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Proud to be local

Miko Heinilä, Kyrö Distillery Company’s Distillery Manager and Tero Kankaanpää, Mayor of Isokyrö standing on a rye field.

The company’s brand and products have become part of the small town’s identity, and the business has created jobs, brought tourists and boosted the confidence of the local community.

Miko Heinilä, Kyrö Distillery Company’s Distillery Manager, has told the story so many times that he even remembers the exact date when it all started: 10 May 2012.

It was on that day that a group of friends gathered in a sauna at a rented cottage in Karjalohja and Miika Lipiäinen, who later became the CEO of Kyrö Distillery Company, suggested a whisky tasting. The men were blown away by one particular specimen – a rye whisky – and wondered aloud why no-one makes rye whisky in Finland.

“I told the others that I grew up on a farm and know how much a tonne of rye costs. I even had the perfect place in mind for a distillery”, Heinilä says.

That place was Heinilä’s hometown, Isokyrö, between Vaasa and Seinäjoki. Initially, starting a distillery in a local authority of just 4,600 people in the remote region of Ostrobothnia was just a crazy idea. It was particularly outlandish because, with the exception of Heinilä, all the others lived 250 miles away in and around Helsinki.

However, the group soon learned that Isokyrö’s old dairy, which is known for being the original home of Oltermanni cheese, could be turned into a distillery. Heinilä invited the others over and told them about Isokyrö’s history.

The men knew that many distilleries and especially those in Scotland, the world’s best known exporter of whisky, are hundreds of years old. Their whiskies already had history and a unique story. Kyrö Distillery Company had nothing except for an outlandish idea conceived in a sauna, but the history of Isokyrö had everything from mysterious human bones found in a well in Leväluhta to the Battle of Napue, the last battle of the Great Northern War.

Suddenly the idea no longer seemed that crazy.

“We can tell the history of Isokyrö and use that as a foundation for building more history”, Heinilä says.

“In a way, we are part of a bigger story.”

There was only one problem: it takes at least three years for whisky to mature in Europe. This was bad news for cashflow, and the men had to think of something else in the meantime.

Could they make gin from Finnish rye and herbs? It was worth a try.

Investing in training

Heinilä admits that the distillery’s remote location was a concern.

“Helsinki is the birthplace of most trends in Finland, and we are located physically far away from there. We were setting up a visitor centre and at the same time wondering whether anyone would actually ever visit.”

They need not have worried: both the distillery’s reputation and demand for its products shot up overnight when a gin and tonic made with Kyrö Distillery Company’s Napue Gin won first prize in the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 2015, just one year after it first went into production.

According to Heinilä, the distillery’s visitor centre, named the Kyrö Tourism Board, attracted a total of 14,000 tourists last year, more than three times the population of Isokyrö. Kyrö Distillery Company has even begun to host its own festival, Kyröfest, which takes place every year in August. The company is on a mission to make its visitor centre the most prestigious tourist destination in Finland by 2022.

The company’s main objective – making Kyrö Distillery Company the best known rye distillery in the world – has the same deadline. In practice, achieving the goal requires considerable investment in growth: the new distillery that the company has been building this year will raise its annual capacity up to 500,000 litres.

Kyrö Distillery Company employs a total of around fifty people, of whom 10 work in the company’s offices in Helsinki. According to Heinilä, having a presence in two places makes recruitment easier, but the company also puts a lot of emphasis on training its distillery workers in Isokyrö.

“I think that we have only ever hired one person who had previous experience of working in a distillery. Our priority is finding great people to join the team”, he says.

“With the right attitude and personality, anything can be learned.”

“We cannot do this alone”

Heinilä is also the chairman of the municipal council of Isokyrö, which made his new project a big talking point in the town. The fact that the company’s official name is Rye Rye Oy – which is homonymous with a Finnish phrase for drunken frolicking – and the fact that Isokyrö has a history in producing moonshine added fuel to the rumour mill.

“The chairman of the municipal council being a bootlegger was naturally a juicy story”, Heinilä says.

The locals nevertheless soon warmed to the distillery. Heinilä has endless praise for the community’s team spirit, support and open-mindedness. He also sees Isokyrö’s location between the biggest towns in Ostrobothnia and South Ostrobothnia as a major selling point. There is even an airport in Vaasa.

Isokyrö is firmly intertwined with the brand of Kyrö Distillery Company. For Heinilä, the town will always be the company’s home: there are no plans to relocate let alone sell the business.

Kyrö Distillery Company currently exports its products to a total of 33 countries. Heinilä explains that global competition in the industry is fierce. The fact that the company has a whole town standing behind it and feeling proud about the association is a huge asset.

“This is not an endeavour of five men or even a team of 50 workers. To succeed, we need everyone’s support. We cannot do this alone.”

Heinilä’s tip for aspiring entrepreneurs in other small towns is to think about the strengths of the area they come from and look for links between their idea and the region. Heinilä’s favourite kind of feedback is people telling him that the success of his crazy idea in a place like Isokyrö has inspired them to try something similar where they live.

“I cannot think of a greater achievement for a group of guys than to give someone the courage to follow their dream.”

Small and nimble

It is hardly an overstatement to say that Kyrö Distillery Company has put Isokyrö on the world map. The distillery has been featured on the BBC and in Monocle magazine, and a journalist from VICE visited the town and wrote a piece about the frozen Kyrönjoki river.

Tero Kankaanpää, Mayor of Isokyrö, is used to talk quickly turning to the distillery wherever he goes in Finland.

“The town has become famous thanks to Kyrö Distillery Company”, he says.

According to Kankaanpää, the number of tourists in Isokyrö’s traditional attractions, such as its medieval church, has also increased.

The local authority has supported Kyrö Distillery Company as best it can. Most importantly, the local authority has rezoned the town and sold more land to the growing business. The small size of the town is a benefit in this respect: it makes the local authority nimble.

“One of our strategic promises is to grant planning permission within two weeks of receiving the papers, and we have always kept that promise”, Kankaanpää says.

Kyrö Distillery Company has also applied for and been given permission to build a biogas fuelling and distribution station in the town. The company intends to use biogas to fuel its steam generator, but the station will also benefit anyone driving a biogas-powered car in the future.

“The company is therefore also bringing new services to the town”, Kankaanpää explains.

As much as Isokyrö has added to Kyrö Distillery Company’s brand, the company has also benefited the town. Its story is perfect for Isokyrö, which has made a strategic choice to promote entrepreneurship from primary school onwards.

“Businesses are imperative for the vitality of small local authorities. The competition over residents these days is bordering on silly, and to attract more people, local authorities first need to have jobs.”

Isokyrö is building its profile on the town’s team spirit and positive “craziness”. The local authority has even brought out a rear windscreen sticker that reads “You don’t have to be crazy to come to Isokyrö, but it certainly helps”.

According to Kankaanpää, local residents are embracing their reputation.

“I would definitely say that the average person from Isokyrö now has a more positive view of their hometown and its achievements, and a lot of that is thanks to Kyrö Distillery Company”, Kankaanpää says.

“People are now proud to call Isokyrö their home.”

Text: Kaisa Saario
Photos: Samuli Salo