Kyrö is Out to Show America How Finland Does Rye

Can terroir be expressed in a spirit? The Kyrö team makes the case.

Oct. 2018Written by Brian WrightPhotography by Anna DeMasi

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bottle of gin on a red tabletop with Chicago-style hot dogs and french fries
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five men in boxer briefs jump off a concrete shoreline wall into Lake Michigan on Chicago's north side

Can terroir be expressed in a spirit? The Kyrö team feels strongly that it can.

“I feel that all of our products have a Finnish soul to them,” Lipäinen said. “We actually call our Napue Gin a Finnish summer day in a bottle. The sensation that you get when you come out of a sauna in the countryside in the summertime, those sights, and sounds and smells are all right there in bottle.”

“There are fantastic benefits to living and producing in Finland. For starters, our lands and waters are extremely pure,” said Lipäinen. “We’re also close to the Article Circle, so during the summertime we have these long sunny days when makes the flavors of all the botanicals and the rye really intense.”

Finland also observes Everyman’s right, which allows Kyrö team to forage for local botanicals like cranberries and sea buckthorn anywhere they’re grown.

“It’s a fantastic country for foraging, so it’s only natural that we should be making a gin.”

While Napue Gin and the cask-matured Koskue Gin are the two most widely known spirits Kyrö has produced, don’t make the mistake of shoehorning them as boutique gin producers.

“We’re a rye distillery. We do everything cool from rye. We’ve never limited ourselves to just rye whisky or rye gin; we in fact have quite a few rye-based experiments we’re excited to spend more time working on,” said Heinilä

None of the Kyrö founders had a background in distilling, but that didn’t stop them from earning some very high praise early in the brand’s development.

“In 2013 I went to a whisky trade show with my backpack full of our trial distillate,” said Lipiäinen. “I went around from booth to booth tasting out all these well-known and greatly respected distillers. Drew Mayville, master blender of Buffalo Trace, was there, along with the bottle of rye that inspired us to create Kyrö. He took one sip, looked at me and then said, ‘Guys, you’ve got something special here and I need to up my game,’” Lipiäinen recalls.

“I will forever remember those words.”

While Mayville’s comments ensured the Kyrö team that they were indeed on the right path, it was a phone call the team received in 2015 that alerted them they were about to really make it big.

“In 2015 I was trying to take a small holiday and I got a call from International Wine and Spirits Competition in London saying, "We've never heard of you guys, but you won The World’s Best Gin & Tonic category. You better start making more, I guess," said Lipiäinen.

“I called our head distiller, saying, "Fill up every pot and pan you can find with the gin,” said Lipäinen.

“We then started going around all the bars we had been working with, thanking them for all of their support and giving them the heads up that there was about to be some big news coming out about Napue soon. We also gave them all a gift basket of gin and tonic, as well as some cranberry and rosemary, which became our preferred serve.”

Since the IWSC award was announced, business for Kyrö has boomed. Their team—or family, as Jouni Ritola calls them—has grown to more than 40.

“It has been fantastic to watch our family grow right alongside the distillery,” said Ritola. “Our family is one of our biggest strengths. We built it on trust and companionship and never a day goes by that we aren’t having fun.”

Building a distillery is a no-nonsense undertaking, which is reflected in Kyrö’s packaging and design. That said, the Kryo team certainly know how to have fun, and that is evident on the company’s website, which proudly displays a team photo that leaves little to the imagination.

“The photograph on our website illustrates what we are and what our philosophy is,” said Heinilä.

“We’re all running butt naked in a field of rye, but still have determination and direction. Everybody is running with the same intense purpose. The picture became, and it still is, our visual ethos and what kind of describes who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going, together.”

It’s 11:25 a.m. on a Tuesday morning during late summer day when five Finns walk into a Chicago bar. When they leave 40 minutes later, they pack into a car and head to a liquor store 15 minutes away. From there, the Finnish Five pop into a trendy restaurant, followed by a neighborhood cocktail lounge and, finally, end their day at a newly opened boutique hotel.

While that may read like a noon-until-night bar crawl, for the owners and founders of Finland’s Kyrö Distillery Company, it is day two of a weeklong trip to introduce the American Midwest to Kyrö.

Miika Lipäinen, Jouni Ritola, Mikko Koskinen, Kalle Valkonen and Miko Heinilä are the owners, founders, distillers, packaging designers, and jacks-of-all-trades of Kyrö, a rye-focused distillery located in the Finnish village of Isokyrö. Since 2014, the five friends have been producing single malt rye whisky and rye gin out of an old dairy farm the five converted into a distillery.

The idea to open a distillery came to the group in a uniquely Finnish setting: the sauna.

According to Heinilä, the origin story goes something like this:

On May 10, 2012, the five friends decided to head to the sauna for the day and while there sampled a foreign rye whiskey Lipäinen had just brought back from the U.S. That American-made rye amazed the group, as well as sparked the question: Why isn’t anyone in Finland producing a rye whisky?

“Rye is the most Finnish of grains,” said Heinilä. “So much so that our national dish is rye bread.”

Recognizing the opportunity in front of them, the five men set to work. Exactly one year later to the day, Kyrö produced its first distillate. 11 months later the distillery bottled its first batches of Napue Gin and New Make Whisky.

"Rye is the most Finnish of grains."
- Miko Heinilä, Co-Founder of Kyrö

In that first year, Kyrö sold 5,000 bottles, but in 2015 that number soared when news broke that the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC) had awarded Kyrö’s Napue Gin “The World’s Best Gin for Gin & Tonic.”

“We suddenly found ourselves doing gin and tonics in morning news programs all over Finland,” said Lipäinen. “Our original plan was to do 23,000 bottles that year, but we ended up bottling 100,000, and had to cap it there because we reached a legal limit for our distillery size. It was a crazy two years after that. Still is.”

Having successfully put themselves on the back bar of every reputable gin joint throughout Finland and the U.K., the five founders now have their sights set on the U.S., and after that, the world.

“We have the very lofty goal of being the world's best-known rye distillery in 2022,” said Lipäinen.

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