Most discussions over a drink end the same way: ideas float around and then dissipate as the evening ends in the pleasant glow of smiles and friendly goodbyes. But when five friends – Miika, Miko, Mikko, Kalle and Jouni – met for a drink and a sauna one evening, it wouldn’t end with a glass of water and a headache the next morning. It would be the beginning of a new chapter in Finnish distilling.
“Rye is like a religion in Finland,” explains Miika Lipiäinen, who would go on to become the CEO of Kyrö Distilling Company. But while porridge and bread are common, not so much is known about the rye spirits that are popular abroad, particularly in the United States.
After being introduced to rye whiskey at a festival abroad, Miika brought a bottle back to share with his best friends. As they drank, they started wondering why no Finnish distillers had tried making a spirit with their national grain. When someone suggested that the five of them start a distillery of their own, and become experts in distilling with rye, the idea suddenly didn’t seem so silly.
“Unlike most of the ideas you get in a sauna while drinking rye whiskey,” Miika laughs, “this was a still a good one in the morning!”
Two months later, Kyrö Distillery Company was born – and these five friends would start work on the Napue Gin in August's Gin of the Month box.
Things happened fast for Miika and his five friends. They immediately started looking into whether their distillery was going to end up as a really expensive hobby or an actual business. They decided on the latter, and started pulling together together the equipment, money and skills they needed in order to start production in April 2014.
Far from squabbling over titles, parcelling out roles was easy. “It was surprisingly clear what everyone would do,” Miika says.
With a background in HR and team management at a shipbuilding company, Miko took on responsibility for hiring and designing customer experiences at the distillery; Mikko’s experience in branding made him a natural choice for Head of Branding at Kyrö, while Jouni’s job in sales and logistics made him perfect to take on that role in the new business.
Kalle, a keen home-brewer who had spent his working life developing biofuels out of algae in a university research lab, was a natural choice for Head Distiller. Miika, with his passion for rye whiskey, became the CEO of Kyrö Distillery Company.
The five friends even found a perfect spot to distil: an abandoned dairy in the small town of Isokyrö, tantalisingly close to both the riot of Finnish nature and Miko’s front door. With a little bit of TLC, it became a showpiece distillery where Miko – whose passion for the local area was unrivalled – could host cocktail workshops, fabulous dinners and tastings at an in-house bar and restaurant, which the boys named Kyrönmaan Matkailun Edistämiskeskus – or Kyrö Tourism Board – to get around strict Finnish regulations governing alcohol advertising.
So far, so fabulous – but these five friends were incredibly conscious of the perils that could await them if they barrelled head-long into business together without setting up some ground rules.
As Miika explains, “Five founders is a lot, so we sat down and thought about the values we wanted to further in the company and in our lives. Did we want to change the world in similar ways? We really did – we saw the world in the same way, and our goals were the same.”
To avoid any risk of falling out, the Kyrö founders agreed on a basic set of principles to live – and distil – by.
The most important? “We founded everything on honest enthusiasm,” Miika says. “We want to display a very honest way of enjoying what we do and how we do it, and enjoying our product in the end.”
They also agreed to approach the world with trust, giving everyone – including each other – the benefit of the doubt. And, of course, they pledged never to take themselves too seriously.
Miika says, “We didn’t want to be too serious. We wanted to be able laugh at ourselves!”
Before they knew it, they had all quit their day jobs and were devoting themselves to the distillery full-time. It was a good thing, too: in 2015, Napue Gin, the distillery’s inaugural spirit, won ‘Best G&T’ at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in San Francisco. It has since gone on to win the coveted gold medal in the Contemporary Gin category.
Demand exploded, and the last two years have been a game of constant catch-up – only now, the year that their first whiskey comes out of the barrel, are they staffed enough that everyone can take a deep breath.
“In Finland, we’re still stuck in the mentality that your domestic enterprises are all well and good, but when someone abroad writes about them, they’re fantastic,” Miika says. “That happened to us, and we’re only now past the point of barely keeping up.”
So what makes the Napue in August's Gin of the Month Box – made by whiskey enthusiasts in a tiny town in Finland – so special a spirit that it’s garnering international acclaim? Quite a bit, it turns out. And it all starts in the fields of Finnish rye growing just miles away from the distillery.
THE RYE LIFE
When it came to distilling with rye, Miika and Co. had one goal: to be the best.
He explains: “I think it's important for us because we are so fixated on rye. We need to be the best distillers working with it, because that's all we do, and there are a lot of fantastic uses for rye that haven’t yet been discovered."
The base spirit for Napue Gin is made from Finnish rye, which Kyrö Distillery company buys from local farmers. The base spirit itself is distilled elsewhere, under the watchful eyes of Miika and the team, who ensure that the entirety of the rye grain is used, from the proteins to the husk material. “Rye is not there as a pronounced flavour, necessarily,” Miika says. “It’s there as a binding taste. It gives the whole spirit a more grounded and round taste. It’s the engine that makes the botanical blend hum.”
And what a botanical blend it is! In this gin, named after a tiny town where a terrible battle took place between Russia and Sweden in their long and protracted struggle for control of Finland (the typeface is even an exact replica of type that appears on the local war memorial) Napue Gin pays tribute to Finland by using locally-foraged botanicals in a Finnish rye base.
With juniper in the lead, foraged birch leaf, meadowsweet, sea-buckthorn and cranberry sing when combined with elderflower, cardamom, coriander, caraway, cinnamon, lemon, orange and angelica. The entire gin was designed to capture one moment, a common one in Finnish life: stepping out of a sauna early on a summer morning.
Miika explains, “It’s a very usual experience here in Finland – the moment when you step out of the sauna in the summer, early in the morning and there’s dew on the grass. The smell and sensations of nature you would get in that moment are what we wanted to put into the gin.”
On the palate, this gin is equal parts herbal and sweet, with meadowsweet and gentle citrus on the nose. On the finish, you can taste the peppery notes of rye. Delicious neat or in cocktails, mix it up in a G&T to make Napue truly shine. In fact, the gin was practically designed to blossom when anything carbonated is added.
“As we leave the distillation very thick to give it mouth-feel,” Miika says, “it has a lot of essential oils which get picked up by the bubbles in mixers.” Garnish with a sprig of rosemary and fresh cranberries for true perfection – what some consider the best gin and tonic in the world.
So, what’s next for the five best friends who founded Kyrö Distillery Company? They certainly aren’t standing still – in fact, this year the first rye whiskey from the distillery will be unveiled. It’s a moment that all five founders have been waiting for excitedly, but won’t mark the end of enthusiastic experimentation that goes on at their once abandoned dairy.
Along with their Napue Gin, Miika and Co. have a fabulously imaginative range of spirits and treats to capture the essence of Nordic flavours. Two are included in August's Gin of the Month box – their cranberry and rosemary Gin Long Drink and a hand-crafted chocolate (made of gin, of course!).
Also on the list is a barrel-aged gin, and they’re constantly experimenting at their German copper still, turning out amazing new ideas under the Study range.
But whatever comes next for Kyrö Distillery Company, these friends want to carry on as they began: together.
“Being social is very important to us – we always think that tastes are best enjoyed together,” Miika says. “Taste itself is such a personal thing – you can be private even in company. But it’s also great to share.”
And with great friends, amazing gin and the world’s best G&T just a moment’s work away, sharing a Napue G&T is caring this summer. Cheers!