Here’s a Look at How Kyrö Distillery Produces Some of the World’s Best Gin
My love affair with Kyrö Distillery has been stretched over 4 years—dating back to a time when Finnish spirits were unheard of. Mauricio Allende, an ambassador of Kyrö and bartender at La Maison du Whisky Singapore was the chaperone on our first date, inebriating us with silky Martinez and sprightly Gin and Tonics that left me with an aching heart and lips tainted with sweet aromatics. Since then, I wanted to get to know this game-changing rye-based gin from Finland, Napue and swore someday that I would travel across the ocean.
Throughout the last 4 years, I’ve endeavoured to understand the ever-changing landscape of the spirits business, with the likes of consumers falling at the feet of craft distillers who have a knack for storytelling. In spite of that, my fascination with Kyrö’s rye-grained gin has remained steadfast, which was why I took the plunge in the dawn of spring 2019. Finland found itself an additional inhabitant in the form of an inquisitive, googly-eyed lover, venturing 3 hours out of Helsinki in search of reunification. And like long-distance lovers, the anticipation was one that triggered heart palpitations and sweaty palms.
During our long-distance relationship, Kyrö Distillery had seen some major changes. It got famous. We’re not talking about a strong Nordic representation here. In 2015, they got awarded by the International Wine and Spirit Competition for being “The World’s Best Gin for Gin & Tonic”. Demands went through the roof and production volumes were forced to increase by tenfold in 3 weeks. Overall sales increased from a humble 4,800 bottles in 2014 to 100,000 bottles in 2015, thereafter skyrocketing to 430,000 bottles in 2017. “This all escalated very quickly,” said Miko Heinilä (one of the co-founders), as he led us into the cavernous malting room of the distillery, “it was mad!” Here, the smells aloft remind one of freshly baked bread and sweet malt powder, warm enough for the grains to get acquainted with the idea of its prospective germination where water is mixed with grain to produce starch then yeast to kick-start the fermentation process.
Prior to this, we had spent a good half an hour in the frigid cold, the coming of spring signifying a certain unpredictability in the temperature. It was a little past noon, and we were perched right at the edge of the water, next to Perttilä Suspension Bridge —the oldest steelwork suspension bridge in Finland. Miko starts the tour off by running us through the gruesome narratives of the Battle of Napue that unfolded on these very grounds that we were standing on in 1714. It was the final land battle of the Finnish campaign in the Great Northern War which took the lives of countless victims and saw Finland falling under the Russian military occupation for 7 years—later known as The Great Wrath. “Everything was razed to the ground, women were raped and till the 20th century, there were still piles of human bones visible in the fields.” It could have been the 2-degree winds billowing through the flatlands, but I let loose a shiver from the insides of my soul. Grim. But there were positives that came out of this tragedy, positives that gave life to a very different Kyrö Distillery story. One that was very much rooted in heritage and exclaimed independence.
Going to the sauna is very much part of Finnish culture, and that was where the idea of producing a whole grain rye whiskey came about since Finns consume six times more rye than the world average in the form of rye bread. Also, for those of you who have seen their exquisite branding content—namely, the coasters featuring 5 of the distillery founders running buck-naked in the rye fields would have definitely left an unforgettable first impression.
It wasn’t long before the boys were vested in their quest. Miko took a loan against his family home, the others weighed in equally and EU investment fundings were roped in to provide leverage for the initial start-up. The going was tough and to make matters worse, under European Union Law, whiskey had to be aged for at least three years to be called a single malt. Hence, they needed another business proposition to keep the funding afloat until the whiskey was ready. Et Voila! Napue Gin was born—a 100% whole grain rye-based gin that uses a combination of 16 botanicals including four that are locally foraged and fresh. I’m no gin snob, but this one imbued with sea buckthorn, meadowsweet, cranberries and birch (Finland’s national tree) has the sights and the smells of Finland at the height of summer. It’s luscious between the mainstay juniper and accompanying spices.
The tour continues on through the old cheese factory, one that you can still find on the lids of Finland’s famous Oltermanni cheese export. We taste batches of the distiller’s beer, comparing the unfermented rendition (with a strange resemblance to barley water) to the 6-day fermented mash of rye grain, water and yeast which they could have easily put through a centrifuge and pass off as hipster kombucha. After tasting the rye grain spirit fresh out of the vat, we took a sneak peek at their magical amalgamation of dried botanicals that impart a unique aroma to the spirit. It was all very immersive, intimidating, but more importantly, inspiring.
By the end of it all, I felt as if I was part of the inner circle, as if I too had experienced the hard knocks and emerged triumphant by inheriting characteristics of what makes Kyrö a world-class distillery—forged by the expertise and passion of every man I’ve met on the line. I witnessed the pride of this expanding empire, from the new wing where the rye whiskey distillation is about to get transferred to, to the barrel ageing facility located on the fringe of the distillation plant. We concluded the night with a scrumptious home-cooked dinner spread by one of the distillers and flavour experimenters, Matti Leppälehto. Encouraged by enough Gin & Juice, we wrapped up my jet-lagged journey with a trip to the sauna under the stars. For the uninitiated, it was a morbidly torturous yet soothing experience at the same time as the local team kept pouring more water over the stoves to produce löyly (steam). You’ll choke, get a refill of cold beer, and silently reflect over the brilliant idea that originated from these very confinements.
Kyrö Distillery is about working with the positives, seizing opportunities and having the right spirit (pun intended) to capture the essence of the land. Here I am sipping on their latest invention, the boozy dairy cream with fresh brew coffee 10,000 km away and still, I could taste the genuineness in its production value that pays homage to Kyrö Distillery’s former home as a dairy farm. It’s weirdly intense and thirst-quenching at the same time. In 3 weeks time, I’ll be trekking down once more to the distillery for their annual Kyröfest—a unique village fiesta that spiels good music, amazing local food, and art together—in search of a little summer cheer that oddly feels like going home.