There’s something special about the Finnish forest in the spring time. Nature wakes rapidly from its slumber, and the world rushes from greyscale to green in every imaginable shade. Suddenly the air is thick with bird-song – and bugs. And that’s when Finns head into the forest to continue an ancient tradition.
This is Martta’s favourite time of year, because she can get back to the forest and start foraging for botanicals. Kyrö Distillery lends me a pair of rubber boots and a rain coat, and we head out. Just across the road, in fact. The forest starts right there, behind the newly finished barrel warehouse.
Many of the botanicals Kyrö uses in its Napue gin and other quality spirits are foraged in the wild, right here, or within a few kilometres of the distillery.
“Some of the botanicals we use, we actually can’t buy anywhere,” Martta tells me, “so we have to gather them by hand.”
Last year the Kyrö staff hand-picked around 120kg of botanicals. It starts early in the summer, when the Kyrö team are sent out into the forest to collect birch leaves. Back at the distillery there’s a box-freezer full of bags of birch leaves, carefully marked with the date and location they were collected. They hand-picked more than 50kg last summer.
Before we donned our rubber boots and raincoats, Martta gave me a quick peek at the back room behind the lab. Scores of bottles with plain paper labels line the shelves. These are all the research and development distillates, each from a different botanical.
“You can’t know how things will taste when distilled,” Martta says. “And we’ve learned novel things about some of our botanicals. Sea buckthorn, for example. When you have a distillate that’s too peppery, sea buckthorn can smoothe it.”
Fortunately there are a couple of sea buckthorn trees right in front of the distillery. These individually distilled components are added to the main distillate.
Mosquitoes and meadowsweet – a recipe for happiness
While I swat mosquitoes, Martta happily picks leaves and shoots and flowers from different plants, explaining each as we stop. Along the roadsides everywhere here, there are the delicate flowers of meadowsweet, a major botanical in Kyrö Napue gin.
But that has also created a problem with some of Kyrö’s export markets.
“Meadowsweet can’t be used in the USA,” Martta says, “so we had to replace it with something. That’s really hard. In the end we used four botanicals to come up with the right taste.” Another botanical problem is purely supply-based. Because Kyrö Distilling Company has grown so fast, sometimes these hand-picked ingredients run short.
Rowan berries also feature in the flavour profile in the new range of Kyrö bitters, mingling with birch leaves, spruce and wood sorrel.
Finland, a country of strong women and Sisu
As a child, the forest was a source of wonder to Martta. Originally it was her mother who instilled a love for the forest in her, and passed on her extensive knowledge of all the edible plants there. Foraging is an ancient tradition here. For centuries, Finnish women have harvested the wild bounty to be found practically on the doorstep, and that continues to this day.
Martta complains that these days she spends more and more time in the Kyrö laboratory, testing distillates, instead of outdoors. But today, the sun is almost shining, and she’s happy to have an excuse to pull on the rubber boots and get her hands dirty. The white flowers of yarrow plants are blooming everywhere. The frond-like leaves lend a slight peppery taste to distillates, Martta explains. Last year, it was this little plant that forced Martta to take foraging to extreme levels, just to keep Kyrö’s production going.
“I realised we needed another 40kg of yarrow, but it was already quite late in the season; so I had to go foraging until 3am to find enough.”
In the Finnish summer, of course, there’s still enough light at 3am to be wandering around in the forest, although most sane people would be asleep in their beds at that time.
That’s what the Finns call “Sisu.” But Sisu is a story for another day.