This year, there’s more than the aurora borealis to draw you to ethereally beautiful Arctic Norway. On the shores of Lyngenfjord, two hours from the city of Tromsø, a team of plucky entrepreneurs have opened the northernmost distillery in the world. We went to discover why this is a magical escape for whisky lovers and northern lights hunters alike.
It might as well be midnight as we leave Tromsø. Last night’s snow crunching beneath the tyres, only the pinkish glow of street lights illuminates the ink-blue sky. This close to the winter solstice, the days here have a strange beauty. The first light doesn’t appear until just before 11am; it’s dark by 1.30pm.
We may already be 350km north of the Arctic circle, but today our journey is only just getting started. Striking out from the city, we snake along the shores of placid fjords, passing traditional red clapboard houses, candles flickering in the windows. These are the most northerly reaches of Europe – and fairytale Norway at its finest.
© Eleanor Aldridge
Even at Breivikeidet, where an isolated ferry plies passengers across the glassy expanse of Ullsfjord, the local population stands at just fifty souls. It’s certainly a challenging place to live – with temperatures dropping to -17°C (1ºF) in winter and 24-hour daylight summer – yet speak to most locals, and they wouldn’t move anywhere else.
This landscape, its intricate geography of fjords and archipelagos carved over millennia, is simply astounding.
As we begin the crossing to Svensby, the Arctic day finally gets going, a soft blue light illuminating the sheer, snow-covered slopes that plunge into the channel’s icy depths. This landscape, its intricate geography of fjords and archipelagos carved over millennia, is simply astounding.
And it’s a good thing the views are so mesmerising, as it turns out I’m as over-dressed as a polar bear in a sauna. Despite the snow, it’s so unseasonably warm that kids are getting stuck into the ferry’s extensive ice-cream selection.
Luckily, we’re not setting out for a day’s exploration. Instead, our two-hour journey reaches its conclusion just over the Lyngen Alps, where a team of entrepreneurs have dreamt up a new reason to draw visitors to this magical region.
On the shores of Lyngenfjord, you can now visit Aurora Spirit, the northernmost distillery in the world. It’s fittingly named; on winter nights the northern lights regularly dance in the sky above the strikingly modern distillery building. Nature always makes its presence felt here.
© Eleanor Aldridge
The project was conceived by three friends, Hans, Tor and Tor’s wife Anne-Lise, and completed in 2016. Inspired by trips to the Islay distilleries in Scotland, they wanted to create a similar experience back home. So, they set out to source local ingredients and talent to make “extraordinary spirits in an extraordinary place”.
And this is certainly an extraordinary place. Perched on a spur jutting out towards the island of Årøya, the wood-clad distillery has a location to rival any of its Scottish cousins.
Currently they produce vodka, gin and aquavit, the traditional Norwegian spirit, with their first whiskies maturing in cask in the NATO tunnels that run beneath the site. There’s a reason why this beautiful tract of land remained undeveloped; the site of a Cold War bunker, it was off-limits until 2005.
Today, however, their spirits draw on an older history. They’re sold under the brand Bivrost, the name of the mythical bridge that connected the human world to the world of the gods in Norse mythology. You can learn more on their exemplary distillery tours, which explain the processes of distillation and maturation, or at one of their tutored whisky tastings.
If you’re after an adrenalin kick instead, you can use the distillery as a base for a RIB tour of the fjord or try spot of Viking-inspired axe-throwing on their outdoor range. I’m hesitant about a trip into the bunker, eerily left exactly as it was abandoned in 1993, notebooks and pencils still scattered across the command room desks.
It’s more tempting to book a night in one of the luxury cabins currently being built on a hill above the distillery, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the bay. It’s hard to imagine a more serene experience than watching the sun dip below the snow covered mountains, or spotting eagles soaring over the fjord from the waterside jacuzzi.
© Eleanor Aldridge
Best of all is that at the moment it feels like you have the place all to yourself. Lyngenfjord and the distillery remain blissfully under-visited. A daily bus runs to and from Tromsø via the Svensby ferry crossing, but it will be several years before a new bridge cuts the journey time in half.
For now, only the adventurous will be rewarded. And sipping aquavit beneath nature’s greatest light show is a reward that’s hard to beat. Sadly the lights didn’t make an appearance on my visit – but that just means I’ll have to go back.
Day-trips to the distillery from Tromsø, including transport, start at 1495 NOK per person. You can find out more on auroraspirit.com and visit-lyngenfjord.com.
Header image via Pixabay/CC0.