(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The story of Finland's first ever gin, Napue Gin, began with five men in a sauna.
The five founders of Kyro Distillery Company - Miika Lipiainen, Mikko Koskinen, Kalle Valkonen, Miko Heinila and Jouni Ritola - were drinking American rye whiskey together in the sauna, when someone raised this question: Why hadn't anyone made rye whiskey in Finland?
After all, rye is Finland's No. 1 crop and it is a staple food for the Finns. In fact, Finns consume six times more rye than the world average and rye bread is the country's official national food.
So, the five friends in the sauna decided to build their own distillery and make spirits with Finnish rye.
"The only problem was, none of them knew how to distil spirits or had any bar experience at all," said regional brand ambassador Mauricio Allende.
Mr Allende was in Malaysia to conduct a Kyro Gin Blending Workshop in conjunction with the Kuala Lumpur leg of the East Imperial Gin Jubilee 2017, held from Sept 13 to 16.
Setting up shop in an old dairy in the Finnish village of Isokyro, they distilled their first spirit in 2013 (after some research plus trial and error). Later, one of them smuggled some of their newly made spirit to a whiskey festival to let some of the more established distillers sample their product. From the feedback they got there, they realised they actually had a pretty decent spirit and that they were on to something.
"So, back to the sauna they went, where they decided what they wanted to do with the company," Mr Allende said with a laugh.
Kyro Distillery Company was set up with the intention to make whiskey from 100 per cent whole-grain rye from Finland. But since it takes a long time to make whiskey (under European Union Law, you have to age it for at least three years to call it a single malt), they decided to first come out with a gin.
"We started producing gin out of necessity because we needed to make some money until our whiskey was ready. Also, no one has ever made a Finnish gin," said Mr Allende.
NATURE AND SUMMER
Napue Gin is a 100 per cent whole-grain rye-based gin that uses a combination of 16 botanicals, including four that are locally foraged and fresh: cranberries, sea buckthorn (a berry native to the Northern part of the world), meadowsweet ("A flower that grows close to water. Smells like almonds, heavily used in vermouth as well," said Mr Allende) and birch, which is Finland's national tree and is known as a sign of summer in the country.
"Basically, when we create Napue, we wanted a gin that can taste like nature and summer," Mr Allende said.
The result is a gin that tastes distinctly fresh and natural, with an oily and distinctly spicy note from the rye base, and floral, fruity, berry flavours coming from the botanicals.
These botanicals can be gathered only in the summer, but since summer is so short in Finland, the distillery got creative with its process.
"We decided that the best way was to gather as much of each botanical as we could and then do individual distillations, basically creating single botanical concentrates that will allow us to produce gin throughout the year," Mr Allende said.
After releasing Napue Gin in 2014, Kyro's big breakthrough came a year later when the gin was voted as "The World's Best Gin for Gin & Tonic" by the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2015. From there, Mr Allende said that their production went from 500 bottles a month to 120,000 bottles in 2015.
In 2017, that number has grown to more than 600,000 bottles and is available in over 40 countries, making Napue Gin one of Finland's biggest exports.
BLENDING NAPUE GIN
During the Kyro Gin Blending Workshop that Mr Allende conducted, participants got a chance to experience the process of making Napue Gin. We were given a certain amount of base rye spirit that is used in the gin, and allowed to experiment with blending our own gin by dropping single botanical concentrates of different flavours into the spirit.
"This is to show you how blending gin works. Making gin is quite difficult. It is like perfume making - deciding the amount of flavours to put in and balancing the ingredients is where the true challenge lies," he said.
Kyro also produces a barrel-aged version of their gin called Koskue Gin. "We made this by accident! As you know, we were a bunch of amateurs trying to make whiskey and gin and one day, we accidentally put gin in a barrel and forgot about it. Later we tasted it and it was not bad," said Mr Allende.
"Koskue is basically the same base gin spirit that has been rested for three months in new, medium-charred American oak barrels. We then blend them together and then add black pepper, fresh orange peel, a little bit of birch and some cranberries as well."
While Napue Gin is one of the fastest-growing gin brands in the world, those five guys in the sauna have not quite forgotten their initial goal of making Finland's first rye whiskey. In fact, the company just released a tiny batch of their first whiskey this year, though there were only 300 bottles.
"Our whiskey is made of rye, but we malt the rye first, so it's actually a single malt rye whiskey. So we're hoping to become the missing link between an American rye whiskey and a single malt Scotch.
"One of our main goals is by 2022, we want to be the best known all-rye distillery in the world. Although we probably are the only all-rye distillery in the world right now," he concluded.