Great excitement this week from Oulu to Tampere and from Turku to Helsinki as Finland celebrates one hundred years of Independence. The Finnish Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Parliament of Finland on 6 December 1917.
With Sweden to the left and Russia to the right, survival as an independent country was never a certainty. Finland these days is known for Nokia, Angry Birds and their education system. They also make great watches (I have a Suunto) and knives (an orange-handled Fiskars scissors is a present I’ve often given). Add in the clothing brand Marimekko, which my wife loves, and KONE, the 4th largest manufacturer of elevators and escalators worldwide. Nokia may have sold their handset business to Microsoft but as a network equipment maker, they had revenue in 2016 of €23.6 billion. Finnish gaming companies include Supercell (Clash of Clans) and Rovio (Angry Birds).
The education system in Finland is a product of some forward-thinking after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a banking crash led government officials to prioritise investment in schools. The Finnish education system moved away from homework, exams and streaming. They almost eliminated private schools and let teachers have considerable autonomy over what to teach. The results have been nothing short of staggering, with Finnish schoolchildren achieving mathematical skills comparable with the hothousing that kids in many Asian countries receive.
When Séamus Holohan, a friend of mine from school, met and married a Finnish girl she wanted their three kids to be educated in this system. And so, they left Stockholm and moved to Suomi, as the Finns themselves call their country.
When Séamus moved to Helsinki, his main problem was that he didn’t speak the Finnish language. While he spoke Swedish – one of two official languages of Finland – this is spoken by only 5% of the country as their mother tongue. As everyone there speaks English, it’s hard to muster the motivation to spend dark winter evenings learning Finnish with its fifteen noun cases. Getting a job where he could work in English wouldn’t be a problem, but he knew he would miss the water cooler conversations vital to navigating the office politics of any large organisation. His solution, therefore, was entrepreneurship; he set up a company.
Séamus decided to do something that at least people wouldn’t be surprised he was doing. Finland already had its share of Irish pubs. Although his mother was a demon knitter, he didn’t fancy a life selling geansaís. So together with two of his wife’s friends, he decided to set up a whiskey distillery. In 2013, The Helsinki Distilling company was born. They didn’t quite have to Google ‘how to make whiskey’, but at the same time, there was a lot to learn. The good part was that the ingredients – Finnish rye, barley, yeast and water – were locally available and good quality. So, making premium hand-crafted whiskey just involved a trip to Germany to buy a copper still, then a series of long telephone calls to one of the barrel brokers, who can get you the casks necessary to mature the whiskey.
A key part of the business model of any distillery these days is ancillary services. The business plan included a distillery tour, where you could go behind the scenes to learn how whiskey is made. Also, there would be a bar, where people could taste the full range of products. This is very much in keeping with the foodie culture that the Nordic countries have. Finally, there would be merchandising. The dream was that the biker gangs would wear black t-shirts with the Helsinki Distilling Company logo. Between tours, tasting and merchandising, along with the revenue from selling the alcohol itself, Séamus reckoned there was a business.
The biggest problem with whiskey is the time it takes to mature and there is nothing you can do to accelerate the process. What you can do quickly is make gin, which is drinkable almost immediately. And so, the first product off the shelf was Helsinki Dry Gin, “An artisanal, premium gin distilled with nine choicest hand-picked botanicals including the Arctic lingonberry.” An additional marketing trick was their reinvention of the Helsinki Long Drink.
The origin of the Long Drink dates back to the 1952 Summer Olympics held in Helsinki. Although prohibition ended in 1932, the culture in Finland meant that the sale of alcohol needed to be tightly controlled. The authorities knew that this wouldn’t wash with visitors, so as a compromise they allowed the creation of what we would now call an alcopop. The Long Drink remained popular after the Olympics were gone, so Séamus created the Helsinki Long Drink, a new type of a premium drink in a bottle made by mixing Helsinki Dry Gin with pink grapefruit. It was an instant hit and supplies sold out, providing vital cash flow while the whiskey was maturing in casks.
On Friday 17 November last, the seals were opened to release the very first batch of Helsinki Whiskey. A huge milestone for the company and the result of a four years of hard work. There is a large display in the Duty Free shop of Helsinki airport where you can buy Helsinki Gin, Whiskey & Akvavit. If you have time in Helsinki, why not visit Tislaamo, their distillery bar in the old Meat Packing District. Finally, this is a great story for anyone who has always wanted to set up a micro distillery.
If Séamus had not moved to Finland, he would never have done anything like this. Some days, he tells me, he almost can’t believe it himself.