Many countries have their epics; the poems that define them, or at least play a huge part in shaping their national identity. Finland’s is The Kalevala, a sweeping collection formed from ancient ballads and handed-down tales that all begins when a pohchard lays its eggs on the knee of Ilmatar, The Virgin spirit of the Air. The eggs break, and from its pieces grows the world (of course they do, because epic poetry is mad and weird…). Kalevala Gin’s story isn’t quite so far fetched, but it still tells the tale of a spirit that’ll sweep the drinker off their knees, transporting all who sip it to a deep, dark pine forest.
The poem largely takes place in Karelia, a historical province in the southeast of the country that’s divided (both in land mass and ownership) between Finland and Russia. The Kalevala is a work of such importance that it even has its own namesake gin, one created by a man who – hold the front door – doesn’t like the spirit at all. Or rather, didn’t like the spirit at all.
German born Moritz Wüstenberg developed a deep interest in Finnish culture during frequent visits to his mother’s home in Kitee, Kerelia. This was a distant worship for a while, but at the age of 16 (and failing school), he headed off to his mother’s hometown, hoping that a change of scenery might help his struggling academia.
His first dalliance with the country was brief, but ultimately fruitful, as – with his interest in education suddenly awake – he set off for the UK to study Biochemical Engineering at UCL a short while later. It was here that he began to grow an interest in distilling.
In 2010 Wüstenberg obtained a license to experiment with distilling (the first non-institutional entity to do so) and started building a lab back at the family home. When time permitted, and in-between his on-going studies (this time Chemical Engineering at Aalto University), Wüstenberg would experiment with botanicals, building potential recipes for a gin that wasn’t yet anything but a concept. Eventually, in 2014, he decided to start distilling for real and turned his attention to Gin full time.
“Gin seemed like an interesting idea,” he told us, “although initially I didn’t like it… I guess the idea was to make it enjoyable.” Now, those are words that’ll strike fear into any Gin geeks heart, especially in this modern wave of gins that taste like… well, whatever the distiller wants them to taste like. Would this taste like banana milkshake? Strawberry shortcake? Carrot? Cabbage?
Kalevala gin to taste…
Our fears were allayed the second we eased the lid off the bottle (it lets go with a truly satisfying pop) and an earthy, purple juniper rose up to greet us. A rich, deep pine dominates the nose conveying a sense real sense of purpose, though a spirit heat tickles at the senses. It’s much like the opening scenes of some of the popular Nordic Noir dramas of recent years in that it’s filled with character and very quickly immerses you in a specific world that hooks yoou within minutes.
The spirit is incredibly green to taste. Wüstenberg is secretive about his recipe, but he reveals juniper, sea-buckthorn, mint, rosemary, rose bud and raspberry leaves amongst the line up. They all conspire to form an incredibly fresh, grassy flavour, with Rosemary and raspberry leaf in particular pretty and bright, as loud on the tongue as juniper is on the nose. Kalevala Gin is deliciously herbal and the mint freshness is apparent, but it brings real depth too. We’d be tempted to name cassia or cinnamon as the source of spice, as the heat is bright and burning, completely numbing the tongue when held for a long period.
The rose has been added to the mix with a deft hand, bringing a soft floral sweetness rather than its usual dominance. This really is a gin of complexity, taking the drinker on a real journey.
With tonic, the juniper is more forceful, fighting its way to the top of the pack whilst something tart and fruity – a Finnish berry, perhaps – adds a splash of colour to the otherwise green, grassy surroundings. Perfumed and aromatic, the tongue is left in a piny, waxy state, with rosemary easing out the finish and filling the mouth with a strange, savoury sweetness. Fans of Gin Mare, pay attention – this is one for you.
To make Kalevala Gin, Wüstenberg adds some of the botanicals to neutral grain spirit up to 36 hours ahead of distillation, whilst others – the more delicate, leafy ones presumably – go in 12 hours ahead of distillation. Each distillation is done on low heat over a 12-hour period, with each batch producing 500 bottles once cut down to its ABV of 46.3%.
The still is named the Sampo after an object in the Kalevala epic that creates wealth and happiness for its holder. Life isn’t quite imitating art for Wüstenberg yet, but perhaps he isn’t too far off… “We are still working on the wealth bit” he said, “but it seems, at least, that we have spread some happiness.”
World domination isn’t particularly on the agenda. Wüstenberg lives by the rule that if something is worth doing it is worth doing right, so all of the work – bottling, labelling, packaging – is done manually. Huge growth would change this hands-on, small-batch appeal, and that is something he’s not willing to compromise on.
Talking of labelling, the bottle is what first caught our attention. Clear and short with a rounded neck and a wooden topper, it’s simple but immeasurably pretty, with a textured, copper foiled cream wrap displaying Kalevala Gin’s name and logo.
Wüstenberg has a great deal of history to play with as he grows his brand; the poem is a sweet narrative, but there’s also cold hard fact to deal with. Kitee used to be the bootlegging capital of Finland and spirit production runs in its veins. We hope this side of the story starts to come through in future products – there’s already a Dry variant on the way, and he’s currently working on a Navy which will appeal to one of Kalevala Gin’s key audiences – the ferries that operate between Finland and Sweden and Finland and Estonia.
As of now, Kalevala Gin is available in Finland, Germany, Denmark, Spain and Austria, though after a recent launch here, it looks like the UK is on Wüstenberg’s horizon. Cool and classy with a soft floral and rich herbal taste, this is a gin that will appeal to fans of a classic profile, ones based much farther afield than just Europe too. As far as we’re concerned, the Kalevala has another verse to add. This one about a man who dug up the Sampo and made juniper-nerds across the world very happy indeed.
For more information about Kalevala gin, visit the website: kalevalagin.com
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