Towering peaks, dense forests and glistening fjords – Norway’s wilderness is an untameable tangle of incredible beauty. So how did three friends bottle the essence of this amazing country in all of its majesty? Meet the men behind Vidda Tørr.
When Marius Vestes wants a gin and tonic, he steps out of his cabin and into the clean, crisp air of the Norwegian mountains.
It’s quite common in Norway for each family to have a cabin in the wilderness, where they can decamp for weekends in the splendour of the arctic outdoors. Nestled on a mountain plateau, in sight of primordial forest and ancient lakes, Marius’ family cabin provides a welcome break from his hectic life in Oslo. But it also served as the inspiration for his passion project: the Vidda Tørr Gin in your June Gin of the Month Box.
Surrounded by wild juniper bushes, the berries ripening in soothing shades of grey-blue and light green, Marius can simply pluck a branch and add it to his drink for the perfect Norwegian G&T. Sipping it there in the sunshine, looking up at the three peaks for which his gin is named, Marius can rest easy in the knowledge that his gin brings the spectacular sights and scents of his home to the world – and has transformed the future of Norwegian distilling in the process.
Fifteen years ago, if you had been asked to pick the future location of a world-class distillery, it’s unlikely that Oslo would even be on your radar.
Like much of Scandinavia, Norway had a long history of regulating – and, for a time, completely prohibiting – the manufacture of hard spirits. While total prohibition lasted for less than a decade (in 1917, the law passed with more than 60 percent of the vote; by 1926, it was overturned by another referendum), the government stayed closely involved in the production and sale of spirits.
Not only was it illegal to buy alcohol in mainstream shops, outside of tightly restricted or on Sundays and holidays – rules which persist to this day – but the state also restricted the manufacture of spirits to a single producer. For decades, just one had the green light to make every spirit on Norwegian shelves.
But then, in 1996, things started to change. Restrictions on the import of alcohol were eased, and people like Marius started changing how his countrymen and women experienced the world of wine and spirits.
“A big international spirits business looking to start their business in Norway,” says Marius, “which is how I was dragged into this business. But I always had a personal interest in spirits.”
Marius spent several years helping big spirits brands get a foothold in Norway, before founding an import business to bring the best booze in the world to Scandinavia, where loosening regulations were creating more spirits connoisseurs every day. But still, something was missing from Scandinavian shelves: properly craft gin with Norwegian provenance.
Fortunately, Marius and two of his friends were ready to answer the call.
As Marius explains, “I always had in the back of my mind that it would be fun to have a distillery. I built a brewery in Stockholm back in the day, and through the importing company became friends with Marcin Miller, who had been working with Japanese whiskies. I knew that the craft distillery would be the next move, and we saw that Norway was left out of this for too long.”
Martin Krajewski, a wine producer with an estate in France, was on a visit to Oslo when Marcin and Marius told him their plans. He wanted in – and so OHD (short for Oslo Håndverksdestilleri) was born.
It was clear from the start what the goal of Oslo Håndverksdestilleri would be: to handcraft spectacular spirts that captured the essence of the arctic.
Martin, Marcin and Marius built a distillery in a listed building just a subway stop away from the city centre, a warehouse that they refurbished without sacrificing any of its original character. Home base established, the team got to work on recipe testing.
“The first thing we did was walk into the forest surrounding Oslo,” Marius says. “We thought ‘what can we find here?”’
Quite a lot, it turns out – wild juniper sprouting in the sun, juicy bilberries ripening on the hedgerows, spicy calamus root twisting out of the undergrowth.
Marius, Martin and Marcin began collecting individual flavours – roots, flowers, berries, and barks alike – and distilling them individually to build a comprehensive library of flavours. A year on, they had an incredible catalogue of local botanicals they could work with. But were no closer to a flavour profile.
But a unique aspect of Norwegian culture was about to give the project an amazing shot in the arm.
As Marius explains, “We have this culture where everybody has a cabin to go to, usually in the mountains. I thought, ‘Let me bring my partners up to my cabin as an inspirational trip’.”
As a proud Norwegian, Marius was eager to show his partners all of the amazing nature that sat on his cabin’s doorstep. Built high on a mountain plateau, which happened to be home to the world’s largest population of wild reindeer, Marius’ cabin is situated in one of the most awe-inspiring places in the world – and to truly experience wonders of this magnitude, you have to get out into the wild.
He says, “I took them on a long walk that I do every time I go up there – it’s five or six hours long. It was late April, with some snow on the ground, and as we walked we were picking things up, tasting them, smelling them.”
Over six hours, Marius, Martin and Marcin soaked in the wonder of the Norwegian mountains. It was a magical journey, the story of which is told on the Vidda Tørr bottle itself. Peer closely: you’ll see the shadows of three intrepid hikers pushing up the mountain path, past herds of wild reindeer, flocks of black-and-white feathered snow grouse and the myriad mysteries of Norway’s mythical past, all under the watchful gaze of the Three Sisters – the peaks Marius calls Vidda Tørr.
On the way back, the travellers passed a crystal blue lake. In the middle was a chunk of glacier ice. Marius dove in and retrieved it, tying it to his back with is jacket and bringing it home to the warmth of his cabin like a prize. When they arrived, he smashed the ice and put it into three glasses. Their journey over, it was time for a well-earned gin and tonic.
He says, “We were sitting there watching the view – we were really tired, and it was one of the best gin and tonics we had ever had. The whole experience was breathtaking. I thought ‘we need to make a Norwegian gin that can capture what this trip was all about."
Inspired and enthused, the trio returned to Oslo with a new sense of purpose. They wanted to create a gin that would capture the splendour of Norway’s natural world, using only botanicals that could grow in the extreme arctic environment.
“We gave ourselves quite a challenge,” laughs Marius now. Oranges, lemons, coriander seed – none of them can grow in the arctic climate of Norway. By refusing to import any ingredients, Marius and his partners had essentially taken a huge chunk of traditional gin botanicals off the table. They needed workarounds.
Marius says, “The question became, how can we get this citrus feeling without using citrus? We went back to the library we had created.”
The next months were spent combing through different flavour combinations on an alchemical quest to conjure up new flavours out of old. What they found was a whole world beautifully intense flavours, thanks in no small part to Norway’s brief growing season. Having worked hard to survive and thrive in the short arctic spring and summer had concentrated the unique elements of each botanical, and they were able to build the base of a perfectly balanced gin without many classic components.
On top of their base, they layered quintessential arctic flavours. Norwegian blueberries – called bilberries – gave their gin a beguiling roundness, while heather, chamomile flowers, elderflower and meadowsweet combine to give the finished gin its elegant flush of floral flavour. Fresh pine shoots complete the picture.
Their inclusion, Marius says, “gives the gin something more. When you smell it, you get this fresh nature – it’s like walking into a forest in the early morning.”
All of these botanicals meet in a potato spirit, of the kind that’s been made on Norwegian farmsteads for centuries. As a country of potato famers, Marius explains, this particular spirit is hugely popular in Norway, and even forms the base of Akvavit, an infused liqueur that’s often considered the signature Scandi spirit.
“Potato spirit is a little more elegant in a way – it’s not so distinct,” he says. “For us it’s more the botanicals that make the flavour.”
The final gin finds its final home in a beautiful blue-green bottle, the colours of which were inspired by the wild juniper growing beside Marius’s cabin. He was picking wild juniper berries with his daughter when the distillery called, asking what colour he wanted the bottle to be.
He says, “I was standing there and I had a handful of juniper, and some were green and some were grey and some were blue. I took a picture and sent it to them. Those were our colours.”
Onto the bottle went the hand-sketched story of the hike that inspired this spectacular spirit, drawn by an Oslo-based artist. Taken as a whole, Vidda Tørr – from the botanicals to the base spirit to the beautiful bottle it’s housed in – truly captures the beauty that inspired it.
“A lot of people get to have a London Dry Gin should be subtle and elegant,” Marius says. “This is a little bit bolder.”
And, for the team at Oslo Håndverksdestilleri, it’s just the beginning.
That Norway – where for so long alcohol production was strictly controlled by the state – can produce a distillery with the talent, vision and skill of Oslo Håndverksdestilleri is a true testament to the global nature of the craft revolution.
For Marius, Marcin and Martin, craft spirits are more than a business. They’re a passion project, a place to pour all of their excess energy and creativity, and a way to act as ambassadors for Norway.
“We’re still up there every week,” Marius says. “We find it so interesting – we love being part of it, so we all include ourselves. It’s kind of a fun project for us. We just love making great quality spirits.”
So much so, in fact, that these co-founders and their team are still innovating. In fact, they’re taking on the next Norwegian spirits monopoly: akvavit.
“There’s been one provider making Akvavit and they had 99.9 percent of the market,” says Marius. “We wanted to challenge that – they’re still very big. But we also wanted to go our own way, rather than following their traditional way.”
From aging their akvavit in all kinds of casks (they already have whiskey and Bordeaux red wine casks on the go) to remixing the classic akvavit botanical blend, Oslo Håndverksdestilleri are a breath of fresh air – not just in Norway, but around the world.
“I feel we’re at the very, very start, and everything is in front of us,” Marius says. “It’s exciting – there are no limitations.”
And, just as Vidda Tørr is bringing the beauty of the Norwegian wilds to gin lovers in the UK, he hopes that the opposite will also occur. As he explains, “Hopefully people can taste our gin, close their eyes and feel Norwegian nature. And one day, hopefully they’ll come to Norway and see it for themselves!”
So mix up a drink – Marius loves his gin with ginger beer or tonic and slice of lime peel – and take a long sip. June’s Gin of the Month will take you on an arctic adventure!