In the furthest eastern reaches of wintry Finland, a magical still called Sampo chugs away, producing small batches of beautiful gin. Overseeing its work is Moritz, the talented distiller behind February’s truly remarkable Gin of the Month.
Half the year enclosed in ice and half a summer paradise of verdant pine forests and clear blue lakes, Finland is a very special slice of the world. And that goes double for mysterious North Karelia, tucked onto the eastern border with Russia.
Half Russian, half Finnish and undeniably ancient, the region of Karelia is thought to be the setting of Finland’s definitive piece of literature: the Kalevala. This epic of 45 musical poems is about lost love, epic battles and one very special machine. It’s called the Sampo, and its legend has left an undeniable mark on Finnish culture.
As Moritz Wüstenberg, the distiller behind Kalevala gin, explains: “The Sampo is a machine that creates wealth and happiness. So that’s what we named our still: Sampo, something that makes what everybody wants to have.”
In the legend of the Kalevala, the Sampo is lost forever at sea. But in the heart of his snowbound distillery, Moritz’s Sampo chugs on – turning fresh spring water and organic local botanicals, as if by magic, into the gin they call Kalevala.
Land Of Legends
Moritz didn’t grow up seeing his future self as a gin distiller. In fact, even in adulthood, he wasn’t a huge fan of the spirit that would someday put him – and the Finnish region of North Karelia, where he’d spent long summers with his mother’s family – on the map for gin lovers around the world.
“My first experience with gin was that it was something quite difficult to drink,” Moritz explains, on the phone from a train speeding across snowy Northern Europe. “So when I started distilling, my guideline was to make a gin that didn’t need tonic – something you could drink and enjoy just on the rocks.”
Half Finnish and half German, Moritz wasn’t even a big gin drinker. Even living in London, the cradle of craft gin, where he stayed with his sister, he didn’t take to the spirit. But as a biochemical engineering student he learned all about the process of creating and refining spirits, and it absolutely fascinated him. He loved London, but something was drawing him back to Finland.
Moritz says, “So I went back to my mother’s home of North Karelia.”
It was back in his mother’s holiday house, a 1970s bungalow deep in the pine forests, that it all started coming together for Moritz.
Rumoured to be the site where the Finnish epic of the Kalevala took place, the region of Karelia was also the epicentre of moonshine production during Finland’s hard-won and short lived prohibition. In 1919, newly independent Finland passed an act outlawing the distillation and sale of alcoholic beverages (they had tried to do so four times before, but the Russian tsar had opposed the legislation each time). It fell to Karelia, a border region with strong ties to the booze-friendly Russians, to produce illegal spirits. It’s a part of Karelian culture that remains strong to this day.
“It’s a place that has a history of producing spirits,” Moritz says, “which has to do with why I chose it. But it’s also where my mother is from, so it has both a personal and a historical background.”
With his head full of distilling dreams and surrounded by a proud heritage of homemade spirits, his path forward became clear: it would have to be gin.
Sampo the Still
When Moritz returned to beautiful North Karelia, he had a goal beyond gin: “The idea was to do something to promote Finland internationally,” he says. “It was always meant to be international.”
A lofty goal, but much easier said than done. Luckily, Moritz had three very important things on his side: a beautiful property in an area rich with botanicals; an unusual talent for distilling; and a partner, Tanya, who was happy to help him in his journey.
“As I tried things out I learned,” he continues. “I tried out many different things before I came to the gin that is Kalevala. It’s the result of many years of experimentation.”
Named after the great Finnish epic, The Kalevala, the gin in February's Gin of the Month box is a wonderful expression of the land where Moritz’s distillery sits. Using the holiday home his mother’s family has owned since the 1970s as a base, he and Tanya have transformed this land into an amazing place to make an equally amazing gin.
As he explains: “It’s in the middle of a forest, about seven kilometres outside of the nearest town. On the property is the distillery, some forest and we live there as well. We’ve expanded the original house, and taken some of the outbuildings and converted them into the actual distillery.”
In that distillery sits Sampo, Moritz’s still.
“It’s a very special still that I found in Germany,” he says. “It was used, but I had it refurbished. It’s a very specific kind of still – I wanted it because it doesn’t rectify as much, and I wanted to keep as much of the flavour as possible.”
And what flavour there is to be had. Using all organic botanicals – “I felt it was very important to do this,” he says, “even though it made things a little harder” – Moritz started experimenting with different gin recipes in 2010.
“The process of becoming a distiller in Finland is quite long,” Moritz says. Even though prohibition was repealed after a short time – the Finns, like the Americans, found that outlawing booze completely led to violence and organised crime – Finland is in lockstep with other Nordic countries when it comes to the strict regulation of alcohol consumption and production.
“It’s complicated to get licensing,” Moritz says. “I started initially in 2010 with an experimental licence – it meant that I could start distilling and trying things out. I was the first company in Finland to get one.”
Things have certainly moved on since then. In 2012 he got a proper commercial licence and began distilling gin in earnest, setting up a shop and investing in more and more equipment to expand the business. These days, he and Tanya even have an employee to help them out with the bottling and labelling, which is still done mostly by hand.
The patience and skill Moritz brought to the experimentation stage has been the bedrock of his success. Because without that strong start, he would never have unlocked the secret formula that brings the forests and lakes of North Karelia to life in a glass of this special gin.
The Juniper People
So when you take a sip of Kalevala, what exactly are you tasting? First and foremost is a classic gin botanical with a very special meaning to Moritz: juniper.
He says: “Finns are sometimes called ‘The Juniper People’ because juniper is thought to be very strong: it bends, but it doesn’t break. Other Finnish gins, and many gins in general, have moved away from juniper, so we tried to feature it quite strongly.”
Other botanicals include cardamom, mint, rosemary, rosebud and raspberry leaf, along with a distinctly North Karelian addition: sea buckthorn.
“Sea buckthorn is very popular here because it’s seen as very healthy,” Moritz says. Indeed, many countries – including China and Scotland – prize this shrub for the wide range of amino acids and anti-aging properties said to be contained in its berries. “It isn’t only native to North Karelia, but we have a lot of organic growers.”
Joining these botanicals is one top secret ingredient, which gives Kalevala its distinctive sweet notes. The result is, to put it simply, spectacular.
As Moritz says: “The rosebud gives the gin a flowery flavour, while the mint gives it a freshness – but with juniper as the main body. I think gin should taste of juniper. It’s a good thing!”
With this original recipe perfected and Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence coming up this year, Moritz and his team are looking forward to trying new things. A Navy Strength Gin is on its way, along with something special to celebrate his country’s big birthday that Moritz can’t reveal quite yet.
So keep an eye out for this wonder from the frozen north. This isn’t the last you’ll hear of the very special spirits that Moritz and his still, Sampo, are creating.