits 700ml bottles, which is the standard bottle size for distilled spirits in most of the rest of the world. This prohibition reduces consumer choice because not all distilleries are willing to accommodate the 750ml bottle size required for importation into the United States. Furthermore, this prohibition increases the consumer costs, because distilled spirits have to be bottled specially for the US market. We are petitioning to have this regulation relaxed to allow for additional bottle sizes of distilled spirits to be imported into the United States."

You must register on the White House site to sign the petition - but it only takes a minute. I urge all US citizens reading this to do so.

An excellent blog post on the topic of US bottle size regulations is

To make matters worse, shipping regulations, always difficult in many States in the USA, have become even more complicated for the few of us who live in States where we can legally receive shipments from overseas. The UK has just classified whisky as "a dangerous substance" for shipping purposes. Gal Granov blogged about this today on Whisky Israel:

Part of why I'm so enthusiastic about changing these rules is the beauty of these Mackmyra expressions that you simply cannot buy in the USA:

Bruks (right), then Special 08, (2nd from right) then Special 06.

Brukswhisky 41.4% abv.

This is the entry level expression. Given that I already craved more richness from The First I was expecting to be disappointed in Brukswhisky. I wasn't.

Color: Pale yellow, Chardonnay

Nose: light vanilla orchid florals, juicyfruit gum, chalk mineral, lime pith, and a Sauvignon Blanc acid note.

Palate: entry is very light and has grassy sweet and berry tart in equal measure. Initially a tad thin. Spirit heat, grain, and a gentle musky dusky note, full of fruits and skins, that's rather nice. It's very young and light whisky - but it has a measure of elegance and tasty drinkability very close to on par with The First. A lovely light and fairly dry dram that's right for before dinner or hot weather.


Mackmyra Special 06 46.8% abv. "Summer Meadow"

Aged in both ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks.

Color: pale straw

Nose: Deceptively sweet and light at first sniff, there are depths which unfold and lure you in. The dominant impression is floral pear. The floral aspect is a light heathery baby's breath with powdery notes of talcum and deeper roses and even plum skin further off. The pear is a big swelling freshly cut green Anjou with sweetness, tartness, and rich estery perfume all the way home. Deeper down, where the roses lurk, are hints of flinty mineral and animal warmth in the musky traces. The gentleness invites you to nose deeper and as the aroma builds it keeps iterating in complexity. Lanolin and ambergris, raspberry, and mountain thimbleberry. Rose hips and white currant. There is also an animal aspect to the muskiness that melds with the sweet fruity floral to yield a pheramonic thrill that's almost sexual. I've never had this experience before. This is a luscious and unusual nose - yet one clearly kin to the "regular" Mackmyra expressions.

The palate entry is light as a feather and balanced between acid and sweet like a white wine. Asian pear, honeysuckle, pear and gooseberry flavors yield to gypsum rock and Chenin Blanc. The finish is similarly light: mineral, berry and slightly herbal- like you've quaffed a well made French 75. It is a nice palate, but can't quite live up to the glory of the nose.

Add a couple of drops of water, however, and watch out. The palate's shyness unleashes a stinging raspberry zinger of enriched mouth feel, up front sweetness, mid-palate spicy heat. The floral juicy pear stays intact and the mineral note creeps up and you get enough intensity that it becomes a clinic on the Mackmyra flavor profile: floral, berry, acid, mineral: wine-like and refined. It's glorious.


Mackmyra Special 08 46% abv. "Handpicked"

From the web site: "This whisky is made from our Elegant recipe that has been matured on a mix of bourbon casks, sherry casks and casks made of new Swedish and American oak and finished on French Sauternes cask."

Color: Pale Gold

Nose: Intensely floral and berried: Strawberries, lilacs, lilies, some lemon-orange citrus, distant roses, and a bit of Juicyfruit gum. Powdered mineral (talc or gypsum) and some salty musk lurk underneath. Like the Special '06 - it's feminine, luscious, and very sexy.

The palate entry is extremely light yet beguilingly floral, sweet and perfumed. There's a potent spicy spirit kick and a jolt of acid and berry flavor at mid palate with rose hips, white grape, white wine, and a hint of patchouli. Then rock dust, and juniper scented herbal bitters gradually wax. The finish is light and gentle with malty juicyfruit glow and faint berry.

Adding a few drops of water increases the flavor amplitude and slightly thickens the mouth feel. Spicy zinginess and fruit acids redolent of rose hips and blueberries enliven the otherwise shy mid-palate. Floral perfume, rose hips, white pepper, white wine, talc, and and broad and easy finish with juicyfruit gum turning to juniper pale malty glow.

It's another stunning tour de force of characteristic Mackmyra flavors: delicious, feminine, and unusual. Somehow delicate and light while being fresh, and acidic enough to set your mouth buzzing.


Mackmyra Begnt B1 49.8% 5ar

I asked: "The sample labeled "Begnt B1 49.8% 5ar" is what? Was that the private cask?"

Luks replied: "It means that it’s a sample of our private cask program named Mackmyra Reserve. You customize your own whisky and have different options regarding, oak type, recipe, name, warehouse etc. I enclose info about our latest and most popular potion, the gravity cask. We have very limited info on our English website regarding the cask program because we haven’t launch this outside of Sweden yet but we working on it.
This sample is from our elegant (not smoky) recipe on a bourbon cask. Its five years old and the alcohol is 49,8 %"

Color: Light Amber with golden notes.

Nose: Floral estery white pear Toffee, sultanas, mild olorosso sherry? floral Strawberry jam? sour berry, roses, and rich underlying bourbon, and earthy musky animal.

Huge opening. Toffee, honey, white grape, white pear, white tea, toffee and oak. Delicate at the turn. Strawberry, white currant, more flowery and acidic white grape. Oak in the turn and juniper berry, cedar, white wine and cherry malt glow in the finish.

Begnt is another delicious dram and is a stunning example of the flavor complexity of the underlying distillate and the sweet impact simple ex-Bourbon cask aging .


Elesvek Forlagvad (left), Begnt (second from left)

Mackmyra 69r Elesvek Forlagvad 57% abv.

Of this Luks says: "This sample is our pre-matured recipe which means that we have stored the whisky first in 200 liter barrels for three years and then we put the whisky into a virgin Swedish oak cask. This is also our unpeated recipe"

Color: rich coppery amber with henna glints

Elesvek Forlagvad 57%
Nose: Warm, complex and rich with a big floral rosy perfume swirled with strawberry acid, bourbon (and bourbon's apricot citrus), blueberries, honey, hazelnut, cocoa, juniper, and estery Spey fruity notes of white pear and green melon. Luscious and complex: a thicket to luxuriate in and take time to tease out. The admixing cocoa and berry toffee reads "sherried" even though the notes say nothing of it.

The entry is sweet and rich too. Toffee, strawberry, bourbon-cognac citrus sweet radiate in the opening. The midpalate is drying, leaner and more restrained, but blooms with herbal and mineral sophisticated notes, sandalwood oak perfume, radiant heat (this is 57%). The turn to the finish is remarkable gentle, cherry flavored and malty. There is effusive and well balanced oak mixing with the radiant berry scented cherry malt glow in the finish. This is an elegant panther: lean, elegant, and yet powerful and lush at all phases of the game.

A few drops of water ups the radiance of the berry flavors and increases the youthful acidity, both in the nose and the palate. The strawberry quality becomes darkly vinous - sherried. The sherry flavors are fantastic played against the Mackmyra flavor profile notes of acidic berry, juniper, floral vanilla oak and white wine minerality. Glorious.


In Sum...

Whisky is famously just barley, water, yeast, wood and time. Mackmyra takes Swedish versions of these, adds the conifer flavors of the far North via juniper twigs and the result of these novel ingredients is a novel flavor profile that meaningfully expands the whisky canon. This flavor profile has austere aspects (mineral, acid, and lightness), but it also has bewitching beautify (floral, berry, sexual musk).  The impressive thing for me - in tasting these - all examples of the "elegant" or unpeated variety of Mackmyra - is how varied and interesting this single distillate has been made via a variety of barrel management and handling practices. The careful and deliberate crafting here is evident.

The conclusions, for me, are these: 1) Mackmyra is a dynamic and interesting distillery to watch. The unique flavors are distinctive and mesmerizing 2) Angela D'Orazio is a gifted distiller and blender with a terrific palate. 3) The USA is the poorer for our 750ml import restriction for whisky because it is a barrier that keeps interesting new whiskies like these out.


  1. I was blessed enough to dine with Angela and Jim McEwan on Islay a few years ago. Her passion for whisky, and her quest for whisky knowledge to be able to make the best product possible, was evident. Glad to see her work and dedication is paying off so deservedly.

    On a separate note, U.S. alcohol regulations are archaic on so many levels. It's maddening. We need an overhaul of the whole system.

  2. Rob, what an extraordinary evening! Dining with the 3 of you sounds like whisky heaven. Angela has mastered a new distillate's palate. McEwan took an old one and made it go dramatic new places. Then he created Port Charlotte and Octomore! Well, Angela's stuff is really starting to strut. I can't wait to see where it will go from here.

    As for the US' laws - big hypochrisy. Some States have liquor monopolies. No liquor store free enterprise and staffed solely by Govt. employees. It's unAmerican. We can't send liquor in the mail. We can't legally sell 70cl bottlings. We can't privately distill. It's a hodgepodge of archaic and nanny-state intrusions. Reform is necessary indeed. Meanwhile the petition I cite has barely over a hundred signatures and needs 25k. Whisky epicures are not a potent lobby... Yet!

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