A Conversation with Angela D’Orazio, Mackmyra Master Blender

May 27, 2020

All whisky is world whisky in theory. But “world whisky” has become a catchall term for anything not produced in places that are viewed as traditional whisky regions, such as Ireland, Scotland and the United States. Since Sweden certainly isn’t a long-established whisky nation, it makes Mackmyra a world whisky; and one of the older members of this broad category. Below, Distiller talks with Mackmyra Master Blender Angela D’Orazio to discuss her work. She also gives us a deeper look into the brand’s artificial intelligence whisky and a unique green tea matured single malt.

Mackmyra: Whisky Explorers

Founded in 1999, Mackmyra is way ahead of the current whisky boom. Experimental and innovative from the get-go, the brand ensures it always remains a few steps ahead of current trends. Its eight-story high distillery is a model of sustainability and eco-friendliness, employing gravity rather than electricity for many aspects of its production process. Meanwhile, D’Orazio is always conjuring up new ways of flavor creation, such as maturation in casks that previously held mulled wine.

Mackmyra Master Blender: Mackmyra's gravity distilleryMackmyra’s gravity distillery /Photo Credit: Mackmyra

That’s not to say Mackmyra is a largely nontraditional distillery. After all, their single malt is made much the same way it has been for centuries with only malted barley, yeast and water. You can tweak it, but the production process will always be a matter of milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling and maturation, no matter how groundbreaking you are. “Without traditions, we wouldn’t be here,” says D’Orazio. “Even though we strive to make our own style of whisky, made from Swedish raw materials as much as possible, we draw inspiration from the people that came before us. But we want to be explorers, because that’s what we like to do. It’s in our soul.”

Mackmyra Master Blender aka Chief Nose Officer

D’Orazio has been called Mackmyra’s “chief nose officer” and has been involved from the very first bottlings in the early 2000s. Before that, she worked as brand ambassador and established the Swedish branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. But she didn’t become the Mackmyra master blender overnight. “When I first began at Mackmyra my title was Head of Whisky Development, but I was involved with blending our whisky from the start,” explains D’Orazio. “I had a good understanding of the sensory part and I think that really helped me. I received help from our CEO who set the parameters for the recipes. My mentor from Scotland, Jim McEwan, was very supportive. I also learned a lot from all the master blenders I’ve talked to over the years.”

Mackmyra Master Blender: Mackmyra Master Blender Angela D’OrazioMackmyra Master Blender Angela D’Orazio /Photo Credit: Mackmyra

It took D’Orazio a few years to really find her stride as Mackmyra master blender. Initially, she found it difficult to judge her own skills. The first few whiskies Mackmyra released were young. At the time there wasn’t much of a frame of reference to hold them up against. Not all feedback was positive. “…especially in Sweden, because people here drink a lot of old Scotch whisky,” says D’Orazio. “I got into arguments with writers who thought our whisky wasn’t any good because of its age. But how did they know how our young whisky compared to other young whisky? There wasn’t much around to compare it with.”

“I asked them to give me some specific pointers so I could learn from it, but nobody could,” she says. “I liked the stuff that I did and thankfully many others did too. I thought it was fun and creative and we learned a lot. It paid off.”

Whisky Via Artificial Intelligence

Today, Mackmyra and D’Orazio are firmly entrenched in Swedish and European whisky culture—no longer an upstart but rather one of the pre-eminent producers on the continent. Yet the distillery continues to explore many avenues of experimentation and innovation. Last year, the brand made headlines all over the world with the release of Mackmyra Intelligens, the first whisky in the world where AI (artificial intelligence) had been involved in the creation of a single malt whisky. Sales data, customer preferences and all of the distillery’s existing recipes were fed to the AI, which in turn generated more than 70 million recipes.

Mackmyra Master Blender: Mackmyra IntelligensMackmyra Intelligens /Photo Credit: Mackmyra

Fortunately, D’Orazio didn’t have to process all 70 million recipes herself. Instead she received a number of recipes in batches; about 1,000 in total. Many recipes were thrown out, either because they didn’t meet expectations or there wasn’t sufficient stock. But some stood out. “Traditional blenders might feel threatened by the idea of having a computer program taking over a part of your job,” D’Orazio says. “I felt very inspired and challenged by this idea and all the possibilities. Could I work well with this AI program? Would it create something fantastic? It was a delight. I used the program as a tool to do my work. The result was fantastic: we got a really good whisky out of it.”

Seasonal Green Tea Release

One of the latest releases is the Mackmyra Grönt Te (Swedish for green tea), which is part of the brand’s season range. This series includes editions featuring innovative seasonal characteristics and is a playground for D’Orazio, who enjoys lots of freedom to come up with new creations. The idea for Mackmyra Grönt Te first materialized during a trip to Japan in 2013.

“I learned more about fine Japanese tea and realized the closeness of the aromatics of a really fine tea and whisky,” says D’Orazio. “If you drink a regular supermarket green tea, it might not be very interesting or complex. But if you take a high-quality green tea with vintage leaves from a certain year or season and brew it the right way, you get a whole world of aromatics, finesse, richness, herbs, spices and flowers.”

To create the Mackmyra Grönt Te, D’Orazio took some clean spirit and macerated it with a selection of green tea: Kaoribo Hojicha, Yame Sencha, Yame Gyokuro and Yame Matcha. The resulting maceration was diluted with oloroso sherry, which then was used to season casks. These casks were then used to finish maturing a whisky for 19 months. “If you’re not a green tea drinker, you might recognize the tea influence mostly in the finish,” says D’Orazio. “If you are and have tried fine green teas you would recognize, I would say, at least three of the four green teas we used.”

Mackmyra’s seasonal whisky range continues to evolve, while D’Orazio has already hinted at a possible sequel to the Mackmyra Intelligens. There are many things she’s currently working on but not yet ready to share with the world. We can’t wait to find out what is next.

Ready to try some of Mackmyra Master Blender Angela D’Orazio’s creations?

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