Kyrö and the birth of Finnish rye
Rye has always been Finland’s main grain, but until Miika Lipiäinen held a spicy tasting in a traditional sauna, no one had thought to create the country’s first rye whisky. SMWS ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor sat down with the founder of Kyrö distillery to find out more about how he brought a taste of Finnish rye grain to the whisky world
The story of whisky is seasoned with individuals taking what’s around them and creating something unique. Tradition, climate and indigenous skills combine to elevate basic component parts into a whole that, when done well, can represent, enrich and bolster the very culture it was born from.
Such musings are commonplace in traditional whisky-making countries. Irish, Scottish and US distillers will happily regale you with stories of their founders and forebears. While this is all well and good, it does raise a poignant question. Who is harnessing these simple yet laudable philosophies and establishing their own credible whisky-making traditions?
MAD ABOUT RYE
Some readers may be surprised by this. Finland is better known for being the happiest country in the world, with high incomes, healthcare for all and a top education system. Not to mention Lapland, the northern lights, saunas, and being the home of Santa Claus!
What you may not know is that because of its adaptability to various soil types, coupled with its aptitude to ripen over the short northern summer, the Finnish go-to food stock grain for the past 2,000 years has been rye.
“We’re mad about rye in Finland,” Kyrö distillery’s Miika Lipiäinen explains. “We’re brought up on rye bread, rye porridge, you name it. Rye everything.”
But whisky? Not so much. To the outside observer, vodka or perhaps jaloviina (“jallu” as most Finns know it, a brandy drink with a traditional recipe formed at the end of prohibition in Finland in 1932) are more obvious spirits of choice. Miika found his way to rye whisky through a more obvious route.
“I was at the Whisky Show in London and was poured some Thomas H Handy, it was a real “aha!” moment for me. From then on, rye whisky is all I’ve ever taken to parties.”
PICTURED: Miika Lipiäinen and his friends were inspired to start distilling after passing around a bottle of rye in the sauna
A SAUNA EPIPHANY
What followed was a journey of discovery, not only of his own culture and nationality, but his own professional standing and the aspirations of his friends and colleagues.
“There were many conversations around the possibility of creating a Finnish rye whisky,” says Miika. “Why had it not been done before? What kind of legislation would we need to adhere to? All kinds of unknowns needed to be clarified before we could even think about it in any serious way.”
The culmination of these discussions occurred, naturally, in a sauna.
“We’re a somewhat ragtag group of friends passing around a bottle of Rittenhouse rye in a sauna – if you don’t think US rye whiskey is spicy and peppery you should try it at 60 degrees! – and none of us were in the spirits industry. But at that point we were overcome by inspiration, not to mention the whiskey, so we decided we needed go out and figure out what we needed to do.”
And so, while embracing the fact that they had an exceedingly small home market, and not having the financial, industrial or even cultural backing they might have had in a country with more established distilling traditions, Kyrö distillery was established in May 2014. Its express intention was to highlight not only rye grain in spirit form, but Finnish rye grain, in spirit form.
PICTURED: Kyrö distillery from above
STANDING OUT AS FINNISH
“We basically decided that we were going to get very good at one thing – distilling rye,” says Miika. “Everything – the equipment, processes, expertise, management of the rye from the fields to eventual bottling – is to ensure we get what we want from our rye.”
ABOVE: A glimpse inside the stillroom at Kyrö
This is achieved in a distillery (a re-purposed dairy in the west of Finland near Isokyrö) equipped much like a traditional Scottish single malt distillery, using a batch process and two copper pot stills.
The more insightful eye, however, may notice a cleaning system geared towards dealing with the more “gluey” nature of a rye mash, and an innovative way of retaining flavour from the grain.
“For us, using 100 per cent malted rye, it’s not about just power stripping the sugar out of it, we want the flavour. With rye, most of the flavour is on the outer surface, so we don’t filter or separate out any of the solids, it goes all the way to the wash still and the flavour it carries goes with it.
“We want to make our own style of rye; we’re not interested in emulating say Van Winkle or Thomas H Handy – those guys have already done that. Here in Finland, when we grow up eating rye products, we have a certain image of what rye tastes like, and few Finns would associate the flavour of an American rye with what they would identify as rye. For us, making it recognisable to the Finnish palate is key to our distinctiveness.
“I love the hot peppery spices that US rye whiskies deliver, but that’s simply not the flavour of rye as us Finns would describe it. Obviously, you always get some spiciness, but what we’re looking for is more sweet aromatic earthy oriental spice and cinnamon bark to make it stand out as Finnish.”
CULTURE OF SHARING AND ENJOYING
It’s difficult to overstate the size of the task that the team at Kyrö are undertaking. A new product, with no established cultural pedigree, in a yet undefined category, presents a specific set of obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, Miika’s aspirations are very much long term.
“We realise that there is a huge market for whisky, and most of it is not necessarily on our doorstep!” he says. “We’re very respectful of the fact that established brands have far more experience in developing relationships with customers than we do. So, it’s of immense value to us to be able to work with someone like The Scotch Malt Whisky Society – your culture of sharing and enjoying whisky for what it is speaks directly to what we’re hoping to achieve.
“We know that we’re still waiting for our whisky to find its place in the world, and we love talking to people about how we hope to grow. Even if they don’t necessarily understand what we’re trying to do, it’s great that we can embrace the fact that they are as much a part of our journey as the whisky itself.
“We don’t want to be a one-off ‘craft experiment’, and our distillery is producing 120,000 LPA (litres of pure alcohol per annum) now, but there is capacity to ramp that up to 320,000 LPA. For us, success is establishing a real Finnish whisky and a generational distillery that will be there long after we are gone.”
Cask RW6.1: Finnish “slapped ears” is due for release to members in the UK in November – watch out for details of a ballot to pick up your bottle and look out for the release in the EU and international markets.