Introducing the newest segment to our website – our rye correspondent at large.
Rye is a cornerstone of the Finnish diet, and the rye crop is as hardy and tough as the Finnish people themselves. And that’s what gives it the character it needs, if it’s going to thrive in Finland’s extreme climate. Not to mention make some of the best rye spirits in the world.
Location: Vöyri. 23 km North of Isokyrö.
Rye is where the story of Kyrö begins, and rye is what makes this story indelibly Finnish. By now, the tale about how Kyrö Distillery’s founders conceived the project in a sauna has entered into legend. You probably already know that the Kyrö Distillery Company was essentially the answer to the question “Why is nobody distilling rye whiskey in Finland, when rye is our number one grain?”
Rye is the most Finnish of grains. Rye is a cornerstone of the Finnish diet, and the rye crop is as hardy and tough as the Finnish people themselves. And that’s what gives it the character it needs, if it’s going to thrive in Finland’s extreme climate. Not to mention make some of the best rye spirits in the world. The other 90 percent of Finland’s rye crop is used for bread and piirakka. Rye bread has kept the Finns alive through many centuries of long winters and through times of hardship during several wars. Like the Finnish people, rye also has its quirks.
Ostrobothnia, in Western Finland, is big sky country, and the village of Vöyri sits right in the middle of it. On an early autumn day, I pull up outside Vöyri’s stark Lutheran church, built in 1626. I was feeling a little strange – I had just eaten a salmiakki flavoured ice cream – but I needed to concentrate, and keep my facial expression under control. (If you’ve tried salmiakki ice-cream, you’ll understand.) I was here to meet a local farmer and learn about rye.
The bright sunshine meant that, when Kenneth pulled up in front of the church, I had an excuse for my squinting – who came up with the idea for salmiakki ice-cream in the first place?
Kenneth’s family has farmed right here since the 15th century. He offered to show me his fields not far from the church-yard.
Normally at this time of year, the rye harvest would be in full swing, but this summer had broken all records for its heat and intensity. I’ve met Finns who say they spent the summer of 2018 in Greece, just to escape the heat. For weeks on end temperatures soared above 30 degrees centigrade. The end result is that this year’s rye crop was ready for harvest nearly a month early. I feared I would be looking at, and photographing, empty fields. But what Kenneth wanted to show me was far more interesting.
He had already been able to sow his next rye crop, and the continuing warm weather, coupled with some rain in mid-August, meant that 10 cm long green shoots were already visible above the soil.
“You can see here,” Kenneth said, crouching down in the field, “how from some grains there are now four or five shoots. Next year’s harvest should be excellent!”
Kenneth says that, aside from the yield, there are other advantages given by such a dense crop.
“The ground coverage will be so good that no weeds can grow,” he says. “The last crop we didn’t use any herbicides at all, and this year looks even better.”
Kenneth normally has some 10 to 20 hectares under rye cultivation, and he expects to harvest six tons per hectare. But last year he lost ten percent of his crop to damage caused during the winter by snowmobile riders. He shows me a field of dried up grey stubble. “It’s against the law,” he says, “but it’s not so easy to control young Finnish boys!”
After the rye is planted in the autumn, ideally first a layer of frost will come, and then snow will fall over that, forming a protective blanket over the young shoots. They would then remain beneath the snow for several months until the spring.
“The rye stays asleep under the snow,” Kenneth explains. “What’s really not good, is if the snow melts away in winter and the rye wakes up, and then more snow comes.” The second cold spell can damage the crop.
When the snow melts in April or May, the little shoots begin to grow again, and the plants mature through the long days of the Finnish summer.
But ultimately, the success of the crop depends on the crucial time when the rye is dormant between November and May; and Finland’s winters are becoming less and less predictable.
“We’ve already noticed climate change affecting our crops,” Kenneth says. Although his crop is looking good now, he’s playing a game of wait and see.
“It’s a lottery, when you don’t know how the next winter will be,” he says.
Kyrö’s rye whisky, and indeed all our spirits, are 100 percent distilled from rye. By contrast, rye whisky in the United States legally only has to be 51 percent rye spirit. And in fact it’s rye that gives our spirits their unique flavours and the distinctive character.
Kenneth shows me a bag of his best quality grain from this year’s harvest and explains that, ironically, both he and his wife have gluten allergies, so they can’t eat the rye he produces.
“But when rye is distilled,” Kenneth says, “the protein chains are destroyed. So drinking rye spirit is no problem!”
“And,” he adds, “as they say, man cannot live from bread alone!”
I guess you could say he has a rye sense of humour…
Rye, damned rye, and statistics:
• In 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence, rye bread was voted Finland’s national food.
• Research has found that rye bread results in lower blood sugar and insulin levels than white bread.
• The Finnish farmers’ union says domestic production isn’t keeping up with demand, forcing Finland to import around half its rye needs.
• Climate change is making Finland’s rye harvest less reliable, as winters get warmer and summer rainfall is reduced.
• Rye has been grown in Finland for more than 2,000 years, and is even referenced in the national epic “Kalevala”.
• Rye was a weed grain, originally found where wheat was cultivated. When wheat fields were abandoned, rye often took over.
• Because of its long roots, rye can capture nutrients from deeper in the soil. It can enhance soil health, prevent erosion and reduce weed growth naturally.
• Rye is the only cereal sown in the autumn in Finland, and the period spent dormant under the snow actually reduces plant diseases.