This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2016.
In 2012, three Finnish men sat in a sauna in Finland, sipping foreign rye whisky and talking. "Rye whisky is not very well-known in Finland," says Mikko Koskinen, who sat in that sauna. "We started to wonder why nobody does rye whisky here. Because we make everything else out of rye."
Naked, sweaty, and inspired, they started talking about the possibility of actually making Finnish rye whisky themselves. And unlike many grand ideas that might come during a drunk sauna session, this one still seemed like a good one the following day. Two months later, they founded Kyrö Distillery Company.
Kyrö Distillery sits by river Kyrö in Isokyrö, a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants in Finland's Ostrobothnia region. The river is now frozen and thick layers of snow cover the grounds around the distillery. Frost clings to the branches of the many surrounding birches.
In February of 2015, Kyrö Distillery's Napue gin won "Best Gin for Gin and Tonic" at the prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC), competing in a blind tasting with 150 other distilleries. Its casked-aged gin also won gold in the same series, an award that's considered among the highest recognitions you can get in the global wine and spirits industry. That's a pretty big achievement for a small distillery that only heated up its stills for the first time in 2014.
So how did a small, young distillery seemingly come from nowhere and blow the tastebuds off of expert judges and common ginthusiasts alike? When Kyrö Distillery started production in 2014, the founders had no previous experience in the industry. But step by step, these Finns have learned the ropes while managing to create something truly unique. Finland has a reputation for heavy drinking, but until now the country hasn't really been a bright star in spirits production. As a small distillery making some seriously big flavours, Kyrö Distillery wants to change that.
One thing you can definitely say about Napue Gin is that it really tastes like Finland: natural, herbal, sweet, and almost indescribably forest-like. A total of 16 herbs goes into making the gin, including juniper, meadowsweet, birch, iris, lemon peel, angelica, cranberries, cardamom, and sea buckthorn.
At the distillery, I meet with bartender Juho Väliaho for a tasting. Juho is a cadet at Kyrö Academy, a training program for bartenders held at the distillery.
Napue is unlike anything I've ever tasted. Maybe it's me being half-Finnish, but it almost puts me in a trance, transporting me to my grandmother's summer house in the Finnish Karelia. I can smell the deep green pines and the birch wood of the sauna heating up by the clear glittering lake. There might be a tear in my eye.
I ask Juho to try to describe the taste. "It's hard to describe to those who haven't been to a Finnish forest," he says. "It's herbal, sweet, with essential oils of meadowsweet, and general notes of citrus on the nose, ending with notes of pepper, and notes of rye. And it surprises me every time I drink it."
Before co-founding and later becoming head of branding at Kyrö Distillery, Mikko Koskinen was the CEO of a small online media startup, and he also has ten years of stand-up comedy behind him. How does one make the move from comedy to booze? "That's where most comedians end up," Mikko says with Finnish deadpan wit. "Eventually, alcohol takes over their lives."
The moustached Kalle Valkonen is head distiller at Kyrö. Before coming to the distillery, he worked at Helsinki University developing biofuels, growing algae for energy. As the idea for Kyrö Distillery grew, the founders realised they needed someone on board who actually knew about distilling. "Kalle has the scientific brain," says Mikko, "and he had been brewing his own beer for, like, seven years, so he had heart for the craft and the scientific mind—a perfect combination."
Kalle first used his personal home brewing equipment to make a 200-litre batch of distiller's beer—a thick, fermented mash of malted rye, water, and yeast that was taken to the city of Pori for distillation. "We had no idea whether the whisky was going to be any good," Mikko says. "[And] the only way we were going to find out was because Miika [Lipiäinen], now our CEO, smuggled in a bottle to a whisky fair in London."
Before Kyrö Distillery, Miika was a whisky nerd who worked in big pharma. At the London whisky fair he went to the bathroom, poured up samples of the smuggled liquor, and then went from stand to stand, asking if there was anyone around who knew about production. He made them taste samples of the whisky—a white whisky, unaged—asking if it was any good. The response was positive, and it was clear that something special was brewing in Finland.
The founders of Kyrö Distillery found the perfect home for their rye-based dreams: an old cheese factory that used to produce Finland's famous Oltermanni, a mild cheese often eaten with Finland's traditional rye bread. The old building now has a very different connection to Finland's most beloved grain—as the world's only all rye-distillery. "When we saw the place," Miika says, "there was no question it was going to be it."
The gin is named after a battle of the Great Northern War that took place in Napue, Isokyrö, in 1714, and the font used on the bottles from Kyrö Distillery is taken from the stone engravings from the battle memorial. "It's good to have something good coming out of the same region, to give it a positive upswing," Mikko says.
The dairy was renovated in 2014 and production started that same year. The founders served the first drinks in a small pop-up restaurant that they named Kyrönmaan Matkailun Edistämiskeskus (Kyrö's Tourism Agency, roughly translated). "The name was because we can't mention alcohol in public in Finland," Mikko explains, referring to restrictions on alcohol ads. "And that's one of the reasons why we did a speakeasy—but in a very Finnish and a very odd style."
Miika describes the style of the bar as being "like a cross between the old dairy and a 70s travel agency." They specialise in contemporary Finnish cuisine, and do tastings, tours of the distillery, and cocktail workshops, too. Napue Gin was partly developed in that bar; they tried different types of gin, with the same ingredients in different amounts, and served it in a real bar setting to see what people liked. The other, more formal tastings often took place in the morning. "That's the sort of traditional way of tasting gin: three types of gin, every morning at 9 AM—because that's when your senses are the most heightened," Miika says.
That hands-on approach extends to everything at the distillery. In their first year, the Kyrö team delivered 5,000 bottles themselves—from the back of Miika's Škoda—before finding a distributor. Their first export market was Japan, thanks to a Japanese-Italian couple who owns a bar in the skiing destination Niseko, Hokkaido, who met Miika when he visited. Now Japan is one of the distillery's main markets.
After Napue won at the IWSC in 2015, the distillery's production escalated quickly. "We were absolutely screwed!" Miika says of how winning the award drove up demand. "We had the plan of producing around 23,00 bottles last year. We had to stop the production at 100,000 bottles because we hit some tax limits here in Finland. So for a small distillery, that expansion was crazy. We started the year with three guys, and by the end of year we had 13."
He adds that the distillery is expanding even more this year, now exporting to 15 countries. "It's been crazy, crazy times."
"Our goal is to be the world's best-known rye distillery by 2022," Mikko says. "And the little advantage we have setting that goal is that is that there's no all-rye distillery that we know of. So we've basically accomplished that already."
"In addition to Finland, we'd like to be really well-known in, say, ten major markets in the world," says Miika, adding that exclusively working with rye keeps Kyrö's product range focused. "We like to keep it tight, since rye is our thing. And you really can't make a tequila out of rye—it doesn't make sense."
Miika notes that having access to the world's best rye is only part of the formula. "In Finland we have a fantastic growing season for herbs and botanicals, which is super-short, but we get 24 hours of sunlight, so that's fantastic—so you really develop a nice taste profile on the various botanicals."
And what can we expect from Kyrö's whisky, which is due to come out in 2017? Head distiller Kalle says, "I can definitely promise a real unique Finnish rye. From the very beginning, we wanted to make our interpretation of rye whisky—not to mimic other products. That's one reason we chose to go all the way, to make 100-percent malted rye whisky."
Having a booming booze business in such a small town has proven very positive for the local community. Almost everyone the distillery hires is local. "We have a fantastic team," Miika says, "and we've added so many good guys and girls to it. We have Finland's first female whisky distiller, [and] six or seven locals working there every day."
Mikko mentions that Marianne, one of the bottlers, has an interesting backstory, too. "She switched from pole dancing to bottling."
"And she's also an electrician and a personal trainer," says Miika. "Now she leads the bottling operation."
It's wonderful to see so much creativity, fire, and drive coming out of Finland. As academy cadet Juho puts it, "Normally the Finns are really humble with their things and what they do. But with Kyrö Distillery, it really shows some balls—to go out, and go proud."