From the 1930s to the 1990s Teurastamo was the abattoir district of Helsinki and once upon a time was used to serve as a slaughterhouse. It is now the heart of Helsinki’s thriving gastro-culture, where a host of outstanding cafes and restaurants stand side by side. It is also now home to The Helsinki Distilling Company, the first distillery in Helsinki in over 100 years, run by two great friends, Kai Kilpinen and Mikko Mykkänen.
In a former life, the distillery was used as a power plant for over 30 years and then became a soap factory, a meatball factory, a car wash and a wine cellar, and now this little corner in the abattoir district produces award-winning premium gin, the first local aquavit, applejack from Finnish apples, “lonkero” and of course most importantly, rye and single malt whiskey since 2014. It has become a place where old-world charm meets modern innovation and captures the essence of craftsmanship and the artistry of spirits. It is here where tradition and passion converge to create liquid masterpieces that tantalise the senses.
The Atlantic Dispatch had the pleasure to sit down with Master Blender Kai Kilpinen to find out the full story behind The Helsinki Distilling Company.
People Thought We Were Fools
The Helsinki Distilling Company is the result and ambitions of Kai and Mikko. Both are long-time friends and eager whiskey enthusiasts, whose passion is to produce premium spirits that people will truly enjoy. Tradition is highly valued at The Helsinki Distilling Company but at the same time, they don’t allow it to be a burden. This leaves room for out-of-the-box thinking – to be inspired by the past but define the future and innovate new ideas and methods, ‘We feel that we carry the torch for other Helsinki distillers,’ explains Master Blender, Kai. ‘As I sometimes say, every civilised city should have a library, an opera and a distillery.
‘Master Distiller Mikko Mykkänen and I have been whiskey enthusiasts for over 25 years,’ Explains Kai. ‘Whiskey was only a hobby for us, for a long time, but some 15 years ago we started to play around with the idea of starting a rye whiskey distillery in Helsinki. Helsinki did have a strong distilling tradition until the prohibition of 1919-1932 and that tradition changed. People in general have been very supportive of our enterprise. Of course, there were those who thought we were fools to start a distillery in Finland, where the alcohol policy is one of the most restrictive in the Western world. But we have proved them wrong, and we have created a community that gives back to the people of Helsinki by supporting the arts and culture.’
Sustainability is at the Core of The Helsinki Distilling Company
The Helsinki Distilling Company is truly a close-knit family. Here everything is done together as a team and everyone has their special place as a part of a community that is driven by respect, caring and good vibes. There is a deep sense of responsibility on the part of Kai and Mikko to ensure that everybody involved with the brand feels part of the family. This ethos forms a vital part of what the business is.
Another core message at the heart of the brand is sustainability. The company take part in a variety of circular economy projects, such as delivering the used mash to be converted into biogas. Their manufacturing process uses biogas as the source of energy and this utilises energy recovery effectively: the cooling water used in distillation is used in the mashing process without the need to heat the water separately. ‘Sustainability is at the core of our business.’ Says Kai. ‘We don’t brag about it, as we find that it is in our values to do things in a way, that ensures we leave the world in a better place than we got it.’
For us it’s Important to Support Local and Family Businesses
‘There is no typical day. As a small company, we do a lot ourselves.’ Kai tells us. ‘We have a great team of professionals in the distillery and the visitor centre. We have no hierarchy and Mikko and I are often involved in the manual work. After a day of carrying malt sacks, we might have an event with international Diplomats.’ What is clear to see is that Kai and Mikko lead from the front. They never ask anybody to do anything that they wouldn’t do themselves.
Another key aspect which Kai explains is the company’s desire to work with local businesses ‘It is very important to us to support local and family businesses. When it’s possible, we always choose to work with those. Common values are more easily found in those companies. We also like to work with small, starting companies because we have also been there and know that every client is very crucial when you have just started your business.’
Creative Spirit and Desire to Push Boundaries
One of the most impressive aspects of The Helsinki Distilling Company is the depth and variety of its portfolio, which is a testament to its creative spirit and its desire to push boundaries.
Each bottle tells a story, crafted with precision and care. From the velvety smoothness of their aged single malt whisky, reminiscent of the Finnish wilderness, to their zesty and refreshing selection of gins that capture the true essence of Nordic botanicals, every spirit is a celebration of flavours and an invitation to indulge in the extraordinary.
‘Our portfolio is very wide for a company of our size.’ Kai tells us. But innovation and experiments are something we do every day and sometimes the results are just so good that you want to release it as a product even though it might not be traditionally speaking ”profitable”. But in the end, when people taste our products, they find the quality and spirit that has been put into making them. All that said, we are a rye whiskey distillery and that is our first and biggest love.’
As Kai touched on earlier, they are a small company with a small team, which makes the amount of work that goes into The Helsinki Distilling Company all the more impressive. The level of innovation that takes place is simply incredible.
The process of creating their products is intricate and the philosophy is led by two factors: simplicity and balance. The key to crafting the finest spirits is to respect the highest quality ingredients and use them only when they add their specific character to the end result. Balance plays the other significant part in the mix. Just like in gourmet cooking perfection is achieved by a careful, harmonious balance of the elements – no one thing can overpower the ensemble of flavours.
The ultimate potential of a spirit is achieved by this same ideology of balance. The brand prides itself on its unwavering commitment to quality and its reverence for the heritage of distilling. The master distillers, with their meticulous attention to detail, pour their expertise into every step of the process, from the sourcing of the finest ingredients to the slow, patient maturation of spirits.
The dedication and passion for their craft is evident in every sip. It is clear to see that there are no corners cut in any process, not when it comes to taste, distilling, sustainability, or sourcing and using local products. Everything is done to the highest possible quality and without compromising the core values and ethics that the business is built on.
There Have Been Challenges But We Have Overcome Them
‘Tours and tastings are in my opinion the best way to get people interested in your spirits.’ Kai explains. ‘Especially as here in Finland, public marketing of spirits is forbidden, so tours and tastings are a crucial part of our marketing effort.’ Navigating the various restrictive policies that prohibit the promotion of alcohol in Finland has been something of a constant challenge for Kai and Mikko, but it is something they continue to overcome.
They host immersive events and workshops, where enthusiasts and novices alike come together to learn, savour, and create lasting memories. From interactive cocktail classes to intimate tastings, every experience is designed to ignite the senses and nurture a deeper appreciation for the world of spirits. ‘Our visitor centre consists of our Tislaamo – Distillery Bar and our Whiskey Cellar’ Kai adds. ‘The bar also has a restaurant which is located on the top floor of our distillery building. The Cellar is about a 5-minute walk from the distillery and it is in a 160 years old stunning ice cellar built of granite from the site. We offer a tour and tasting in both and usually, people also want to stay for dinner. We also cater for private events such as birthday parties, weddings and corporate events in both locations.
Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the brand, so how does Kai reflect on all they have achieved and what is still to come? ‘I would say that the biggest achievement is that we have got this far, people know our name and follow our whiskey and other spirits. We are still at the beginning of our journey, so let’s see where it leads. We have met a lot of challenges on the way, but we have managed to overcome them. We are steadily growing the company, especially the export endeavour, and our product development continues and whiskey matures in the casks are becoming even better every day.’
With thanks to the gentleman that is Kai Kilpinen.
To find out more about The Helsinki Distilling Company, please visit here
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