Kyrö Distillery and the mission to 'better whisky'

Kyrö Distillery and the mission to 'better whisky'

Not content with establishing a pioneering rye whisky producer in Finland, the founders of Kyrö Distillery Company are on a mission to change the wider whisky industry for the better

Distillery Focus | 10 Jul 2023 | Issue 192 | By Kristiane Sherry

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Evening summer sunlight dances off the Reinilänkoski River. People leap into the cool water from the single-track, white-railed Perttilä bridge just upstream. It’s shortly after midsummer. The river, chilled from distant snowmelt, provides respite from the sauna. Heat, run to the bridge, cool, repeat. It’s an easy summer evening at Kyrö Distillery, located in old dairy buildings next to the river on the edge of the small town of Isokyrö, western Finland. It’s one that lives vibrantly in the memory.

 

Miika Salmi Lipiäinen, co-founder and UK, Ireland and Asia market lead, was there that day, leading the literal charge into the crisp water. At that time, back in 2019, Kyrö had split out its gin and whisky production into dedicated streams, investing in specialist kit to better process its 100 per cent rye grain bill.

 

Almost four years on, the catch-up with Lipiäinen – along with head distiller and another co-founder, Kalle Valkonen – is over Zoom. Much has changed at the distillery over that time, but one constant is the gusto of the team, their obsession with rye, and their love for bettering whisky as a whole.

 

“We are here to introduce a whole new style of rye,” Lipiäinen says, during a discussion of whether consumers ‘get’ the grain. The short answer is increasingly – especially when American styles are considered. But while the Kyrö team will openly speak of taking inspiration from Scotland, Canada and beyond, they’re producing rye with a very different vibe. And it all started with five friends in a sauna.

The Kyrö Distillery founders share a sauna session. Credit: Kimmo Syväri

Those early days, after Lipiäinen and Valkonen, along with Jouni Ritola, Mikko Koskinen, and Miko Heinilä, decided to make a Finnish rye, were frugal ones.

 

“Everything we did was in one still,” Lipiäinen says. “We had to bootstrap the whole thing up. There was no money for this kind of thing in Finland. We made a plan, we scaled it down, we made a plan, we scaled it down again. We ended up taking on personal loans.” Eventually they were able to get their first kit, and the dream to make rye spirit was realised.

 

Today the team makes around 100,000 litres of pure alcohol a year, with 1.3 million litres maturing in cask. Exports are strong, especially to the UK and Germany. There’s a momentum, an energy to things, which feeds a longing to find out more about rye.

 

The Kyrö spirit itself is enchanting. While rye whiskies typically offer a hot spiciness, even a menthol quality, this offers something different.

 

“We’ve got spices in there, but it’s more grounded, it’s more sweet,” Lipiäinen describes. “It’s more toasty because we only make 100 per cent rye, and 100 per cent malted rye.”

Inside the Kyrö Distillery in Isokyrö, Finland. Credit: Kimmo Syväri

Here, Valkonen’s technical expertise comes into its own. Rye is notoriously difficult to work with. It’s sticky, it can burn in production, and it can be unpredictable. “But if you design everything for the grain, then we’ve tackled the task,” Valkonen says, acknowledging that it has been a learning curve. “In the very beginning we didn’t expect that it would form so much sticky stuff. But in the second set-up, we improved the mashing process.”

 

Part of solving that problem was to extend fermentation – to six days, to be precise. “It’s key for a lot of the flavours, but it’s also key for process,” Valkonen outlines. “It’s a hard thing to distil, but from the very beginning we were always focusing on the grain and trying to find the best methods. And each and every time, we improved.”

 

In the end, Valkonen says, they ended up with a system that is a bit like an American-Scottish hybrid. “It’s more of a US style where we work with the grain, but then we go for pot still distillation which gives us a much broader, rounder spectrum and a full flavour,” he details. “And we are happy to have the freedom to use new and used barrels which gives us complexity but also different components to work with.”

 

Dig into the Kyrö process and it’s clear there’s a lot of space for innovation – although with rye “very, very deep” in the distillery’s philosophy, it seems unlikely that the team will deviate from the grain any time soon. “All the time we’re experimenting with different types of yeast strains, which casks we are using, and then on the distillation side what type of cuts we do,” Valkonen details. Fascinatingly, smoke is on the agenda, too. “We have also been experimenting with Finnish peat,” Valkonen ventures. Interestingly, with Finland’s geology, the team are looking at freshwater biomass rather than saltwater biomass, commonly seen across Scotland’s islands. That Finland’s land is so old has an impact, too.

 

“The land age affects our water to a great degree where all the hard minerals have basically been washed away,” Lipiäinen details. “We also have a very low level of pests and other sorts of bacteria.” For peat, this results in something less salty, less marine, less “turp-heavy in an umami way,” he continues. “It’s got a more fragrant feel to it, with aldehydic or floral compounds.” All this adds up to a sense of terroir, and flavours that just aren’t found in other peated whiskies.

Master distiller Kalle Valkonen checks the still. Credit: Veera Kujala

Then there’s the recently released Kyrö Wood Smoke, which brings with it another aspect of sense of place. The flavour doesn’t come from traditional peating, but instead being smoked with alder wood in a traditional Finnish Riihi barn, or a ‘smoke sauna’ – which has a poetic sense of circularity about it.

 

“It was interesting when we first discovered that this old tradition in Finland is still alive,” Valkonen explains. For Lipiäinen, the Finnish social history of the barns is important. “Rye needs to go into the ground before it freezes over. And the growing starts when the snow melts. What happens essentially is that you harvest and plant at the same time. So, you’re in a hurry to preserve your rye for the winter, so there’s this social and agricultural reason why this process was formed in Finland.”

 

In this process, the alder smoke doesn’t penetrate the grains too deeply – despite the 24 hour-long duration. “I don’t know if anyone else is using the same methodology,” says Valkonen.

 

Another interesting element is that the flavour from the wood is completely different to the phenols measured from peat, resulting in something more aromatic and, in many ways, meaty. It’s a flavour choice the team are running with: 20 per cent of production is currently being smoked, a sign of big things to come.

A cask warehouse at Kyrö Distillery. Credit: Kyrö Distillery

Spend any amount of time with the Kyrö team and it’s apparent how important both environmental and social sustainability is to the business. By Lipiäinen’s own admission, the team have perhaps been “a bit too modest” about their successes in this area. The distillery is 100 per cent run – yes, even the stills – on local food waste biogas (“Apart from one diesel tractor,” he adds for utmost transparency). “Without cursing any compensation [offsetting] trickery, we’ve essentially got 100 per cent sustainable production.”

 

It’s radical to have not shouted loudly about the environmental gains at a time when so many distilleries are using their credentials (both genuine and greenwashed) to carve out a point of difference. Profound too is Lipiäinen’s take on what the industry needs to do to become more meaningfully inclusive.

 

“Nordic countries have a very good reputation in being communal cultures with a large nod towards equality,” he opens thoughtfully. “But the reality is that it’s people like me and Kalle here, middle-aged white men, coming through the system. We can do a lot to make us really welcoming to all sorts of people to come and enjoy the liquid. But we need to see another sort of generation of founders after us that’s much more diverse. Not only from a demographic perspective, but by tastes and likings, too.” He pauses. “I think Nordic whiskies are a blank slate where we can do a lot for the whole whisky culture.”

 

He recalls 2014, and even earlier, when he and Valkonen worked at other distilleries to learn about whisky making – “some heavy-duty industrial espionage” – and that they were welcomed. “We’ve been trying to pay it forward,” he says, referencing the need to work proactively for a more diverse industry. He mentions his colleague, Mari Saarenpää, Finland’s first woman whisky maker, who runs the production team at Kyrö. “Maybe she will found the next whisky brand.”

Embracing the Finnish landscape. Credit: Kimmo Syväri

Nordic whisky making is at the forefront of the industry in terms of flavour, too. Both Valkonen and Lipiäinen are complimentary of other distillers in the region. While there’s no coherent ‘Nordic style’ across producers, there is a desire to elevate the regional ‘brand’ on the global whisky stage. “For now we’re kind of lumped in the ‘world whisky’ category with everyone,” Lipiäinen states. “But you’re going to see a lot of interesting stuff coming out of the Nordics over the last couple of years.”

 

There’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff coming from Kyrö too, especially with so much whisky laid down. “We have stock, which has been aged for a while,” Valkonen states, adding that from a maker’s perspective, Kyrö is at a really interesting stage of production.

 

Lipiäinen is excited, too. “Maybe next year we’ll start releasing a series that’s slightly older, even more complex, and more unique on top of our core range,” he says. “There’s a lot to be discovered. What is going to come out of that longer ageing period?”

 

But perhaps reassuringly for everyday whisky fans, it doesn’t sound like the brand is going to chase lofty release prices. “Like our core, it should always be accessible for drinking, not collecting,” Lipiäinen states. A rye producer innovating for flavour, a better industry, and a secure future? Kyrö could become a new favourite distillery. 

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