“Five Finnish men are talking in a sauna” may well be the start of many a Nordic joke, and while that’s how the story of lifelong friends Miika, Miko, Mikko, Kalle and Jouni establishing a micro distillery starts, the result of their endeavour is certainly no farce.
Perhaps more ironic is that the story about award winning Napue Gin begins with whiskey. Rye Whiskey to be precise. Their shared love of the spirit lead the quintet to think that there was a gap in the market for a truly unique Finnish take on the category. Given almost 30% of the Rye crop in the Isokyrö region is already turned into Vodka – they already had an abundant source of high quality raw material on their doorstep too. Why not make whiskey instead…?
With this combined love of the malty brown spirit, the team planned their distillery and how they would establish a new venture in an industry where none of them had any real prior experience. Their intentions from the start was simple yet ambitious, to be the best known Rye Distillery in the world and not for the volume it produces or the awards it has won, but for its authentic provenance and quality spirit.
With no drinks background however, the team took their time to establish the right foundations. They travelled around Europe visiting micro-distilleries and still makers to find the type of setup they wanted and to gain an understanding as well as knowledge on how best to distil. Thankfully, before becoming the company’s head distiller, Kalle was developing biofuels and was a keen brewer in his spare time. His chemical understanding and mind for the mechanics made the task of picking a still and running it much easier.
Two years into their voyage, it was time to take on premises and they decided to set up in a former Cheese Factory in Isokyrö. The region is a curious place with archaeologists having found ancient skeletons in the Leväluhta well in which, allegedly, the water turns red every spring. It is also the location for a historic battle from which the Kyrö team took inspiration, more on this later… Having seen other micro distilleries setup during their research, the team knew that in order to make high quality whiskey, they would not only need to make a beautiful New Make spirit first, they would also need to make at least one gin in order to keep the distilleries’ coffers filled as their spirit aged for several years. Thus, Napue Gin was born.
Having fermented the Rye and passed it through their 1200lt copper still, Kyrö Distillery’s New Make rings true to the cereal it is made from, with a strong salted Rye bread (sour dough) aroma and a touch of caramelised honey. This is now ageing into their flagship whiskey, however, they also wanted to use it as the base to create their gins.
After several attempts at creating a recipe, the Kyrö team simply couldn’t deliver the perfect gin. Too heavy and more akin to a Genever than a Dry Gin, they decided to change to a Rye based Neutral Spirit produced elsewhere as opposed to using their own, malty base. Heartbreaking as it was to not make their gin from scratch, the all-important crisp flavours were not able to shine through on a base with such malted and bready tones.
Once the shift occurred, Napue Gin took a few months of trials, assisted with bartenders, friends and family to help fine-tune the recipe. They settled on an unusual method to create it too. They distil 12 relatively traditional botanicals in the pot still, having macerated them overnight, and carefully blend them afterwards with 4 other botanicals that have been individually distilled.
The rational behind the individual distillation is so that the wild, seasonal and foraged botanicals can be married at different rates to ensure the end gin tastes the same. As each botanical varies depending on where and when it is picked, with the oils, water content and aroma varying each time – distilling them and marrying multiple batches allows a much more predictable outcome. It also makes it easy to marry just the right amount of tinkering with the recipe to account for seasonal differences. That and a much smaller freezer to avoid having to keep fresh ingredients year round!
With meadowsweet, sea buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves all in the lineup, Napue Gin is refreshingly Nordic to say the least. On the nose, the aroma of fresh, ripe, fruity cranberries bursts out along with a tantalising combination of meadowsweet and juniper. To taste, there is jammy red fruit upfront mixed with a piney birch. Acerbic Sea Buckthorn follows with its bright citric notes, tailed by a sweet woody undercurrent that has combined with caramelised jam. Napue is a dry gin, with a strong regional accent. The juniper and coriander seed are evident throughout, however they are taken in different uniquely Scandinavian directions and the final cracked pepper bite so familiar of Rye based spirits offers that satisfying crispness so sought after in a Gin & Tonic. At 46% ABV, the gin doesn’t get lost once mixed either.
What about the name you ask? All of the distillery’s expressions are named after a location. Their gin took its moniker from a town nearby. Close to the distillery, there is a neighbouring church that dates back to the 15th Century, reputedly known as the birthplace of the Cudgel War (a peasant uprising against Sweden). A couple of centuries later the locals fought against Russia in the ill-fated Battle of Napue in 1714, where more than half of the male population was slaughtered. The team chose the name Napue Gin, after this nearby Finnish village in Ostrobothnia. The decision to do so wasn’t just a sentimental nod to the past it was also logical, as the site where they forage their Meadowsweet and the launch date coincided with the 300 year anniversary of the devastating event.
Not content with a simple link to the area either, the team also used the typeface from the stone memorial as the font for their label. Ironically, despite having been taken from a historical monument with a traditional stone etched sign, in today’s times it gives both the bottle and the distillery’s branding a decisively modern feel.
With the gin in production and awareness growing around the distillery’s endeavours, Napue Gin went stratospheric mid 2015 when it won the International Wine and Spirit Competition’s (IWSC) 2015 spirits award for G&T. The Gin & Tonic competition, which was held for the very first time, received submissions from 150 distilleries but the reason it created such a stir was because it was an absolute. They didn’t award Napue Gin a medal – it was an overall winner and took it from being one of many to above the pack. Interest surged and an ordering frenzy ensued…
In the months that followed, they found themselves playing catch up just to keep up with national demand, let alone the 15 other countries they export to. They went from 400 bottles a month to 4,000 in the space of a long summer, up-scaling and increasing their runs each time. With some quick thinking and ingenious solutions, they managed to forage enough of the botanicals they needed (no easy feat when all of a sudden the amount required is ten fold larger). They also enlisted and expanded and are now a team of nine.
The team successfully managed to fulfil their first hybrid product, a barrel-aged gin called Koskue, which was released in Finland in July 2015. With enormous growth and interest in the subcategory (barrel aged gin has seen over a dozen new releases in 2015 alone), they knew that whilst it was a gin/whiskey hybrid, it must taste like a gin first and foremost.
To create it, they placed their 12 botanical base gin in a small New American Oak Barrel for two months. After tasting it, the flavours that had been leached out lent themselves to some further tinkering and they added French orange peel and black pepper distillates. These later additions add a spice to the finish whilst also accentuating the candied, almost caramelised citrus inherent in the gin -perfect for an aromatic and complex Negroni.
With two gins under their belt and whiskey edging ever closer to completion, it’s clear to see that as a distillery, Kyrö are looking to consolidate their growth over 2015 and focus on their flagship spirit. However, we have heard that they have partnered up with Helsinki bartenders to create a gin especially with a certain bar (unnamed as of yet, it’s due to be released at the time of writing) – showing that there may be no stopping this team who seemingly have an incredible momentum on their side.
The Kyrö team have accomplished the hardest stages of development for their gin. A tasty, award winning spirit has been developed and then scaled it up ten fold. It might have been a while in the making (three years from inception to gin) however, it has been worth the wait. Kyrö is a tantalising reminder of the potential of the upcoming craft distilling movement burgeoning across Scandinavia and a testament that there will always be a huge interest in truly exceptional products with real provenance.
Napue Gin has individuality to it and is packaged brilliantly. In doing so, it has all the key factors to flourish in today’s crowded Gin market. Their motto sets the tone for what to expect from Kyrö in months to come, “In Rye we trust” (a nod to the American distilling world and a cheeky twist on their national proverb). Expect to see more spirits with authenticity and a local accent, expect to see them more often, and finally – expect to enjoy them as it’s a safe bet they’ll be delicious.
For more information about, visit their website: www.kyrodistillery.com
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