Isokyrö might be tiny town, but it’s inspired one of Finland’s fastest-growing and best-known gin and whisky brands. We go back to nature with the Kyrö Distillery team. . .
There’s something about the light in Finland. One of the most Northerly countries in Europe, the land reaches more than 1,100km north to south, from the depths of the Arctic Circle through densely-forested, gently undulating, river-carved hills and stretched-out plains, to the relative hustle of Helsinki in the south. Arrive during winter and you’ll be greeted by a haunting, pervasive dusk, even at noonday. In the summer, the sun extends its rays from 4am to the early hours. The light itself is a protagonist, telling a story and reflecting the general mood of the nation. It might be vibrant jubilance, a celebration of the luminescence itself, the land, the energy. Or it might be the need to head indoors for cosy comforts and bolt out the gloom of the day.
When I visited Isokyrö, home of Kyrö Distillery, not far from the city of Vaasa, the light – and the mood – was vivid. It was in the middle of a heatwave, and the River Kyrö was glistening in the sun. Even the trees surrounding the train station had a luminosity about them. Or it could have been the Gin Long Drinks on the train. Regardless, come high summer Finland comes alive, even in a town of 4,500 people like Isokyrö.
Kyrö is a brand with a near cult-like following. Its fans hail from across the world, gin and whisky lovers alike. When five whisky-loving friends started construction on the project in 2014, the ambition was to make delicious products with rye as a base. Fast-forward to today, and the distillery, a former dairy, has seen multiple expansion projects. The latest round, due for completion in October, will see capacity soar from 85,000 to 350,000 litres per annum. Most of this is dedicated to whisky production; the four-year expansion representing around €10 million investment. Not bad for an idea dreamed up in a sauna.
“Let’s say the initial inspiration came from rye whisky,” says Miika Lipiäinen, Kyrö CEO. He was one of the five (alongside Mikko Koskinen, Kalle Valkonen, Jouni Ritola and Miko Heinilä) to come up with the concept that would reshape the country’s spirits landscape. Rye is everything in Finland, he explained. It adds a sense of place, a distinct flavour, and is readily available. “We don’t need pesticides because most of the central European or Western European pests wouldn’t survive this climate,” he says matter of factly as we sit down for a tasting inside the distillery’s dedicated bar. It’s a space that’s part of both the visitor centre and the local community, hosting all kinds of events and gatherings – and even as the brand grows, this locale is at the heart.
The Nordics and nature
We’d arrived in Isokyrö the previous afternoon, fresh off the train from Helsinki. A train network can tell you a lot about a country, and this rings especially true in Finland. The service was efficient and prompt, elegantly and ergonomically designed for ease of movement. The carriages themselves were sleek; charging points were there for those who needed, there was more than enough seating. Understatedly effective, and polished with it – yes. But there’s also a dedicated bar carriage where people chatted, laughed, made the most of their journeys. The Finns love the simple pleasure of a relaxed good time. The word ‘kalsarikännit’, or the anglicised ‘päntsdrunk’, exists for a reason (yes, drinking at home, on your own, in your undies is considered self-care).
Lipiäinen travelled up on the train with us, holding court in the bar carriage. As soon as we arrived, he was quick to point out the forests. Not that you could miss the dense trees that line the arrow-straight roads, the only gaps being flat, arable fields no doubt growing that all-important rye. Almost every Finn seems to feel an affinity with nature – from foraging to fishing, hiking to camping, the great outdoors is a serious pastime. And it’s one that informs the Kyrö philosophy as much as the rye base.
“The original idea was that we need to combine two worlds; we need to combine the world of super-premium but in a Nordic way of being very unassuming, and ‘we don’t rub it in people’s faces’,” Lipiäinen explained. The other was, alongside the rye, “to use the other stuff we have in nature”.
Arriving at Kyrö, this hybrid is immediately apparent. We’re welcomed into the distillery cottage, a beautifully-furnished (in Nordic-style chic of course, with bespoke wallpaper), cosy space, filled to the brim with nods to both Finland and the natural world. Plants, wood, light – and the inevitable sauna next door (did you know that there are two million saunas in Finland to share between five million people?). There to greet us is the perennially smiling Anniina Kumara, Kyrö’s event manager, who is preparing a feast for us in the kitchen. It immediately feels like coming home.
A convivial evening follows; Kyrö Gin Long Drinks flow, as do Napue G&Ts. Conversation is easy. Lipiäinen and UK brand ambassador George Krastev are effervescent. Suddenly it’s late; you wouldn’t know because even though it’s well after midnight the light lives on in the sky. Time for bed – there’s foraging, followed by a forest breakfast, to come in the morning.
“It was not supposed to happen, but we’re the biggest gin in Finland,” Lipiäinen says. “Not from craft gins, but all the gins. It’s very perverse!” he seems in disbelief. We’re back in the tasting room at the distillery. We’ve looked round production, met the team, and given them our foraging haul from the forest to work their magic with. Martta Ruohomaa, resident botanical expert, steered us away from anything too risky as we scavenged our way between the trees. Think: cloudberry, lingonberry, moss, raspberry leaf. The forest was generous to us. Before long, King Stone Gin, our own limited-run creation, named after a legendary rock in the Kyrö River, is in production. While it does its thing, we take a seat and make our way through the core Kyrö range.
“We’ve sort of jumped a category here in the sense that we started picking up wine drinkers and champagne drinkers and beer and cider drinkers,” Lipiäinen says, attributing the brand’s massive growth to its far-reaching appeal. “It got a bit out of hand.”
It’s easy to see why. The Kyrö vibe is infectious, it’s no surprise the team has drawn people into spirits from other categories. The brand is strong, the people behind it have a fervent passion for what they’re doing and why. And the production story is a compelling one, too. On the gin side, it’s all hand-foraged, local botanicals. There’s unaged gin, Napue, and cask-aged Koskue (“gin for when the weather sucks”, the advertising campaign quips. I can confirm it’s also delicious in the sunshine). But rye whisky was the first love, the passion that fuelled its ambition, and it’s just about to come into a season all of its own at Kyrö.
“We’re following the same idea as we had with the gins,” Lipiäinen explained, referencing the focus on raw materials and the six-day fermentation process. “We can leave the cut really long and leave it oily, leave it thick and preserve everything that the rye has to give us,” He continues. “So wholegrain rye, 100% malted, no enzymes, no grain mixed in and only rye.”
We’ve seen a handful of limited-run whisky releases from the distillery, mostly matured in 200-litre casks, either virgin oak or ex-bourbon. But it’s a fine balance to strike between keeping that rye character, that sense of place, and the cask influence. “The ex-bourbon gives some really great notes but I really don’t want to go down that banana route at all,” Lipiäinen details, as we taste through some samples.
“The profile we’re going for is big, bold, spicy. So it’s going to be very different from your bourbon, I don’t hate but I don’t have a lot of time or respect for the ryes which are essentially bourbon just, 51% rye and then the rest is really sweetcorn and then a bit of malted barley. It really needs to display what rye has to offer.”
From the samples we taste, the juggling act is paying off. Kyrö Single Malt Rye Whisky Batch 4 is especially successful, building a sense of impatience for when the new plant is up and running, and there will be far more Kyrö rye whisky to go around.
We wrap up the tasting and head back to the cottage. A wooden hot tub has just arrived on a trailer, parked up next to the sauna. Logs are ready to fire up the wood burner to heat it. As we get set, the evening sun glimmers on the Kyrö River. It’s not long before we’re all jumping in off the little wooden jetty, plunging from the unseasonably warm sunshine into the snowmelt water, running back up the bank and into the sauna. Rinse, repeat. I’m told it’s the traditional way to pass the Isokyrö summer evenings. It’s exhilarating. The Kyrö Gin Long Drinks are back, the sun casts long shadows, we laugh. Is there anywhere quite like this season in Finland? “Rye rye!” someone shouts, meaning ‘bottoms up’. Forget gin for when the weather’s bad; it’s just possible that Team Kyrö has bottled the very essence of summer.