Distillery Focus

Teerenpeli: A Finnish approach to sustainability

Drawing from the region’s remarkable natural resources, Finnish distillery Teerenpeli makes single malt with an eye on sustainability
By Thijs Klaverstijn
Rolling casks in winter at the Teerenpeli distillery in Finland
Rolling casks in winter at the Teerenpeli distillery in Finland
Could you introduce me to the person in charge of the whole lot?”

Having travelled to Edinburgh in the late 1990s without much of a plan, Anssi Pyysing asked a taxi driver to transport him to the nearest distillery, Glenkinchie. Already owner of a brewery and restaurant, he had plans to build a whisky distillery in his hometown of Lahti, Finland. It was to become the first of its kind after changes in Finnish law removed the state monopoly on alcohol production in 1995. But Pyysing needed help and outside expertise to realise his plans, so he approached a Glenkinchie tour guide and inquired about the distillery manager – a gamble that would ultimately pay off.

Pyysing had always been a go-getter, working in local strawberry fields at the age of 10, buying his first bicycle from the money he made selling crabs, then pedalling from one job to the next as a gardener. Growing up a stone’s throw from the Russian border, he moved to Los Angeles as an exchange student, worked briefly in Australia, and joined the merchant navy after graduating from the naval academy in the Finnish town of Kotka. But during a stormy night at sea, he decided to change course completely. Since that fateful night Pyysing has become an influential figure in the Finnish hospitality scene, running restaurants and bars across Finland, but also a brewery and distillery.

Teerenpeli Palo Peated Sherry Single Malt Whisky

The inaugural distillation run at Teerenpeli Distillery finally took place on 23 September 2002. As a result of his pivotal visit to Glenkinchie, Pyysing was introduced to William Meikle, former distillery manager of Glen Ord, who became closely involved with the planning and construction of Teerenpeli. “Through him I met a lot of people in the Scotch whisky industry. He had a great network. And what happened is that I ended up buying a distillery.” The equipment was supplied by Speyside-based Forsyths, who called it “quite a surprising order, and the first distillery this little we’d done”. Not only that, but it would be built in the cellar of Taivanraanta, Pyysing’s restaurant in Lahti. The former parking garage was transformed into an inviting, albeit limited space (that’s now also used for staff training). Its low ceilings informed much of the design, including that of the short 900-litre copper spirit still.

The completion of the distillery and production of the first new make were festive moments, but Pyysing adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude. He admits to maybe even having been somewhat pessimistic. Willie, as Pyysing had come to call Meikle, had been a great partner and a reliable source of knowledge, but he wasn’t part of day-to-day distilling during those early days at Teerenpeli. “The information and knowledge Willie had was based on his experience in big distilleries. We were doing something at a totally different scale. I would say that after three years of maturation and having tasted the resulting whisky, that was a mind-opening moment for me and the confirmation I sought. It’s when I thought, ‘we can really do this’. It was a relief that the investment we had made so far hadn’t been for nothing.”

Jussi Oinas, distiller and senior whisky ambassador, and Anssi Pyysing, founder, from Teerenpeli

Situated about an hour north of Helsinki by train, the town of Lahti is green in every sense. Although some of its buildings are reminiscent of East Berlin, it’s as if the city was constructed inside a forest. A baffling 74 per cent of the city is covered by trees and a further 11 per cent by bodies of water. Lahti was named European Green Capital 2021 for its merits in pioneering environmental actions. For example, a project was implemented to reduce the carbon footprint of households and gather information on how municipalities can best support sustainable lifestyles. The city aims to become carbon neutral in just three years (by 2025) and to have a zero-waste circular economy by 2050.

When the popularity of Teerenpeli single malt outgrew the capacity of its small distillery in Lahti city centre, sustainability was unsurprisingly a key focus when designing a new facility. Located just eight minutes from the old distillery in an astonishingly leafy industrial area, construction of the new Teerenpeli Distillery and Brewery finished in 2015. Two replicas of the original small spirit still were installed (and one bigger wash still), essentially quadrupling capacity to 160,000 litres per annum. Whisky distilling interweaves with beer brewing as mashing equipment is shared. “The mash tuns are geared towards making clear wort for beer,” explains Jussi Oinas, distiller and senior whisky ambassador for the distillery. “So, we run them a little bit faster to get cloudy wort – just like in the original distillery.”

Most importantly, a wood pellet-fuelled power plant now provides renewable energy for the production process. It stands anonymously beside the distillery, the blazing fire inside only visible through a minute window, but is an immense source of pride to Pyysing. The pellets are made from waste material sourced from Versowood, Finland’s largest private sawn timber producer, located 40km from the distillery. In 2019 (the last full year of production before the pandemic) the plant generated 730MWh of renewable energy for the production of whisky and beer. A further 200MWh of renewable wind- and water-generated electricity was used.

The wood pellet plant heats all process water for brewing and distilling. One of the biggest changes compared with the old distillery (which is still used for gin production and the occasional experimental batch of whisky) is the way the pot stills are heated. Instead of traditional steam coils inside the pots, the new stills are heated from the outside with hot water of some 130oC. A carbon footprint study conducted by Envitecpolis has shown that the yearly climate impact of the wood pellet plant is 17,484kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), mainly caused by the production and transport of the pellets. That’s 88.6 per cent less than if Teerenpeli was using natural gas and 91.1 per cent less than if it was using petrol.

Visitors taking a tour of the Teerenpeli distillery

Another way Teerenpeli hopes to improve its footprint is by taking a critical look at its bottles. The weight of glass bottles is a persistent issue in the whisky industry, with some producers still using heavy bottles to convey an image of luxury and prestige. Teerenpeli is developing a new bottle design, mainly to shed a few grams to reduce transport emissions. The bottom of the bottle in particular could be much thinner, and production could be more sustainable, too. The redesign is also an opportunity to incorporate some nifty embossing to make the bottle stand out; small bird feet symbolise ‘teeri’, the Finnish name for a black grouse.

Then there are the recycled sea containers that are used for storing Teerenpeli’s 2,500 casks – a neat example of the principles of circular economy. They’re also more affordable than constructing a warehouse, especially given strict Finnish regulations on storing spirits. “I always wondered about the many rules for warehousing spirits, while there were countless containers storing whisky in our ports,” says Pyysing. Teerenpeli’s sea containers can be ventilated but are also insulated to reduce temperature fluctuations, which range from -30°C in winter to 30°C in summer. They’re heated in winter to make sure the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing, which could be detrimental to the integrity of the casks.

But even for a distillery as green as Teerenpeli, there’s also some luck involved. The location brings certain environmental advantages that can’t be replicated elsewhere. It wasn’t until he started brewing in 1995 that Pyysing realised he was in an area with incredible local resources. There’s barely any need to ship barley from abroad, except for some of the peated malt that is imported from the UK and Castle Malting in Belgium. All other malt is sourced from within 150km of the distillery, while Viking Malt, one of the oldest maltsters in the world, has a facility just a few minutes down the road. This positively impacts the distillery’s carbon footprint.

Jussi Oinas, senior whisky ambassador, at the bar

“I think our malt might also be one of the secrets to the quality of our whisky,” Oinas says. “We have long summers with lots of sunlight, which has a particular influence on the growth of our barley. Comparing the seeds to the peated malt we source is just incredible. They’re just different.”

The other secret might be the water in this ‘land of a thousand lakes’. The Salpausselkä ridges and eskers in the Lahti region were formed during the last Ice Age and hold massive quantities of pure groundwater, continuously renewing at a rate 30,000m³ per day. Water even travels to Helsinki through the 120km-long Päijänne Tunnel, where it is drunk by more than a million Finns in the metropolitan area. This tap water, extracted from 20m below the surface, forms the foundation of every Teerenpeli single malt – from its 100 per cent sherry cask-matured Kaski, to its high-strength sibling Kulo, which has spent seven years in sherry casks. And then there’s the Teerenpeli Savu, the first-ever peated single malt in the distillery’s core range. This year also saw the addition of Palo, a new sherry cask-matured peated single malt which was created to celebrate the distillery’s 20th anniversary.

Finally, a real jewel in the distillery’s crown is the Teerenpeli 10 Years Old, first released in 2015. “It has improved with every new batch,” concludes Pyysing. “Over the last 20 years we’ve expanded our knowledge about maturation and cask sourcing, from which we are reaping benefits now and will continue to do so far into the future as well.”