Start to Finnish

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.

Nose, palate, Finnish

I spotted an Irish-looking name in an article in The Helsinki Times about how the Finnish capital was about to get its first distillery in 125 years, thanks to two Finns and a chap named Séamus Holohan. I contacted Séamus and chatted to him about chasing his dream to the frozen north.

Via http://www.creatinghelsinki.com/the-helsinki-distilling-company/.

 

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 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, but how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?

“I¹ll cut a long story short here but it was basically so 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 6 months or so. Eighteen years, having started and sold three IT Security companies, and three kids later I felt like it was time for something new. 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.

And the whiskey renaissance back home also fueled the vision: “In addition I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTE 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. I¹m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to deal 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 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 wasn¹t 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 bi-lingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”

And 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. I¹m 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 minus twenty five degrees, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it¹s a good idea to take up winter sports here to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”

And 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 euro 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 practise 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.”

And 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 applejack. 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 hours drive from Helsinki.”

And as for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately 2 million liters 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 6000 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.”

In whiskey tasting terms, the finish is the name for the epicurean effects of the drink once it has been swallowed; the mouthfeel and lingering flavours that expand on the palate. As Séamus and his business partners begin casking their new rye whisky, they will be hoping that when the time comes for it to hit the market, whisky drinkers will enjoy a perfect Finnish.

Technical details:
Séamus reveals what Finalnd – 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 come 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.”
Footnote: The Irish Times also spoke to Séamus, but obviously my interview is wayyyyy better.