Hatching a plan in a sauna in Finland is quite a common occurrence – there are around 3 million saunas in a country that has a population of 5.5 million and it’s an integral part of Finnish culture. But actually following through on that idea, especially one that involves setting up a rye whisky distillery in a place with no tradition of that particular craft, probably less so. Yet that’s what the founders of Kyrö Distillery Company did.
Through the whisky and gin distillery in the small town of Isokyrö in southwestern Finland, they’ve turned one quintessential Finnish product, rye, (Finns consume three times the European average of the grain) and turned it into another. The team is creating products that really speak of the place they’re made, and in doing so, the distillery is bridging the gap between the urban and the agricultural. In that vein, we went over to Finland to find out all about this magical rye.
The distillery was started in 2012 on the site of an old co-op dairy in Isokyrö, in Finnish Ostrobothnia, and has since grown to take over the whole yard. It’s a striking old building, right on the Kryönjoki river, in fact, the whole area is idyllic, especially with a blue sky overhead and a healthy layer of snow still on the ground. Kyrö House, a spacious, Nordic-style lodge, is one of the buildings on the lot and is their own on-site accommodation, which is where they host people, though it’s not open to the public
The distillery takes up two buildings; the gin is produced on the older side where the original dairy building is, with the whisky made in a newer building across the lot, with some impressive shiny new stills. This part of the operation is powered by biogas energy, with 99.9% of the energy used by both the whisky distillery and visitor centre produced through renewable methods.
All of Kyrö’s spirits are made from 100% Finnish rye, and this link to terroir – as much as distilled spirits can have terroir – this connection between product and place is a key part of the Kyrö story. The brand’s font, now officially known as Napue Sans, was taken from the Battle of Napue memorial just a minute’s walk from the distillery. The northern rye that grows in Finland is smaller than other varieties of rye but it’s more intense in flavour, and the almost perpetual sun during the Finnish summers makes the grain more full-bodied and spicier.
Local botanicals like cranberry, sea buckthorn, birch leaves and meadowsweet, added to the gin in fresh distillates, give the liquid the taste of a Finnish summer. Given that the gin has picked up a Great Taste Award and was voted the World’s Best Gin for Gin & Tonic by the IWSC in 2015, the recipe is clearly a hit. Kyrö also has a pink gin flavoured with rhubarb and fresh red berries, and a dark gin that’s cask aged in American oak barrels, plus a range of RTDs that feature other quintessential Finnish ingredients like cranberry and blueberry.
The Kyrö Malt, aged in new American oak and ex-bourbon casks, which was first released in 2017, is one of the distillery’s two core whiskies. The other, Kyrö Wood Smoke, is made using rye that’s been smoked with alder wood in a nod to the traditional smoke sauna of Finland. They also produce limited editions and small-run expressions, and we were lucky enough to do a barrel tasting with Head Distiller Kalle Valkonen where we tried the new make whisky as well as liquids from different casks, including oloroso, vin santo, cognac and ex-bourbon. There’s also a reference to the distillery’s former life as a dairy with the Kyrö Dairy Cream; made with malt whisky and lactose-free cream, it’s like Baileys on steroids and absolutely delightful in a coffee.
Whilst a barrel tasting isn’t available for the general public, you can tour the distillery, enjoy a gin and whisky tasting, and eat in the on-site restaurant and bar. The food, made using local, seasonal produce served on long sharing tables is excellent – we had a real feast including cold-smoked roast beef with crispy artichokes & mustard mayo, roasted onions with broad beans, green salad with herb cucumbers, cured trout with fennel, glazed pork neck with thyme potatoes & roast parsnips, and white chocolate namelaka with rhubarb. Providing a great meal with great drinks and great company is an extremely effective way of fostering strong connections between Isokyrö and the wider Finnish community, and shows how Kyrö is successfully forging those links between the urban and the agricultural.
And the company doesn’t stop there: it hosts its very own festival, Kyröfest, at the distillery each summer, featuring music, art, food and obvs plenty of drinks, getting people to travel from all over to the Finnish countryside. Kyrö is even bringing a little slice of Finland to London with regular sauna sessions for people who work hospitality, giving them time to relax, unwind and take care of their mental health in the most Finnish of ways. If you don’t work in the biz but want a taste of that Kyrö life in London, you only have to order a G&T or whisky to get it.