During my latest trip to Finland, I visited the Kyrö distillery, home of the first Finnish rye whisky. I ended up there because I simply asked whether I could visit them. The people at Kyrö agreed, and they even helped out planning the trip. This proved vital, as their distillery is simply somewhere in Finland…
The Trip to Isokyrö
It’s a very early summer day when I board the long-distance train in Helsinki. In my hands, a typical Scandinavian breakfast sandwich (cheese, butter, tomato, cucumber, rye bread) and a cup of strong, dark coffee. My destination: Isokyrö, a small municipality in West-Finland, specifically in the Ostrobothnia region. Believe me, I also didn’t know exactly where I was going. I only knew that I was on my way to visit the Kyrö distillery, home of the first Finnish rye whisky. It was going to be a memorable trip.
Three hours later, I step on the platform of the Tervajoki train station, which only has one track and a small building. That’s it. There’s a taxi waiting for me, or at least I hope it’s waiting for me, and not someone else. The chauffeur doesn’t speak any English. I truly am in the middle of Finland. The drive to the distillery is a short one. The only things I notice are the fields, and a couple of farm houses, which seem to have been sprinkled around by a divine power over the country side.
There’s not a lot going on in Isokyrö, though they do have a diner that seems to be taken from Route 66, and they have the most car dealers per capita in the entire region. How peculiar.
I arrive at the distillery, and have to find my way around the place. I stumble into the main office, and suddenly there are only big smiles greeting me. “You must be the Belgian!”. I apologize for intruding, and explain that I have an appointment with one of the founders of the distillery, Miko Heinilä. Shortly after, I am greeted by the man himself. “Have you had lunch already?”.
Twenty minutes later, I am in the diner that I passed on the way to the distillery. My assumption of it resembling an American diner was correct. The place is crammed with local workers enjoying the daily buffet. We sit down, and dig in. During the meal, I get a short description of Isokyrö. In short, the place is dying. Fewer children are born every year, a phenomenon which is happening all over Finland, and more people are moving away to one of the bigger cities nearby.
However, the Kyrö distillery tries to employ as many people from the region as possible. They are hiring local construction workers for their expansions and maintenance, as they like to give back to the community. I jokingly remark that perhaps, if the distillery keeps growing, they might turn around the situation for Isokyrö. Miko’s eyes seem to sparkle. He knows more than I do.
The Distillery Tour
After lunch, we are back at the distillery, specifically on the parking lot, where Miko starts his tour. The man can spin a tale or two, let me tell you. As he has been living in Isokyrö with his family – just on the opposite side of the river flowing next to the distillery – he has become a bit of the local expert on the history of the municipality. I wholeheartedly recommend taking the tour yourself, as Miko’s story starts a couple of thousand years ago, with the geological history of the area, and ends with the future of the distillery. No spoilers!
The distillery is housed in a former dairy factory, one of the biggest in Finland. Over the years, the people in charge bought more and more buildings in the area to make sure they could keep up with the growing demand. It’s hard to believe that the stills were only first heated up in 2014, and that the idea for this all started with 5 men in a sauna, who were wondering why no one in Finland was making pure Finnish rye whisky.
Their plan, however, was clear from the start: they would only use Finnish products to create their spirits, and they had to be as local as possible. Not an easy task, but they seem to know what they are doing. Additionally, the distillery only uses Finnish rye, which is easy to grow but difficult to use when distilling spirits. The rye comes from an area 60 kilometres around the distillery. The water is pumped up from the Kyrö river, flowing directly next to the distillery. For their gins, they use local herbs, some of them even gathered from the neighbouring forests and fields.
As any small distillery owner who wants to produce whisky can tell you, the first couple of years are spent producing gins or similar products, to make sure the distillery is earning money while the golden drams are aging in their barrels. Kyrö uses a ‘four-stage distillation process’, consisting of ‘16h maceration of 10 dried botanicals’, ‘distillation accompanied by vapour infusion of hibiscus and elderflower’, ‘single botanical distillates which are sourced locally and distilled at peak freshness (barrel aging)’, and ‘the art of fusion’. In layman’s terms: they use cutting edge technology, and they know their products!
The Kyrö distillery strives to distil the best products possible, which resulted in them winning a prestigious award in the Gin & Tonic category of the IWSC competition. When the news reached the distillery, they were completely unprepared for the rush in sales that followed quickly after. An increased demand forced them to start producing 100,000 bottles per year instead of 5,000. The crew scrambled to increase production, and soon ran out of corks, bottles, boxes, and anything else that was needed before they could ship their gins. That’s when the Finnish spirit showed up: buckle down, do what you have to do, and make it work. The Finns have a word for it: Sisu. And that hard work paid of. Now their gins are well-established in Finland, and even abroad.
Tasting the Gins: Napue & Koskue
Speaking of their gins, the distillery has two on the market at the moment: Napue and Koskue, both delicious, but also distinct in character.
First, I tried the Napue gin, named after a tiny village close to Isokyrö, where at one point, tragedy struck in the form of a massacre of the Finnish army by the Russians. If you want to read up, I suggest you google it. Fascinating history!
Their Napue gin is a commemorative spirit, but is also best described as Finnish Summer in a bottle. It’s made of the purest and freshest ingredients available, and obviously it contains 100% Finnish rye. The core botanicals contain classic scandinavian ingredients such as juniper, coriander, cardemom, but during its production, 4 separate distillates are added to give a Finnish twist to the spirit. The people of Kyrö harvest birch leaf, cranberries, sea buckthorn, and meadowsweet, and distil them seperately. These flavour bombs are then added to the distilled product.
Tasting the Napue is best described as follows:
Summer evening. Finally, the world has started to cool down. A gentle wind blows the scent of birch to your nose, and you are greeted by notes of meadowsweet and cranberries. There’s a hint of sweetness in the air, which renders the experience a bit more magical. The scents are beautifully layered, and with every breath you take, you are drawn deeper and deeper into Finnish nature…
If that was a bit too much, then this is the gist: it’s a fucking good product. It was dubbed ‘Finland’s National Gin’, for Pete’s sake!
Next, I tried out the Koskue, which is Kyrö’s version of a barrel-aged gin. The distillate is matured in first-fill bourbon American white oak casks for 3 months, and augmented by adding distilled orange peel and black pepper. The result is a gin that is best enjoyed when the weather sucks, or basically when Finnish summer is over.
The liquid has a nice inviting scent, as is expected from spirits with orange peel, citrus, and wood-notes in its flavour profile. I liked to sip the Koskue neat, but it’s definitely worth trying their ‘gin & juice’ recipe: add troubled applejuice to the spirit, and you have the perfect (hot) beverage for colder evenings. Again, a win in my book.
The Ryed Whisky for me: pre-release #8
And now, the main event. The one product I was so excited about, I nearly nagged their brand ambassador Ásgeir to death: the Kyrö Single Malt (100% Finnish) Rye Whisky. Now the gloves are off, and the men roll up their sleeves. Okay, enough stalling. But first some context:
The Kyrö distillery is still perfecting its first whiskey. Since 2017, they have made 6 products available as a pre-release. Their latest one, pre-release #8, is the first to pass Finnish national borders. There are so few bottles available (in Finland, as travel retail, and in the USA), that if you have 2 of them, you have less than 1,5% of the entire stock for the Finnish market in your hands. The total global release of #8 was only 1,700 bottles. And I was able to taste a sample. And I am overjoyed.
Oh and one final thing before I share my thoughts: their pre-release #6 just won the Gold Medal in the IWSC Awards 2019.
But now, my tasting notes:
I poured my sample bottle in a tasting glass, and nosed it, heating up the liquid a bit by holding the glass in my hands. There’s subtle caramel, not overpowering. There’s the distinct rye scent, and vanilla notes from the aging in new American white oak and ex-bourbon barrels. According to the brand ambassador, there is some influence from sherry casks as well, perhaps a hint of berrries, right in the end. I also noticed the scent of autumn honey. Promising.
My first sip revealed a warm, mouth-filling character, with a pleasant dry aftertaste on the back of the tongue. This pre-release does not burn, it lulls your mouth to sleep. More honey, a little spice. There’s some vanilla in there, and a lovely wood finish. It’s like a being under a blanket on the sofa. It’s inviting, it’s familiar. It’s the experience of a winter evening, when the only thing you hear is the crackling of the fire, and the rest of the world has fallen silent. It’s that late-evening, close-to-midnight dram right before bed, when you can look back on what you have experienced that past day. It’s a ballad in a bottle. And now it’s all GONE! Dammit!
Luckily for me, and you, my dear reader, the Kyrö distillery is ramping up for the official release of their 100% Finnish Rye Whisky somewhere in 2020. I hope the final product is as good as the sample I received. I think I’ll start contacting my Finnish friends. They might help me out.
The Future of Kyrö
Our story has not ended, however. What is left, is the future of the distillery:
We exit the small bottling area, and traverse the parking lot to a construction site. In it, local construction workers are making sure that the building is finished on time, as it is essential to the expansion of the distillery. Eight new fermenters and two gorgeous stills are already in the building, and production is scheduled to start in the next few months. With this second distillery site, Kyrö will be able to radically improve their distilling capacity, turning an already impressive 85,000 litre output to a whopping 1 million litre capacity. I keep thinking of the initial idea that the founders of the distillery had, specifically the way they tackled every step. They thought about it and they planned it; they took the risk and just did it. And now they are soaring.
My eyes move from the fermenters to the stills, and I can’t wait to visit the distillery again when the new stills are up and running. There’s a certain daring element to it all, the idea of taking a leap, not knowing when and how and in what state you are going to land. If they succeed, Kyrö would be the first distillery in the world that was able to grow to such a capacity within a decade. With that thought, we leave the warehouse, sparks of the construction jumping around below us. In my head, they are a sign of celebration.
Miko takes me for another stroll, this time across the road. Hidden in the foliage, a huge black vault is basically begging me to explore its contents. As I walk towards the entrance, Miko pulls me aside and asks me to touch the wooden walls. While I ponder why this silly person asked me to ‘feel the wood’, I feel… concrete. It turns out the Kyrö distillery and the architects who designed their brand-new warehouse really wanted to drive their message across: our new buildings need to be part of nature. This black box looks like a gigantic black barn, and the building even reminded me of an obscure Finnish film called “Sauna”, in which two men enter a black smoke sauna in the swamps, only to emerge… differently. Draw your own parallels.
The same thing happened to me when I entered this literal cask vault. With a capacity of one million litres, Kyrö is ready for the future. To ensure safety in case of fire, the warehouse is separated into multiple ‘halls’, which can be locked down and extinguished independently. Talk about safety! Here, the future of the distillery stares right back at you. When I asked Miko about their crazy ideas, he informed me that, with current projections concerning production and sales, they would run out of storage in 3-4 years. It turns out they are already planning even bigger investments. These crazy Finns and their rye whisky fever… I wish them all the best!
Bonus: Hey there, thanks for making it all the way to the end. As a reward, here’s a picture of the beautiful nature surrounding the distillery!
Photography is © Mickaël Van Nieuwenhove, © Kuvio, and © Kyrö Distillery.