The perfect Finnish

Four years ago I interviewed a Corkman making whiskey in Finland – this originally ran in the Evening Echo in 2014, but as their whiskey is hitting the market I thought I’d dig it out. 

IRELAND and Finland have more in common than you’d think. Despite being on opposite sides of the European Union, we both punch well above our weight culturally — they gave the world the great composer Sibelius (and Eurovision metallers Lordi), we gave the world James Joyce (and Johnny Logan). And we both enjoy a warming drink during those long winter nights; we have whiskey, they have vodka. But one Corkman is about to change that, as he brings Irish distilling wisdom to what will be Helsinki’s first whiskey distillery in more than 125 years.

Séamus Holohan is one of three people behind The Helsinki Distilling Company, and he, along with two Finns, is bringing one of Ireland’s oldest traditions to the far edges of Europe. So how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?

“I’ll cut a long story short here but it was basically that I met my future wife in Paris many years ago, while studying and working after graduating from UCC with a BComm degree. When I finished studying in France, I wanted some more adventure and Sigrid, a Finn, had moved to Stockholm to study. So I headed up there with the intention of seeing what it would be like for six months or so. Eighteen years later — having started and sold three IT security companies — and after having three kids, I felt like it was time for something new.”

That something new was a world away from IT — the ancient art of distilling whiskey.

“For the past 10 years, I had a running discussion with two Finnish friends regarding starting a distillery and now it was good timing for all of us. The idea progressed from a fun idea to a concrete plan over the years. Eventually, having found a building to house the distillery, I moved over to Helsinki with my family and we started the business over a year ago.”

Séamus’s own interest in distilling was part inspired by another Corkman who left Ireland and created a drinks empire. In 1765, Killavullen mercenary Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy Cognac in France.

“My own interest in distilling started on a trip to Cognac during a summer holiday break during secondary school. With some friends, we visited the Hennessy factory and then went to see a small producer. The small producer, Balluet, was fascinating — everything from the raw materials to the distillation equipment, I found extremely interesting. And just as interesting was the manner in which the owner was really proud of what he was doing. To me, it seemed like something that would be great to do — to produce something concrete, a real product that you could take pride in. That desire never left me.”

But this isn’t the reckless pursuit of a dream — Séamus and his two partners have put a lot of work and research into this venture: “Mikko Mykkänen is our Master Distiller and has been involved in the production of alcohol for many years. I have experience of starting companies and we have a third partner, Kai Kilpinen, who is helping on the marketing side. Before launching The Helsinki Distilling Company, Mikko and myself embarked on a road-trip in Sweden to see many of the small distilleries that have appeared there making whisky over the last decade. It was inspiring to see the amount of energy that the owners had and it confirmed for us that there is a viable market for premium craft distillates.”

The whiskey renaissance back home also fuelled the vision: “I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTÉ that John Teeling gave a number of years ago, where he said many interesting things about the global whiskey industry, and also the Cooley distillery was a fantastic story.”

Despite the renewed interest in whiskey back home, Séamus knew that his family now had their roots down in Scandinavia: “It was never really considered to start the distillery in Ireland for family reasons.My kids love going to Ireland and have even spent some time attending school in Ballygiblin, but are more accustomed to Sweden and Finland. And since I have been working in the Nordics for so long, I know more about doing business here than at home.

“In addition my partners are Finns and living here. Finland has very few distilleries so it is something new and exotic for the Finns to have one producing whiskey and gin in the capital. In Ireland, we would be one more distillery in addition to those already in existence and starting up. I’m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to cope with a good deal of scepticism and red-tape before starting the distillery. But now we have it running and have been producing premium gin and our whiskey is starting its maturation.

“We are also lucky to have the distillery very close to the city centre and in the middle of the food culture capital of Finland, Teurastamo, which means ‘abattoir’ and is the old slaughterhouse area for Helsinki.”

Setting up a distillery here in Ireland is more straightforward, but so is our language — Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn. So did Séamus struggle with it?

“Coming from Sweden, I suppose it wasn’t as much of a culture shock as coming directly from Ireland. I had visited Finland many times with my wife during the years and have many friends here. Having said that, it is one thing to visit somewhere and another to live there.

It is true that you can get by quite well with English and Swedish here, but it would be great to speak some Finnish.

“However, Finnish is a fenno-ugric language, quite difficult to learn, and there are very few similarities with any of the Indo-European languages. My aim is to start a night course next year and, hopefully, pick up enough to get by doing everyday things — that will be the fourth time I have started a Finnish course and I hope I make more progress this time. Our kids attend Swedish school as Finland is officially a bilingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”

The language wasn’t the only stumbling block: “On the cultural side of things, Finland is very different to Ireland. But I really like the sauna culture. I’m no longer amazed at people being naked, hitting themselves with birch twigs, while sweating profusely in really hot saunas, before running outside to temperatures of less than -25°C, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it’s a good idea to take up winter sports here, to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”

Those long, dark winters are contributory factors in the regulation of the drinks industry in Finland — to the point that the state actually controls the sale of liquor.

“Yes, the government does really control the alcohol industry. Until 1995, it was illegal to have a distillery with the distilling only done by the state monopoly of Altia. Today, Alko is the state monopoly for the sale of stronger alcohol (above 5% vol.) to private persons. It is now possible to sell directly to restaurants and bars, however. And the prices are kept high with duty and taxes.”

So that much we have in common — in Ireland about €17 of the cost of a bottle of whiskey goes to the taxman, and while the Government here hopes to crack down on below-cost selling by the large retailers, the Finns found another way to bypass the excise and get cheap booze — the ferry to Estonia. Although Séamus is quick to point out that this practice is dying out.

“People still get on the ferry to Estonia but perhaps not as often as they used to, due to some price harmonisation taking place some years ago.”

As for the whisky they are making: “As elsewhere, there is a growing number of people who are willing to pay more for better quality products and also there is a growing interest in locally produced goods. We are making gin, whiskey and apple- jack. Where possible, we are using local ingredients so our gin, for example, has a Finnish lingonberry twist. Our applejack is made from apples from Salo, which is about an hour’s drive from Helsinki.”

As for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately two million litres of whiskey per year — 1.7 million litres is sold through Alko. Most of the whisky consumed is Scotch blends, with Canadian whiskies in second place. Irish whiskey is sold to the tune of 145.000 litres through Alko.

“Other whiskies, including Finnish, amount to less than 6,000 litres so there is some room for growth. There is a growing interest in whiskey in Finland. And, as in Ireland, the Finns are looking to try new products and the product range is excellent in many bars and restaurants.”

Seamus reveals what Finland — and the world — can expect from the Helsinki Distilling Company: “For our whiskey we are using Finnish malt from Lähti. The malt is not peated but we may experiment in the future with peated malts. Some of the best rye in the world is grown in Finland so, from the start, we were determined to make a Finnish whiskey and use Finnish raw materials without simply trying to copy an Irish whiskey or to make Scotch.

“There is no reason why excellent whiskies cannot be made here. For the rye whiskey, we include some barley in the mash, to help with the process. “Our ingredients are chosen from the best local ingredients available, with the rye being custom malted for our requirements. We are using both American and French new oak barrels that are medium-toasted. The French oak comes from the areas of Alliers and Limousin. Both American and French are offered to cask-owners and, so far, the French have proven more popular. Later on, we will be using different barrels, including old sherry and port casks, for finishing. We are working with a local cooper from outside Turku to source the barrels.

“We are using a pot-still that has an attached column. This allows us to use either the pot-still and produce that kind of whiskey or to use the column. Our final products will resemble more American Rye whiskies than Irish or Scottish.”

So that was four years ago – and now their whiskey is ready. Made from the finest Finnish rye, the Helsinki Whiskey prelude was awarded 92.5 points in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible 2017. Up Cork.


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