A flying visit to a rainy Kilpisjärvi and our return to Norway with a visit to the world’s northernmost distillery #Aurora Spirit
We left our quiet spot at Juoksengi Polcirkelhuset, to follow the road north along the river. Lined with tall pine and birch trees, the road formed a narrow strip of grey in a wide expanse of green stretching hundreds of kilometres. This was to be our longest drive to date, over 350km, taking us around seven hours. Later we left the trees behind to meet a new landscape, awash with lowland scrub and rocks set in stagnant pools of still water. This was perfect mosquito breeding land, and we soon hit large swarms of them that clouded our vision. Thousands were splatted on our wing mirrors, front grille and windows. Our attempts to clean up the mess ended with a thin, sticky layer of smeared mosquito all over the windscreen, obscuring our visibility. The occasional lone reindeer, either oblivious or unconcerned about traffic, wandered casually into the road, sometimes seen only as a blur between the smudges.
The majority of the road we followed was on the east of the river, in Finland, not Sweden. After a good, rolling start, we drove over long, horrible stretches of road where the top surface had been removed. We had to stay alert as the SatNav told us we had a right turn to watch out for in 199 miles. There were roadworks on and off for over 80km of the route, a large percentage of this was reduced to single narrow lane of pot-holed gravel, controlled by long-hold traffic lights, a route that could only be passed with care. This really slowed our progress, beat up Benny’s tyres and tried our patience, but we eventually escaped to make it back onto smoother tarmac. Just as we did, heavy rain joined us, to ensure our long driving day was kept topped up with concentration, challenges and surprises.
We arrived in the village of Kilpisjärvi, where we hoped to trek to the Three Countries Point, the place where Sweden, Norway and Finland all meet. There are no roads near, so it can only be reached either by walking 11km there and the same back, or by catching a boat out to within 3km of the point, then walking back the 11km route. We had arrived too late and the visitor centre had closed only minutes before at 5pm, so we spent a while walking along the road looking for signs of where the boat may leave from, and when. We eventually found a small information board fixed to the side of a privately hired sauna, but there were no times listed nor any means of contacting anyone. The pouring rain and the deep grey cloud smothering everything removed our resolve to look further, so instead we parked up in a large car-park aire by the water, closed out the world and opened a bottle.
There was no change to the weather in the morning, so we reluctantly gave up our search for the boat. The thought of trekking all 22km over steep, wet ground, with no map, in a miserable drizzle and low visibility simply to see a small monument to an arbitrary border point suddenly seemed ridiculous, so we stayed dry in Benny and moved on. This was to be our only night spent in Finland on this trip, as we very soon passed back into Norway, reaching Lyngenfjord at Skibotn and turning left, following the coast line. We turned again at Oteren, sticking by the shores of the fjord as we juddered and bumped along another terrible road surface to the village of Lyngseidet.
Just north of here was our destination, a perfect choice for a rainy grey day; Aurora Spirit, the undisputed most northerly distillery in the world. The final mile to their newly constructed visitor centre was a narrow gravel track through tightly packed trees. We had a tour booked for 1pm, but we called on the way and got switched to the 11am tour, as we would now arrive just a few minutes past the hour and they were happy to hold it for us. We arrived and were warmly greeted by Tor, founder, owner and for today, our guide.
Our distillery tour began as soon as we removed our coats. We were led through, with five others, to a small presentation area with a flat screen TV and five Viking horns, complete with stoppers. A sign behind read “Do you smell like a Viking?”. Our first act was to test our smelling capabilities so we sniffed each in turn, trying and failing to name all the ingredients and flavours related to spirit distillation. The chat was smooth and informative, and the presentation of images and information using Apple TVs and iPads was all very slick and polished.
In the next room we smelled and tasted barley at various stages of roasting as we learnt more of the processes. The mash was produced off-site at a local brewery and delivered, all to exacting specification, ready for distillation. Aurora Spirit had fully computerised distilling, controlled by iPads and phones, all accessible and tweakable from off-site if required. The building had been designed and cut from timber by a CNC machine, and was constructed on site in only five days, before the high-end mechanical and electrical fit-out, the key distillation items and the main copper still were added. It was all highly efficient and technologically future-proofed. They produced flavoured aquavit, gin and vodka already, with their first whisky set to be ready in 2019.
The chosen name was formed from the joining of Aurora Borealis, visible all winter above their building set deep in the Arctic Circle, and Spirit, defining their will and heart to succeed, along with the obvious connection to the alcohol produced. Their key product branding was called Bivrost, after the old Norse word for the Northern Lights. In Asatru, bivrost was believed to be a bridge of light leading to Asgard, or Heaven, from the land of mortals. It was crossable only by the Gods or the very bravest of men who had proven their valour in battle. You too could prove yourself worthy by drinking this brand, made under the Northern Lights for Gods and adventurers.
After the end of the tour and a couple of tastings, we were kindly offered a cup of tea and sat down for a chat with Tor and Hans, another member of the team. We talked of our journey to date, joking that we’d driven all the way from Scotland to visit them (technically, we had) and this sparked tales of Tor’s wish to drive a classic Morgan from distilleries in the west of Scotland back to Aurora Spirit, to form a connection between the two places, and create a lasting story, a whisky-bond, a future legend for the fledgling business. It sounded like it would make a great trip and story, and we strongly encouraged it.
The site was once a NATO coastal fort utilised for operations during the Cold War. There were several bunkers scattered around the site, including a few older concrete ones that dated back to Germany’s occupation in World War II. We were offered the opportunity of a personal visit to see the old NATO bunker, and jumped at the chance. Originally there were plans to build the distillery over the bunker, but this had to be abandoned due to technical difficulties, but the bunker will be utilised for secure and stable cask storage, with a small exclusive tastings area. We got to smell the intense flavours of some as-yet unfilled casks, previously used for Madeira, Sherry or Bourbon, sitting ready to begin imparting their subtle taste and colour on their first distilled whisky heart.
We said our goodbyes to Tor, thanking him for the tour, and spent a little time walking around the site. We viewed the simple but beautiful building from a nearby jetty, reflecting on the chosen location. It was in a stunning setting, on the edge of the fjord and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, deep in the Arctic Circle. The pure glacial water used for the distillation must be some of the clearest and cleanest anywhere.
We would love to return in deep winter, to see the Northern Lights dance above the distillery and to taste their three year old whisky on its initial release. But there are many days to be lived between then and now, so as ever we moved onwards, this time in the direction of the region’s main city; Tromsø.