A curious thing about the passage of time is how it is slower in our minds than it is in reality. Looking forward to anything feels like forever, while looking back it all seems like yesterday. In 2014 I was stumbling into an obsession with whiskey when I came across an Irish name in a feature on a distillery in Helsinki. I got in touch with the person – Seamus Holohan – and interviewed him for the Evening Echo, because if it has even the vaguest connection to Cork, it has got to go in the Echo. He was at the start of his business journey with two old friends, talking about bringing rye whisky to the Finnish market. Thinking to myself, well, four years is a long-ass time to stay in touch for updates, I put the Helsinki Distillery from my mind and completely forgot about Seamus and his dreams until earlier this year when I saw a tweet about new travel retail whisky from Finland – Seamus’s distillery had a whisky. Naturally, being completely shameless, I asked for a sample to review, and Seamus, being a genial chap, sent me an entire bottle, and filled me in on what had been happening for the Helsinki Distillery since we last spoke.
“The last four years have been spent building the factory, the storage spaces, raising capital, starting sales on several fronts, hiring, launching products to help fund the whiskey production, and realising that making products is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the spirits business – it’s all about the brand.
“I can thorough recommend starting a distillery to anybody who wishes to call themselves a true entrepreneur and work the proverbial 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. At the same time we opened the visitor centre (another huge project), won many international awards with our Spirits, and by accident have created a new Premium Long Drink category.”
Long drinks like the Tom Collins are well known around the world, but in Finland the long drink is a distinct category all on its own. Dating back to the summer Olympics in 1952, the Finns wanted to be the perfect hosts and so they came up with the Finnish Long Drink, a beverage usually concocted from a mix of gin and grapefruit soda. It was a hit, and is still so popular to this day that you can often get it on draught.
Finland has remarkably progressive taxation policies, low crime rates and high employment. But starting a business in a utopia is just as hard as starting one anywhere else, as Seamus discovered.
“This has been the most difficult start-up I have been involved with but also the most interesting. Now the company is moving to the next stage and I¹m spending more time with Excel and the joys of budgeting, sales plans and the like. Nobody has asked me for over two years if the company will still be in existence in five years and we have 14 people employed between the distillery and visitor centre. Is survival the new success?”
As for the rye, it has a beautiful look, one that was very consciously Nordic: “The idea was to have a Nordic whiskey without copying a Scottish or Irish whiskey, for example. Also we have the ambition to not only distill the Nordic ingredients (hence the local crop here of rye) but also to try to use the Nordic simplicity in the design of the label and speak something of the culture and traditions of the Nordics. The bottle should convey premium, include only the amount of information required but all that whiskey enthusiasts want, give the feel of small batch, and made with care. The label is designed by Aleksi Ahjopalo (https://www.ahjopalo.com/) and the box comes from Starcke (http://www.starcke.fi/en/home/).”
While rye may have bought them locavore cool, it is also a thriving category – American rye whiskey production increased by 778% between 2009 and 2016, equaling a 900% rise in revenue, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. So the Helsinki Distillery is straddling two key trends – interesting grains, and whisky from non-traditional countries. But success will all hinge on the liquid.
And what of this liquid – there have been four releases from the distillery, two 100% rye malt and two mixed mash whiskeys. I was gifted release number two, the official details of which are as follows:
Helsinki Whiskey 100% Rye Malt Release #2 is blended from two casks. Master Distiller Mikko Mykkänen has chosen the casks. They are small, 28 litre casks made from new French oak. The oak used in making these casks comes from the regions of Allier and Limousin in France. They give the whiskey a beautiful golden colour and add balanced notes of vanilla, honey and herbal spiciness. The whiskey has been matured for a minimum of three years.
Nose: Vanilla and caramel from the oak cask, malted rye and freshly baked rye loaf from the distillate. Honey and dark chocolate.
Flavor: Rich and deep mouthfeel. Aroma has notes of vanilla, dried apricots, toffee, licorice, herbs, even a hint of dark roasted coffee. A drop of water will bring out the tannins of the cask and reduce the sweetness.
Aftertaste: Long, it lingers on the insides of the cheeks. Spiciness of rye whiskey, especially white pepper, abundantly evident. Alcohol content is 47,5 %, which brings out the whiskey’s aromas. Few drops of water can be added to the whiskey if so desired.
As always, my policy here is that water is for plants – give it to me as strong as possible and don’t spare the burn. Anyway:
On the nose – that dusty, musty scent you get when you walk into a barn filled with grain. I’m not used to rye so this is quite the departure – there is none of that coffee toffee I get from whiskey. Digestive biscuit, warm milk and Weetabix, and a real agrarian vibe – reminds me of the waft of brewing you sometimes get from Midleton distillery. On the palate this is feisty, a lot of eye-watering white heat. Maybe that drop of water is required after all. Nah, fuck it. The heat makes way for a strong-yet-soft perfume note – it reminds me of brandy, soft fruit making way for festive spices. It’s hard to know with releases like this whether they are meant to be a taste of some potentially wonderful future, or just an economic necessity – whiskey is such a long game that few can afford to sit and wait a decade for their entry-level ten year old. I love the financial madness of setting up a whiskey distillery – all that risk for one crazy dream. It feels dickish to then insult the initial outputs from any new distiller – I have kids, and I know you don’t expect much from a three year old. They have big personalities, and a lot of rough edges, but give them another seven years and they are a different species. So this is bold, and a little loud, but the potential is there, and six years from now doesn’t seem that far away anymore.