Agitator Distillery lives in the shadows. No one knows about the distillery. They distill almost in secrecy. The name means troublemaker or rebel; an agitator makes his own way. Picture a Swedish distiller exploring boundaries, breaking new whiskey ground. He’s not seeking Scotch know-how — like the competition — but rather looking elsewhere. High-tech way beyond expectations, it is simply Sweden’s most stylish and modern distillery, with shiny equipment neatly set up inside a spacious hangar-like hall.
Strangely enough, the Agitator people decided to settle in a military-protected industrial area in the middle of Sweden. Their landlord is SAAB’s avionics branch. On the premises, the aircraft manufacturer has previously dismantled engines for air fighters and stored missiles. This is a Fort Knox, difficult to access.
“The founders decided early on not to start a public distillery in the Stockholm area,” explains distillery manager Oskar Bruno. “This location is perfect, we got our permits without problems, the authorities are pleased with the level of security. But we can’t do visitors. Ever.”
A new Scottish distillery of this size will cost at least US $10 million. When Bruno mentions US $3 million I don’t believe him. It turns out they didn’t have to build a house, just needing to make minor modifications to existing structures like reinforcement of the floors and fireproofing of the adjacent warehouse wall.
The building itself is protected by armed guards patrolling 24/7. Weapon systems for the air fighter JAS are manufactured next door. With security measures approved by the Swedish military, the barrels should feel pretty safe.
“Construction is always the most expensive part of any distillery project,” explains Bruno, “especially if you need safe warehousing protected from burglars or fires. Local authorities require thick ironclad concrete walls to prevent possible intrusion. We didn’t do anything to the outer shell, thanks to the military projects.”
“Insurance comes cheap as well,” he says. “The rigorous security arrangements relaxed the insurance company. But still, making whiskey costs a lot of money.”
“Agitator has by far the lowest production cost in Sweden,” Bruno continues. “We are only two guys here doing everything. We buy energy directly from the local energy plant, and due to our energy-saving vacuum-distilling regime, we use far less energy than a normal plant. Low-cost production is essential to succeed in the long run.”
Of the US $3 million, only US $400,000 were spent on stills. The rest went to systematization and other equipment. The Italian firm Frilli supplied pot stills with automation, and the German company GEA did the brewery side. Why not Scottish consultants, are the Italians cheaper?
“Pricing was similar; Frilli really know their stuff and charge accordingly,” Bruno says. “It all came down to attitude. Scottish Forsyth didn’t listen to us and wanted to build a Scottish-style distillery. I wanted something completely different, and the Italian engineers were truly responsive.”
It’s a cocky, almost arrogant approach. Why invent whiskey again, all on your own? On the other hand, secluded Agitator is truly open-minded, welcoming other entrepreneurs to distill their own makes.
When you visit a Scottish distillery it’s really the ready-to-drink whisky you’re after. The walk-around is a must-do, the height of any tour emerges when you enter the warehouses. But here the making is it. All machinery dwells in a single hall. The first distillation happened on the 11th of February 2018 on a chaotic Sunday.
Malt whiskey is the core of the business model but Agitator is open to all sorts of grain varieties like oats, wheat and rye. Free-thinker Agitator has a splendid motto: ”We think new, freely and progressive. We re-think the concept of whisky.”
The emphasis on brewing is obvious. Oskar Bruno stresses that the beer making defines what will happen next. “We want to pull as much as we can from the raw material, to maximize aromas. The brewing part is neglected by many distillers. The density of the worts is important, the higher the alcohol, the more esters.”
Oskar Bruno mentions three factors which set his process apart from others — hygiene, fermentation time and yeast type. Hygiene is instrumental for brewers. Fresh worts are very sensitive to infections when they cool.
“Brewers have separate lines that are kept clean,” Bruno says. “In a distillery, different liquids must flow in the same pipes, with risk of bacteria growth. Having brewing machinery like this makes us more professional.”
Agitator thinks like a brewer. Though 48 hours are sufficient for alcohol production, fermentation progresses for a whole week to allow all aromas to develop. Different kinds of brewer’s yeast are used to create desired aroma profiles.
“The yeast decides which aromas you get,” Bruno says. “We wait for the worts to clear to achieve an estery wash. A certain yeast culture will be a perfect match to different whisky styles. So you have to picture the flavor profile you want beforehand.”
Agitator’s main whisky type will be a medium-peated single malt. It’s made from 30–40 ppm peated barley malt combined with saison yeast used to produce wheat beers.
“The peated worts have a stroke of clove,” Bruno says.
For the unpeated style, Oskar Bruno uses half a kilo of Trappist brewer’s yeast and 1.3 kg (2.9 lbs) distiller’s yeast, combining aroma and alcohol production. Higher strength at 10% gives a fruitier beer richer in esters. Using less water saves both time and energy.
The stills make the whisky, stresses Bruno. “Three factors define the character,” he says. “We use different still shapes, we employ vacuum inside the apparatus and [we] regulate the energy input, meaning the speed of distillation.”
Agitator has four stills working in tandem. The high-reflux duo is taller, making cleaner, lightly peated spirits. The low-reflux pair have a more conventional Scottish design that creates heavier, more muffled aromas suitable for a smoky style.
But the real game-changer is the Italian engineers’ vacuum process. The boiling point is lowered by 30°C (86°F) in the first distillation and 5–10°C (41–50°F) in the second distillation to save energy, and more importantly creating an entirely different chemistry.
“We don’t get that toasted note in the first distillation since no proteins get burnt,” he says. “Cleaning goes faster as well. The lower boiling point produces less fusel oils, thus giving a purer distillate.”
Here Bruno is talking about the Maillard reaction, where heated proteins react with sugars to create a toasted or burnt note. The brown surface of hard pretzels is an example of the Maillard effect. Another example is when you apply egg to buns baking in the oven. The egg proteins react with the sugars in the dough, resulting in a lovely light-brown hue. Agitator avoids all this because of the low temperature: The boiling point is 63°C compared to the usual 93°C.
“Distilling at normal pressure would result in richer, yummier aromas, but the advantage of lower pressure is that we get a cleaner, safer distillate which will give fruitier, more tasty whisky inside the barrel,” he says.
What aromas is Agitator after? Cut points are chosen by taste. Bruno admits he makes the decision by hunch.
“The foreshot cut should be drinkable, I’m looking for a lot of esters,” he says.
The lower cut point is more important though, especially for the peated style, since phenols and supporting fusel oils emerge later during the distillation.
“When we cut to feints in the high-reflux still using unpeated malt,” Bruno says, “the taste should be light and fresh. That’s why we cut as high as 73%, getting a whisper of phenols. The unpeated run in the low-reflux still has more fusel oils adding to the body. The peated version in the same still has less fruitiness, and instead the spirits are oilier and heavier since the phenols arrive late.”
Though Agitator makes strongly peated beer, they struggle to get the phenols through to the final distillation, the problem being the vacuum regime.
“Vacuum removes impurities in the first distillation, including much of the smoke, so we wait longer to get the peat in the next distillation,” he says. “At the same time, we get more malty notes. Our peated whisky is notably less fruity, with stronger malt presence and a kinder, oily smokiness — a complex mix of malt and peat which is impossible to achieve in conventional stills.”
Most important for a new distillery is the new make, not the coming of age spirits in the barrels. This is the raw material you have to live with for years to come; if the outcome is bad you can’t change it retroactively. These distillates are compact and aroma-rich but still liberating and clean with balancing weight.
When it comes to aging, Bruno is in a hurry. The specs say the product must be ready in 6–7 years and to speed up maturation heating is applied, inspired by American temperature-controlled warehousing.
The cozy, warm stillhouse is in direct contact with the warehouse next door through an air lock near the ceiling. Fans pull out the warmth to increase the warehouse temperature. In wintertime it’s never colder than 0°C (32°F) and during summer the temperature is boosted to about 30°C. The raise forces the spirit to expand into the wood.
The Kentucky climate works like this, which suits corn-based whiskey like straight bourbon or rye. But does it work with malt barley whisky? Well, Indian and Taiwanese malt makers like Amrut and Kavalan have proven that extreme temperature changes rid young products of youthful notes.
Agitator’s 6-year core product should hit the market around 2024. The lead expression will be lightly peated, drawn from American virgin oak and ex-bourbon barrels with additional chestnut and oloroso sherry oak, bottled at 40–43% to appeal to a wider audience. But then again, CEO Håkan Jarskog, who has the final call, refuses to make any promises. “It all depends on how well the whisky matures,” he says. “It might happen sooner. Recent samplings suggest we will beat the 6-year mark. Bottling at 43% or higher is a must to position us as a quality single malt.”
Already in 2021, a 3-year peated prequel at 46% will arrive, aiming for more knowledgeable consumers. Swedish whisky palates are deeply saturated with heavily peated Islay whisky. Since the process steals phenols, smokiness is enhanced by maturing in ex-Islay casks. The wood comes from a world celebrity residing on the south coast of Islay. The peated one will eventually stabilize at 5–6 years.
American oak is the main wood. Agitator purchases the casks directly from the US. Both 200 L first-fill bourbon barrels and virgin oak casks with a ribbed interior. The wave shape increases the surface, which quickens the maturation.
Age is everything in the new whiskey world. All young entrepreneurs know they need to start selling soon to get return on their investments. Agitator tries to stay clear of Scottish influence but certainly listens to other experts. A few years ago, Bruno met Jota Tanaka of Gotemba Distillery who poured him a 7-year malt whisky completely without youthful notes.
Part of the secret is the low cask filling strength of 55% instead of the Scotch industry standard 63.5%. In the 1970s Americans and Japanese jointly researched how strength affects maturation, says Bruno: “They found that lower filling strength led to nicer aroma extraction from the wood,” Bruno says. “Especially wood sugars are absorbed faster by the alcohol, under 50% the effect slows down. The study concludes that higher strength alcohol needs longer time to develop pleasant aromas.”
Isn’t this interesting? I’ve heard the argument before. With 45% water in the liquid you will access water-soluble aromas, and the chemistry will change. Aiming for short-term maturation, the researchers recommend precisely 55% ABV. A 12-year Scotch single malt has dropped to about 55–58% ABV in the wood so the idea sounds reasonable.
But too low a filling strength won’t work in the long run. Keeping your whisky for plus 20 years will lower the strength under 40%, disqualifying it as whisky by law. Not a problem for Agitator though, they will start harvesting soon. And if Bruno is right in his many assumptions, it will be a clever and commercially viable drink. My bet is he will succeed. You can sense it in the atmosphere inside the heavily guarded stillhouse somewhere in Sweden.
Agitator’s Four New-make Styles
What do we get? Oskar Bruno pours his new make into four glasses, unpeated and peated from separate distilling lines. Eagerly I go to work. The unpeated low-reflux new make has a grassy aroma of boiled vegetables with shrimp shells and some fruit compote. It has an oily, spicy ’n’ sweet malt palate, midway jam and fragrance ending with sweet-licorice: a clean new make with character.
The same non-smoky beer run through the high-reflux still generates a sweeter, maltier odor of leather armchair and tobacco smoke. Its sweeter, juicier fruit taste is mild, lacking the spiciness occurring in the low-reflux process. That phenolic stream in the nose is a contradiction but it must come from the distilling.
When Bruno charges his stills with 40 ppm peated malt, it gets even more mysterious. The low-reflux still should be the viscous one, but the high-reflux still shows this effect well. The low-reflux new make smells of canned peaches with tobacco and a whiff of smoked-sausage phenols, evolving to aromas of air-dried reindeer meat — a kind of raw sweetness you simply don’t get from Scotch-smoked distillates.
The peated high-reflux version is obviously cleaner. The smoke appears as seawater with clam shells. With water added, the scent is greener with apple and bacon vibes. The distillate has an aromatic acidic fruit taste with tobacco smoke finishing in smoked ham and a touch of peat, really yummy since the fruitiness gets more space.