A festive chat with Kyrö CEO Miika Lipiäinen
Christmas is just around the corner (literally, it's tomorrow!), so we grabbed a chat with Miika Lipiäinen, CEO of Kyrö Distillery, based over in snowy Finland. The Kyrö folks adore rye, and you had the distillery’s brand-new shiny Malt Rye release in your boxes this month! We talk all things new whisky, Christmas Day saunas, and Finnish traditions...
Pour & Sip: Tell us about origin and the history of Kyrö Distillery!
Miika Lipiäinen: The story starts with me discovering rye whiskies back in 2011. I had no idea about the category before, having pretty much never tasted it. It suddenly hit me that since we love rye – we love our rye bread, rye porridge, rye everything – why hasn't anybody combined whisky and rye? Because we also like our alcohol! We figured with a bunch of mates in a sauna, as we do in Finland, we should be the ones to do a rye whisky distillery in Finland! It was such a gripping idea that we started emailing absolutely everyone we knew – none of us were from the industry. I was in pharmaceuticals, Mikko [Koskinen] was in shipbuilding, Journi [Ritola] logistics, Miko [Heinilä] in stand-up comedy, and Kalle [Valkonen] grew algae for Helsinki University. We went on this two-year Rocky-esque training spree around Europe and just called up distilleries and asked ‘can we come and work for a week?’ and built up the expertise. Kalle fortunately had a background in brewing so he knew a bit about the process.
Eventually we started distilling in April 2014, making 100% malted Finnish rye whisky. We’re very uncompromising about rye! What it translates into is this whole new take on what rye whisky could taste like and how thick it can be, how sweet rather than spicy, giving it a whole new twist. Since Finland doesn't have a history of whisky production, we can start it now.
P&S: I’m a full believer that if more people had saunas we’d get more amazing ideas like this!
ML: Absolutely! It’s a place where you have to be alone with your thoughts and it leads to weird places. And most of the ideas, especially when there’s the rye whisky bottle going around, are not good when the next morning comes around. But this one was still good!
P&S: We’ve got Kyrö Rye Malt in this month’s box! Talk us through this new release?
ML: The journey that started in 2014 has now reached the point where we have our first permanent product and this is the first release thereof. We are really happy with how far we have gotten with the taste profile from both the liquid and the cask. We feel that we are ready to present this to the world as it is and keep on making new batches of this particular product from here on. We now feel that we've got to a point where it’s a fantastic sipping drink but it’s also a whisky for a Manhattan or a Boulevardier, if you feel like it. We wanted to make it really accessible. We are all about changing the whisky culture so it’s not white middle-aged men in leather armchairs – although we are nearing middle-age ourselves! But we can at least make the whisky and the culture around it all about being available to everyone and not mystifying the taste too much, but still presenting a really complex and a deep flavour profile. It’s all about building up the awareness that single malt rye whisky is a thing, and that whisky from Finland is a thing.
P&S: So you're proud enough of the liquid just to sip it neat, but you're not scared to tell people to mix it either?
ML: Absolutely not. Even drinking it as a Highball is a fantastic way to enjoy it. I am actually prone to sipping it with a couple of cubes of ice, because it’s got such a thick layer of taste that it won't dilute away by adding a bit of ice in there.
P&S: Is there anything particularly special or different about Finnish rye?
ML: Absolutely. In Finland the growing season is a bit funny. First of all, we only plant winter rye, which means that we harvest and plant almost at the same time, it’s a really short gap. The rye needs to go into the ground before the snow comes over, and the snow will protect the rye over the winter, and then it starts growing with the first sunlight when it comes back. In Lapland, sun down is about 2:30pm and sun up is next time in February! It just is under the horizon. You can imagine that while the winters are like that then the summers are the opposite; the sun doesn't go down for long at all. So our growing season is short but it is so full of sunlight that the grain doesn't get very big, but it generates a lot of flavour components. In Finland we don't need to use pesticides and heavy chemical engineering, so we get incredibly pure rye that’s small, but packed full of flavour.
P&S: You mentioned Lapland, and that’s what most people think of when you mention Finland. But can you paint a picture of what the distillery itself is like?
ML: It’s an old stone dairy built in 1908. So actually it’s older than Finnish Independence! It’s a beautiful location, there’s the River Kyrö that runs right next to it. We've got soft water that we can use directly in blending. It’s a beautiful, intensely flat area of Finland! You can see miles and miles, and it’s mostly fields interjected by rivers like the one that runs next to us. It’s its own kind of picturesque place, and the dairy was a fantastic place where we could come in and just be in the middle of history without having to trump up any stories about it.
P&S: Seeing as it’s nearly Christmas, we’d love to know if you have any festive traditions in Finland?
ML: Yeah! Both of my families are from the deep East of Finland, near the Russian border. We do what we call karelian pies, which are these small pies with a thin crispy crust of, of course, rye! It’s filled with either mashed potato or rice porridge, we always do those for Christmastime, and most Finnish Christmas tables would have herring. For our team of course it’s about whisky, so we are doing a Christmas whisky edition for the staff. But the herring and the karelian pies are the specialties.
P&S: Are you just going to be celebrating Christmas at home this year? What does your Christmas look like? I guess herring and whisky!
ML: We’re going to my parents’ in central Finland. It’s like a lakeside cabin type of place. It’s going to be a smoke sauna, like a sauna that you heat that doesn't have a direct chimney, so you heat it for three to four hours and then you throw some water in to get rid of the carbon monoxide, let it simmer for a while and then go in. And you know, you can do a six-hour sauna, you can go and eat in the middle and then you can go back. And then you go through the ice hole into the lake to dip. And it’s just a whole day thing.
P&S: So it’s Christmas Eve and you're sitting down with a whisky – which one is it?
ML: It’s either Rye Malt, or it’s one of the trials we have of our up-and-coming smoky recipe. It uses a traditional Finnish smoking technique where you burn alder and you dry up the rye in a barn, in a closed-up barn.
P&S: I know we've just been treated to a new release, but is there anything in the pipeline (like that smoky whisky you just mentioned) that you can give us any clues about?
ML: Yes, I think that’s one thing. Especially because the alder smoke is so different and it produces a very different end result. Plus we are doing some trials with local peat. The land we are in is very old so the peat that we have is freshwater peat. It’s like a freshwater swamp and plants, rather than seaweeds and so on. So, again, it’s a very different style and kind of smoke that you would get in it. And combining these with our rye using principles, it’s going to open up a whole new world of not only rye whisky but also single malts and the category in general. So I’m really excited about what’s going to come out of the distillery over the next two years.
I think it’s safe to say after those teasers that we’re pretty excited to see what the Finnish distillery holds for us in the future, too! Plus, we've still got a few bottles of Malt Rye left on the Member Store...
Have a wonderful Christmas, however you’re celebrating this year. See you in 2021!