The history of Swedish whisky – Entrepreneurs, yeast factories & monopolisation

Carl Lönndahl, WhiskyABC

We’ll maybe never have the answer to the question of when alcohol was first produced and drunk. If you’re interested in whisky, you’ve doubtless heard the stories about aqua vitae, which can go right back to the Romans and the departed monks who hid their whisky from the tax inspectors – if you really stretch your imagination. And there’s naturally some truth in this as you can read later on in this article, but if we’re talking about what we know to be true, distillation itself is an ancient technique that has been proven to have existed for 2,000 years. But it wasn’t alcohol that was distilled originally. The first evidence of alcohol distillation we have is from 13th century Italy. They had presumably learnt the technique from the Arabs, who in turn had learnt it from the Greeks. In the beginning, today’s alcoholic beverages were used as medicine for ailments such as colic, which is why they also spread through the monastic world in medieval Europe.

When we look more specifically at whisky, the first written evidence comes from Scotland in 1494, when the monk John Corr was commissioned by the then king to distil 500 bottles. Whisky had obviously been drunk and distilled before that date. But it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that whisky began to make a major commercial breakthrough.

We don’t know exactly when whisky reached Sweden, but it’s further back in time than you might imagine considering the current boom in the area. As early as the 18th century a drink known as “oskobad” was mentioned, which could be a Swedish version of “uesqueba” – the Gaelic word for whisky. “Uesqueba” is also mentioned in Gothenburg in 1815 as a commodity. At the end of the 19th century, whisky began to gain a proper foothold and establish itself as a drink in the drawing rooms of the wealthy.

In recent years, a lot of effort has been put into finding out which whisky was actually the first one produced in Sweden. For a long time, we thought that Skeppets (1955–1971) was first out. But after some serious detective work, we’ve now dated the first whisky to 1889, when Gothenburg yeast factory Göteborgs Jästfabrik began manufacturing. The results were apparently underwhelming, and large volumes were repurposed as regular schnapps. After that the majority of yeast factories seem to have had the same idea, with plans in any case being drafted in Helsingborg in the 1890s. But through the consolidation that took place in the yeast industry and due to the monopolisation of alcohol in Sweden, these initiatives died out, and it was only in the 1930s that discussions began again through the state alcohol production and distribution monopoly Vin & Sprit, which wanted to increase the domestic production of alcoholic beverages including whisky.

The cottage where the idea of making Swedish whisky was born, taken 1999.

After the Skeppets initiative, we would have to wait so long that we’d almost forgotten our whisky history. But, at the end of the 1990s, a group of friends had an apparently crazy idea while on a trip to the mountains: Sweden needs a whisky distillery. Even if the idea was mad, the timing was better. Single-malt whisky as a concept had reached unfathomable heights, and consumption of such whisky in Sweden at that time was around 25% of all whisky sales. The result was Mackmyra. Initially it was a tough project – at the time the only operator in the market was Vin & Sprit, and it wasn’t even known whether anyone else could be granted a permit. But the rumour spread like wildfire in Swedish whisky circles and the marketing took care of itself – the crazy idea became a reality and a few years later, the first edition was launched. Mackmyra had brought a unique project to its fruition, managing to create a climate that made it possible for others to follow in its footsteps. Since 1998 more than 25 different projects and attempts to distil whisky have been made in Sweden. Some came to nothing, while others were forced to cease operations. But today whisky production is an established industry in Sweden – thanks to Mackmyra.

Obviously, for all us whisky fans, the modern Swedish whisky industry is extremely impressive: you can now consume everything from salty and smokey Smögen from the west coast, Japan-inspired High Coast from Ådalen and island whisky from Hven. What the future has in store for us is naturally difficult to speculate about, but what we know is that the country that in the 19th century made failed attempts at distillation has now developed into a country that maintains a high international standard. And talking of international, that’s where our Swedish producers are currently focusing their attention, and I look forward to giving you a history lesson about that in the future.

The story of Swedish whisky is a grand tale of blood, sweat and tears, but we mustn’t forget that just as whisky drinking seems to be in our blood, the Swedish entrepreneurial spirit and our stubbornness are factors that consistently recur in our history and make me believe we can look forward to a bright future.

/ Carl Lönndahl, Whisky Connoisseur and cofounder of Whiskyabc.se and Whiskypodden.