When the snow arrives late, and just after lunch-time the fields lie frozen and black beneath the night sky, the Finnish winter can be a dark place indeed. But, on the banks of the Kyrö River there’s a light burning in the darkness. This beacon in the murk of winter leads the way to a hive of activity – the Kyrö Distillery Company’s nerve centre.
Location: Kyrö Distillery. 2km Southeast of Isokyrö
Even while the fields lie sleeping and all the small animals have burrowed underground to sleep the long night away, the team at Kyrö are working harder than Santa’s elves, to get the next batch of goodness out to their devoted public. I came to see just what all the bustle was about.
Miko Heinilä, one of the Kyrö Distillery founders, met me at the entrance and issued me with a pair of steel capped boots. He led me downstairs to meet Timo, who looks after the whisky distilling operations. “He’s what we would call a talkative introvert,” Miko reassured me.
At this time of year, Timo is happy to be inside, tending a still. Until he switched to the distilling game two years ago, he had spent most of his working life with Finland’s electricity company, cutting trees from under the powerlines that traverse the country’s forests.
“It was a very hard job,” he says. “When you go cutting trees in minus 32 degrees, everything gets frozen, machinery, saws don’t work…”. Although initially the change of lifestyle was strange, he has adapted well. “The first thing I noticed when I came here was, oh, you can eat your lunch inside!” Okay, so he’s a funny introvert…
He offers me a laboratory beaker full of a thick brown liquid. “Taste this. That’s a distiller’s breakfast smoothie. Full of vitamins,” he jokes. It looks horrible. But I taste it, and it’s surprisingly sweet. It’s the malted rye mash that will form the base of the spirit and will eventually become the award-winning Kyrö single malt rye whisky. First the mash has to be fermented for six days, when it reaches about 8 percent alcohol. This then goes through its first distillation and from an initial 2,500 liters there remain 900 liters at 26 percent alcohol.
Forget the head, go with the heart.
But this is still full of toxic volatiles, which now have to be captured and removed during the second distillation. These toxic and foul-tasting compounds all distill out at different temperatures, so that a skilled distiller like Timo can determine when the “heads”, “heart” and “tails” are coming out of the distillation.
The head is the first part of the distillate, and contains sour, bad-tasting compounds, as well as toxic methyl alcohol. As the clear liquid comes through the cooling pipes, Timo can tell by smell and taste when the heads are finished distilling out, and the heart starts to come through. The still we’re standing next to now has finished with the heads and has been pouring its heart out for a few hours.
Timo sticks his finger in the liquid where it comes out and tastes it for sweetness. “I think it’s about 73 percent alcohol,” he says. Then he measures it – and the digital display shows 73.8. Not bad for an old lumberjack!
About 350 liters of hearts come from each distillation, and this is diluted and barreled in new American oak casks. “This is the tricky part,” Timo warns. “If something goes wrong, you can’t make it better later. You can’t turn shit into chocolate!”
A distiller’s skill is also measured by the ability to know the end of the heart and the start of the tail. The tail contains fatty and oily compounds, which shouldn’t be present in a high quality spirit. Nothing from the process goes to waste. The tails from each distillation contain about 3 liters of ethanol, which get sent to a bio-ethanol company. The leftovers of the mash after distillation are pumped into a holding tank and turned into cattle feed. “We are an official cattle food producer,” Timo jokes.
The distillery is struggling to meet demand for the whisky. In the early days, Kyrö had such meteoric success with its Napue Gin that all their distilling capacity had to be coopted to feed the market. Now Timo says they’re producing around 12,000 liters of spirit a month, but of course that has to be aged in oak for a minimum of three years before it can be sold as whisky.
He estimates that in two years there will be enough single malt whisky to satisfy the market. Meanwhile the crew at Kyrö is fitting out a new distillery hall next to the original building, which Timo says will triple capacity.
Local boy hails local success story.
Just talking to him, I can tell he’s incredibly proud of what the Kyrö Distillery has achieved in such a short time. It’s the pride a local boy has in a local success story. His family has been here for generations, and he loves this region.
“I was born here, I’m used to this landscape, I know everyone and everyone knows me. I like to live here. I live in an old log farmhouse, with a big fireplace. I love simple things. For example, I believe every man should have a tractor.” Now that’s a philosophy I can understand.
It’s a little ironic that Timo finally ended up working at the distillery in Kyrö. He’s long been a member of the local historical society which meets at the little open air museum, just across the road from the old dairy which now houses the distillery. “I was in that meeting, when they first applied to turn this into a distillery,” he told me. “We laughed, and said Oh yes? Just let them try it! But they did it!”
Now, just a few years later, he’s become part of the Kyrö story, and an indispensable member of the team. “I’m very proud that I do this,” he said, “because this is so hand-made, that our fingerprints are on everything from the grain to the whisky.”