At Nordic Watchlist we’re not all about film and TV – we like to bring other great Nordic brands and culture to you to add to your Watchlist! And in this case, your drink list.
Marc from Nordic Watchlist met Hannah-Leena Huhtala, marketing & communications manager at the distillery, to learn more about the brand and how it came to be. It’s a truly incredible story, read on to find out why…
Now we can’t talk about Kyrö without going back all the way to the beginning, can we!?
We can’t, and that’s mainly because it’s such a cool story! Like all great Finnish ideas, it all started in a sauna. Three friends were chatting away, slowly making their way through a bottle of American rye whisky. As it started to disappear they asked themselves, ‘Why is nobody making this stuff here!?’ They had no background in the spirits industry whatsoever, all they knew was that Finland makes a lot of rye…a lot of rye!
They woke the next morning and, unlike most ideas you have when you’re drunk, decided that there might be something in it. Two other friends got involved shortly after and the rest is history as they say.
Ok, so you come up with the idea, but then you obviously need to find somewhere to make it…and I guess in their case, also learn how to make it!? How did they settle on a location?
This is also quite a funny/fortunate story, and you’ll find that most of them are as far as Kyrö is concerned! They had high hopes for a family farm located in Isokyrö but after they visited realised it didn’t quite cut it.
They went to Mikko’s (Heinilä) parent’s house which was in the town to rethink things over coffee. On looking out the window, they spotted an old disused dairy on the other side of the river and decided that would be the perfect base. They clubbed together the money and that became the base. All they needed to do then was learn how to actually make the stuff!
That was my next question because, at this point, it seems they have an idea for a product and a building but still no clue what to do?
That’s right, and no joke, the first thing they did was ask Google how to make Rye whisky! They didn’t have any equipment so they put out a plea for a still. There was a distillery in Pori, hundreds of kilometres away which offered to lend them one, provided they collected it themselves, so off they went for a drive!
They then started the very first distillation in Kalle’s (Valkonen) parent’s house who happened to be on holiday. I’m not sure whether they knew about it and might have had a shock when they came back!
What happens next then? How do they work out whether what they’re producing is any good?
Another funny story as basically they had no idea. Miika (Lipiänen) bought a ticket to the London whisky show and smuggled in some samples. He went to the gent’s toilets, poured out some drams and then wandered around the room going from stand to stand. The feedback he got was incredible.
It turned out that the combination of super pure Finnish water and great quality Finnish rye made for a tasty combination.
I just love every bit of this story, it’s amazing! How do you go then from pouring samples in a gent’s toilet to selling worldwide? Surely that still took some work?
Oh yes, it didn’t happen overnight but after London and having heard all the positive feedback there was a real belief in the product. It wasn’t long after Miika came back that the first drinks were being served in a little pop-up bar in Helsinki but then came the next hiccup.
They realised that Rye whisky takes three years to make and that until it was ready they didn’t really have a product or any way of making money. All their savings were gone, their families’ savings were gone and their properties were all re-mortgaged. They decided to have a go at making gin. They knew it was a much quicker process and they knew the distillery was surrounded by good quality Finnish ingredients like birch leaves and cranberries. How hard could it be!?
As with the whisky, they took a sample over to London to gather feedback and again, that feedback turned out to be quite good… in fact very good. Miika was actually on a cycling trip over in Estonia and got a call to say something along the lines of, “We know nothing about your distillery, but your gin has been selected as the best gin for gin & tonic. We suggest you prepare before the award goes public.”
Before that call, bottles were being sold out of the boot of a car, driving around the country to bars and restaurants. After it, we sold out of everything in just two days. The target for that year was to sell 20,000 bottles but we ended up selling closer to 100,000. It was amazing. We couldn’t keep up with the demand.
The thing with gin, certainly here in the UK, is that it’s a hugely competitive market. Is it similar in Finland?
It’s probably not as competitive but some of that is due to the alcohol laws here in Finland which limit what you can do in terms of advertising. There’s still competition though, and it’s quite odd for Finland, but that competition is quite friendly. We all face the same problems so everyone has come together to try and make things easier for each other. It’s a supportive community.
Given the restrictions on advertising then, how did you make the leap from selling in Finland to now selling all over the world?
There’s some luck involved in that, if luck is the right word. In January 2020 Mikko headed over to Germany to set up an office in Berlin. In March, Covid arrives so he’s sat there in Germany on his own wondering, what on earth am I going to do. Rather than just give up or go back to Finland he decided to really work on the online side of the business and saw that as a good way to get the Kyrö story out there. People seem to love it, and I completely understand why. There are just so many reasons why it shouldn’t have worked, but it has and I think people warm to that.
Flavoured gins have really taken off in the UK over the last couple of years. Is that an area you’ve looked at?
It is, and we’ve actually made both a pink gin and a dark gin. That will probably be it though, we really want the focus to be on the whisky and now have much bigger premises which have allowed us to increase production seven times over.
There are cool stories with the pink gin and the dark gin though. The dark was actually a mistake of sorts. They’d read somewhere that you can age gin in a barrel so set some aside to find out. With everything else that was going on they forgot about it but when they remembered, fortunately, it turned out to be really good.
With the pink gin, the craze never really took off here in Finland like it did elsewhere. When we decided to give it a go, like with all our products we wanted the focus to be on local Finnish products and fruit like lingonberries and rhubarb rather than just sugar. The funny part comes from the fact that we started to distil and realised that we’d made far too much and weren’t going to have enough rhubarb. We worked out we were going to be about 10kgs short so put out a post on social media asking if anyone locally had any spare. We ended up with nearly 300kgs!
What do you think the future holds for Kyrö?
One of our aims is to try and change the whole whisky culture, or maybe even create a new whisky culture. We think it’s quite outdated to just think, ‘oh whisky has to be 18 years old before its worth drinking’, or ‘you can’t add ice’. I mean, we make our whisky with rye and if you store that for more than five years its going to be awful!
Our whisky team lead, Mari Saarenpää, had never actually tasted whisky before she joined us but now loves it. The good thing about rye whisky is that it does work so well however you want to drink it. You can use it any whisky based cocktail and it’s going to be delicious.
We’ve also got Kyröfest coming up in August. Have you got time for me to quickly tell you about that?
Please, yes, go ahead!
Great, so it’s a one-day festival that we host here on the banks of the Kyrö. We have good music, great people, local food, art, performances and most importantly our full selection of Kyrö spirits. It’s a really unique experience. You should come over!
Find out more:
For those of you who are interested in sampling some of the fantastic Kyrö offerings, you can find a link to their webstore below. We have also included a link to the dedicated webpage for Kyröfest
Interview by Marc Harries and all images provided by Kyrö