Time for a bit of whisky diplomacy…
In a world riven by conflict, I like to imagine that whisky can help us overcome our differences and bring people together. As I’ve stated repeatedly in this space, I cherish the generosity of the whisky community in my country. When the brown nectar starts flowing, it’s easy to forget political affiliations, religious disagreements, or any of the other many sources of discord between us and our fellow men (and women). United by a shared love of this magical liquor, we’re able to meet on common ground.
If this works within national boundaries, then surely it should have the same effect when crossing borders? It’s harder to make these transnational trades happen, but fortunately I have been on both the giving and receiving ends of transatlantic whisky swaps with some very kind foreign correspondents.
I’ve provided the best of what America does best (bourbon) to Graham; he gamely reviewed them here, with the caveat that he was a bourbon novice, hence the lack of scores. In a similar cross-cultural exchange, I swapped a handful of American whiskey samples with Jani, who reciprocated with the seven Finnish whiskies I’ll be reviewing for you today. I’ll append a similar disclaimer to the one that Graham provided: this is the first Finnish whisky I have ever tasted, so my opinion is that of a whisky globetrotter rather than an expert on the style.
Kicking off, I’ll be reviewing a rye malt from Helsinki Whiskey. Helsinki Whiskey is “the first distillery in Helsinki in over 100 years, run by two friends, Kai Kilpinen and Mikko Mykkänen,” and has been producing whiskey since 2014. This is the seventh of their series of rye malt whiskies, now in its 21st iteration. More detail comes direct from Helsinki’s site:
“Helsinki Whiskey Rye Malt Release #7 is a vatting of nine casks. Master Blender Kai Kilpinen has chosen the casks. They are 200 liter American oak barrels, some virgin oak, some ex-Bourbon casks. Char levels differ between 1 and 4. Release #7 consist of 3750 individually numbered bottles. The whiskey has been matured for at least three years. Release date was 2.10.2018.”
Jani informs me that price for this botte on release was €50, though the current batch sells for closer to €70. Without further ado, my liquid trip through Finland begins…
Helsinki Whiskey Rye Malt Release #7 – Review
Color: Medium-pale golden straw.
On the nose: Strikingly fruity at first, with underripe apples and pears, which plays against assertively malty note. The bourbon casks are used to good effect here, letting the underlying distillate sing out clearly. This is clearly rye; it’s a confident expression of that grain, with all the hallmark notes. Maybe a touch of sawdust as an indication of the cask influence on youthful spirit? There’s also an evanescent, mentholated note of eucalyptus here.
In the mouth: As foreshadowed by the nose, this tastes young and slightly rough. This is bitter to start, with a note of anise married to a juvenile woodiness. That sawdust note comes back in a more stale form at midpalate; I wonder if young spirit wasn’t overwhelmed by the virgin oak in some of the barrels? This carries on through the finish, where things improve somewhat. There’s a drying note of stone and some more steely rye grain notes that persist after the whiskey is swallowed.
I admire a few aspects of this, particularly the ebullient fruit notes on the nose. However, this feels rushed overall, and especially on the palate. It tastes young, with the casks imparting a domineering woody influence that turns the underlying spirit bitter and unpleasant in places. There’s potential here, but I’d like to see this whiskey given time to come into its own more fully. I’m scoring it a couple notches below average as a consequence.
Next, we’re moving on to Kyrö. This is a distillery that has garnered its fair share of attention here at Malt; both Mark and Adam have lavished praise on them, most recently in 2019. Jani lavished three of their expressions on me; I’ll be starting with their mainstay “Wood Smoke” expression. From Kyrö’s shop (where they sell this for $64.90), we have the following description:
“Kyrö Wood Smoke is made from 100% malted Finnish whole-grain rye. Following an old northern tradition, the malt is Alder smoked in a 100-year-old barn. The whisky is double pot-distilled and matured in ex-bourbon, French oak and new American white oak barrels.”
Kyrö Wood Smoke – Review
47.2% ABV. £49.95 from Master of Malt.
Color: Medium-pale amber.
On the nose: The first impression is of a savory, umami-type note reminiscent of tomato-based sauces. Like the Helsinki Rye Malt, this has a youthfully malty note that incorporates some wood influence. Similar menthol aromatics are at play; I also get the faint fruitiness of berries, and a very subtle wisp of black licorice. Forestry notes of freshly cut trees and paper mills (appropriately, given this is from Finland) also swirl around in here.
In the mouth: Spicy to start, this has a peppery kiss that tingles on the tip of the tongue. The whisky settles down into a mild and somewhat weak mocha note, with a watery texture reminiscent of fat free chocolate milk. This soft approach hardens up in the middle of the mouth, where the whisky reaches a high point with a reprise of the black licorice from the nose, as well as a prickly texture more in keeping with the solid bottling strength. This fades all too fast, however, as the whisky recedes rather abruptly.
Better than its predecessor, this has youthful notes but they’re not flaws, per se. My main qualm with this is the texture; it feels thin and underpowered at points in the mouth, and the finish (no pun intended) is very meek, indeed. A step in the right direction but, in consideration of the price, I wouldn’t be a repeat buyer, hence another score below average.
Next from Kyrö is this “PX & Smoke” whisky. Kyrö seems to sell this by the cask; their own site provides us this color:
“Kyrö PX & Smoke is a rye whisky made using smoke sauna malted Finnish wholegrain rye. It is double pot-distilled and aged Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. No filtering is done at any stage of the process to extract maximum flavor from the rye. Kyrö PX & Smoke matures in a 60 liter barrel and reaches its peak of maturation in 3-5 years.”
Contract price for a barrel is €3950 with a minimum yield of 100 bottles, so I’ll be keeping roughly €40 in my head as a price for this one.
Kyrö PX & Smoke – Review
Color: Medium-pale golden orange.
On the nose: Much more luscious and fulsome than the prior two, the PX cask has imparted a rich fruitiness to the nose that is heavenly. Raisins and sultanas meet in a velvety embrace with a deft touch of smoke and some sticky black licorice scents. This almost smells like a very delicate Mezcal, in a good way, but there’s also so much more here. I’m excited to taste this one.
In the mouth: That smokiness is more front and center, as the initial impression is comparable to a full-bore Islay whisky: iodine and petrochemicals announce the whisky’s entrance as soon as it hits the tongue. These flavors blooms in the middle of the mouth, which feels like an inversion of the nose; whereas this was mostly fruit with a gently smoky touch aromatically, from a flavor perspective it is mostly smoke with some fruity nuances thrown in. This all resolves into a more gentle, elegant finish, with some faint fruit and wisps of smoke that fade softly, allowing the rye grain to sing out momentarily.
Excellent whisky, more so for being unlike anything I have ever tasted. The closest comparison is a sherried Islay whisky, though I have to say that I’d pick this one over the examples of that style which I have tried. That’s not to say it’s all smoke and cask; as I noted, the rye grain notes come out to play at the end as a soft reminder of this whisky’s raw material foundations. Should I ever find myself traveling in Finland, I’ll be keenly searching for a bottle of this; I can’t imagine a more perfect souvenir.
Rounding out the Kyrö trio is this “Kyrö v VYS.” Though it’s sold out in Kyrö’s shop, that page provides us some additional info:
“Kyrö x VYS is the first single barrel whisky from Kyrö. This special batch combines the sweetness of Kyrö’s rye base with some light, yet elegant smokiness. Aged in a 200 liter American white oak barrel… [c]ask strength.”
Kyrö X VYS Malt Rye Whisky – Review
Single cask. 56.3% ABV.
Color: A slightly lighter shade of medium-pale gold.
On the nose: More of a malty and grainy character on this one, I’m getting a little of the promised sweetness and none of the smokiness. Mostly, this smells like a slightly rounder and milder version of that first Kyrö whisky, minus a lot of the spice nuances which made that one interesting. This is pretty simplistic on the nose; let’s see if it doesn’t improve in the mouth?
In the mouth: Nope. Again, this starts with a big wood-accented burst of malt, which remains the dominant flavor element across the palate. Some orange peel and anise liven this up at midpalate, where it has a hotter bloom than any of the prior three, reflecting the higher bottling strength. The finish shows more youthful grain, with a lemon hard candy note that is the saving grace of the palate. This note enters a long, slow fade that keeps me wishing it had reared its head before the very end.
A different experience to the Wood Smoke, this leans more heavily on the grain and fruit notes. That said, it’s unbalanced in places and really only comes together satisfactorily through the finish. I don’t necessarily like it any better or worse than that expression, so I’m giving it a comparable score.
Moving along, we now have a pair from Teerenpeli. Located in the city of Lahti, the original distillery celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. A larger facility was opened in 2015. The Teerenpeli family also has a brewery of the same name. The distillery focuses on malt whisky, distilled in a Scottish pot still.
I’m starting with a 10 year old malt matured in an ex-bourbon barrel. This is a single cask release labeled as “X UISGE,” bottled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Finland’s UISGE festival
Teerenpeli X UISGE Single Cask – Review
Ex-bourbon barrel. 58.5% ABV
Color: Pale maize.
On the nose: Very floral, fruity, vernal, in the manner of a lighter style of Speyside or Highland malt whisky. That’s not to say that it’s not complex; on the contrary, this has many nuances of sugary confections, stone, milk chocolate, a beery note of ale (appropriately, given the sister brewery), and a gentle hint of ginger. More time in the glass tilts this toward a roundly rich and spicy note of apple cider. Very inviting.
In the mouth: This starts in a malt-forward style, with the ginger note adding a tingly accent as this moves toward the middle of the mouth. There, the whisky makes a transition to wood-accented orchard fruit, ripe apples in particular. There’s also a sharp minerality to this, and the ABV is evident in a radiant heat across the roof of the mouth. That apple flavor persists into and through the finish in the form of apple hard candy, lingering as a very pleasantly sweet aftertaste.
This is quite the accomplishment for being a 10 year old single malt from any region, Scotland included. I think the bourbon casks were the perfect choice here, as they allow the elements of the whisky to express themselves fully. The full strength presents a challenge at points, but in exchange we get an unadulterated expression (note: I added a few drops of water after my first round of tasting, but didn’t find that this improved either the nose or the mouth). In total, very satisfying whisky. Though it’s a totally different style, I like this as much as the Kyrö PX & Smoke, but it’s twice as expensive, so I’m scoring it one point lower.
Based on the impression of that last whisky, I’m positively salivating to try this next one. We have another single cask, this time 12 years in an ex-sherry butt. This was bottled exclusively for the Viking cruise ship line; price on release was also about €100.
Teerenpeli 12 Year Old Single Cask – Review
Ex-sherry butt. 58.5% ABV
Color: Similar color to the prior dram, just one or two shades darker.
On the nose: As aromatically reticent as the 10 year old was expressive, this takes quite a bit of nosing before I am able to pick up on/pick out the notes here. There’s a faint whiff of almonds, as well as a stalky greenness that I find surprising given this is a sherry-matured malt. I get a milky and slightly sour note of crème fraiche, a new one for me. There’s perhaps a bit of yeasty bready-ness in here, maybe a touch of dried fruit, but overall this is proving a tough nut to crack.
In the mouth: Similarly restrained, this starts mostly mute before developing a hot and astringent texture toward the middle of the mouth. There’s more of that nuttiness from the nose, albeit more vague in presentation. This takes on a blooming note of stone (who ever heard of such a thing? Yet, there it is…) as it moves into the finish, where the sherry cask influence is most evident. There’s a very faintly sulfurous aspect to this, but otherwise the whisky dwindles and eventually disappears.
Nowhere close to a sherry bomb, and not terrifically memorable as a whisky, this says whatever it has to say in a whisper. Neither the extra age nor the sherry cask maturation were able to make this surpass the 10 year old; if anything, I like it a bit less. Not flawed, but not great – especially for the price – leaving me feel like this deserves a score in the middle of the range.
I’m finishing my tour at the Valamo Monastery Distillery, with the first batch of their peated single malt whisky. Unfortunately their website is exclusively in Finnish, so I’m not able to tell you very much about them. Some perfunctory Googling reveals that Valamo is is an Orthodox monastery in Heinävesi, established in 1940.
Searching around a bit brought me to the Valamo Beverages site, which helpfully lists this three-year-old single malt as one of their mainstay products (they also make a black tea gin, an absinthe, and a menthe). It also mentions that the whisky is matured in monastic wine barrels.
Valamo Monastery Peated Single Malt Batch #1 – Review
Color: Pale gold.
On the nose: Very full and forward, this leaps from the glass with a core of fruit wound up in a veil of smoke. There’s a roundness and a completeness to this that makes the elements blend into each other; as soon as I get close to pinning one down, it seems to be subsumed back into the whole. In no particular order: mocha, lime, iodine, firewood, black licorice, bitumen, orange peel, burnt sugar, and menthol. If nothing else, it’s very intriguing.
In the mouth: This starts out with a relatively subdued note of smoke and seawater, before a surprising note of sarsaparilla carries this to the middle of the mouth. There, this comes into full bloom, presenting balanced notes of smoke, spice, cocoa, and fruit, albeit not as potently expressed as on the nose. Tacking toward more stern flavors, the finish consists of a drying minerality as well as a light touch of wood, echoing across the inside of the mouth for a long time after the whisky is swallowed.
This is mostly a success, with the smoke notes balanced against other aromas and flavors. It’s got remarkable poise and development for being but three years old; I’d be interested to learn what additional flavors the folks (monks) at Valmo Monastery can deliver with a more extended maturation. Overall, I’m positively inclined and would definitely pick up another bottle if I saw one, hence…
I hope readers will take this for what it is: one Finnish whisky novice’s by-no-means comprehensive survey, based on a handful of samples. That said, I feel like I got a feel for the general contours of the landscape, and overall my impression was a positive one. Even the whiskies I rated below average had their high points; in those cases, I felt like more time might have improved the end results. The others were very good, even delightful. Whether malted barley or rye, several of the distillers of Finland have been able to skillfully coax diverse and intense smells and tastes from their raw materials. My sincere thanks to Jani for furthering my global whisky education; on the back of this curated selection, I can heartily encourage the curious among you to give Finnish whisky a try.
Photos courtesy of the distilleries and Jani.
Thanks Taylor for a very interesting whistle stop! As someone who has recently spread my tasting wings as far round the world as I can, I would also heartily recommend the Boutique-y bottlings of Teerenpeli and Kyro. The 5 year old Wine Cask Series bottling of the former I found stunning, like drinking a Nordic Christmas Pudding…
Adrian, appreciate the kind words, as well as the recommendations. As noted in the review, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more Finnish whisky going forward. Cheers!
Good read. Unless I’m completely wrong you covered products from all whisky distilleries there are in Finland with this article.
When it comes to rye whisky, Kyrö Malt is definitely one of my favorites. I have tried the “pre-release” version of the wood smoke one too, and I think your conclusion reflects my thoughts about it quite well.
As for Teerenpeli, Kulo (7yo sherry cask) was pretty good when I tried it couple years ago.
Thanks much, Jacques. I’m positively inclined toward Kryö, so will definitely keep an eye out for that 7 year old sherry cask you mentioned. Cheers!
We actually have a few distilleries more here, however the products from them are not as readily available as the four covered here :).
There’s Ägräs Distillery (est. 2017 if I remember correctly), which only has one release so far and only available at their distillery.
Also, one cannot forget the first ever Finnish single malt produced by Beer Hunter’s (distillation started in 2001, under the brand name Old Buck). However, the production volumes are very low as it is basically done “for the love of the game”. The bottles are always single casks and have only seen less than then iterations. Mostly for sale on their own restaurant. However, a few have seen the light on the shelves of Alko, our government controlled liquor store.
There is also 1000 Lakes Distillery, that was established in 2021. Their distillate is already showing great promise, so can’t wait for those to mature enough!
Ps. Also love the Teerenpeli Kulo, good stuff!
Cheers for the article Taylor!
Well then – good timing to interview Teerenpeli tomorrow! Good info here and a fun read.
Can’t wait to hear your thoughts, David. Cheers!