Meet the Distiller
Mikko Mykkanen, Helsinki Distilling
Founded in 2013 and fully operational a year later, The Helsinki Distillery Company was the first private distillery to open in Helsinki for over a century.
The two-storey building, home to the distillery and located in the heart of the city’s gastro-culture, has a history of its own, being used as a power plant for 30 years, a soap factory, meatball factory, car wash, wine cellar and an architect’s office.
We talk to the owner, Mikko Mykkanen, about The Helsinki Distillery Company’s journey.
The Gin Guild: You were the first private distillery to open in Helsinki for 100 years – what inspired you to do so?
Mikko Mykkanen: We wanted to revitalise the forgotten tradition of distilling in Helsinki. We knew that Finnish ingredients and our raw materials are the best in the world, so we couldn’t work out why nobody was making whisky and gin here.
GG: How did your interest in distilling come about?
Mikko: In the mid-90s there was a recession in Finland, so it was very fashionable to make your own booze and save money, especially among university students like me. I started with beer and home wines and soon understood that distillation was the key for better products.
I found a moonshine still in one of my friends’ uncle’s storage, and that was the kick start. I finished my MA Philosophy studies, went to vocational school where I learned about alcohol manufacturing and then later to Heriot Watt University to study Post-Graduate Brewing and Distilling.
GG: Sales and marketing of alcohol is much more strongly regulated in Finland than the UK. What challenges have you had to overcome?
Mikko: You cannot market hard booze directly at all, so it isn’t easy. Foreign companies are marketing on the internet as they can’t be controlled by Finnish authorities, so in theory they can market here more than Finnish companies, which is absurd. Spreading the word and getting the best positions at the sales locations is extremely difficult and expensive everywhere!
GG: Tell us about your gins and the importance of local ingredients – how do they differ from UK gins?
Mikko: Our most important ingredient, besides juniper, is Nordic lingonberry, which gives a special foresty aroma to our gin. Lingonberry is a bit like cranberry, but is even more acidic as the size is smaller. They are very common in Nordic forests and cannot be cultivated artificially in fields.
GG: Your distillery is based in the food culture heart of Helsinki, how important are your cocktail bar and distillery tours to your success?
Mikko: It is the key element of our story-telling as we cannot market our distillery and brands anywhere else, other than in our own restaurant and other restaurants. We have tours, tastings, gin schools and a fine dine restaurant. A full service for all demands!
GG: What is the most popular way to drink gin in Helsinki?
Mikko: It is definitely the G&T. The best is the famous Helsinki G&T, which contains Helsinki dry gin, a nice dry tonic, like Fever-Tree or Aqua Monaco, a few lingonberries and pink grapefruit peel to garnish.
GG: Is gin experiencing phenomenal growth in Finland as it is in the UK and other parts of the world?
Mikko: It is indeed. This summer is expected be the best so far, masses of people are converting from vodka to gin as their main cocktail alcohol.
GG: Is your main market for gin in Finland or where do you export to?
Mikko: Finland is our main market, but we are selling to 20 countries. We have important markets in Germany, Benelux, France and Italy. Our British export is relatively small, but far eastern exports are growing this year in China, Korea and Japan.
GG: Are you planning any new gins or new markets for Helsinki Distillery?
Mikko: So far we have our main product Helsinki Dry Gin (47abv), then Helsinki cocktail gin (40abv) and Helsinki sailors gin (57abv), which was voted this year as the best Finnish gin. We also have a new product – a barrel-aged gin.
This year we are hoping to grow our markets in the UK and Asia which is very exciting.