Gin and tonic is probably the most iconic highball cocktail. Once introduced by the British in the tropics, it soon found its way into mainstream western society. From sunny Spain — where G&Ts are practically the national drink — to Nordic summer nights, this is a drink we’ll never lose a thirst for.
Sisu – that stoic determination is something quintessentially Finnish. It was that bravery that helped them stand up against the Russians in the Second World War, and maybe you need the same guts when you set your sights on making the best gin in the world. And so it was decided, during a conversation held in sauna, that a distillery should be constructed on the banks of the River Kyrö, in Isokyrö, a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants in Finland’s Ostrobothnia region. That decision proved to be a very clever one – Kyrö Distillery Company is now a successful manufacturer of the essence that provides the foundation for a great gin and tonic.
Winston Churchill, who himself enjoyed a drink or two, is supposed to have said: “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire.” He was referring, of course, to the old story that gin and tonic was introduced by the army of the British East India Company in India as protection against malaria – a key ingredient of tonic water being quinine, then used in the prevention and treatment of the mosquito-borne disease. It wasn’t long before someone discovered that tonic tasted much better with a splash of gin, and the bartender’s best friend was born! It’s a concoction that requires no unusual ingredients and is incredibly simple to make – anyone can prepare the perfect aperitif.
Finland is not known for having a cocktail culture, but the founders of Kyrö Distillery Company weren’t deterred. They were certain they had a market in their own country. As they sat there, deliberating in the nude, they also asked themselves why no one in this part of the world had made a great gin out of rye – something there is plenty of in Finland.
“We understood that a Finnish gin distillery would be something rather unexpected. And that is naturally always a good thing,” says Mikko Koskinen, co-founder of the company.
Back in the early 18th century, gin was regarded as the “infamous liquor” and a true nuisance. Politicians and religious leaders argued that gin drinking encouraged laziness and criminal behaviour. In 1729, in an attempt to put an end to this, the British Parliament passed a Gin Act, raising the tax payable for the spirit. It naturally resulted in riots. The working man loved his gin, and it was not until the much adored English poet Lord Byron started to enjoy a gin cocktail now and then – often in Venice – that it found its way into higher circles of society. Once introduced there, gin was bound to stay.
The idea of using rye as the cornerstone of the Finnish gin was very clever. Along with wild botanicals foraged from the region, it gives the spirit a unique style that soon gained the Kyrö Distillery Company recognition. Today, the brand’s products are sold in more than 20 countries. And last year it was selected as the best gin for a gin and tonic at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, for which distilleries from 90 countries took part and 150 varieties of gin were submitted. But the Finns had a secret recipe. “We served our Napue gin with a twig of rosemary and a few icy cranberries. And tonic, of course. A good tonic,” Koskinen says.
Gin was actually invented by the Dutch, but the English took it up about 400 years ago and spread it around the world. It consists of an extremely pure spirit, flavoured with botanicals, such as coriander seed and cinnamon bark, but most importantly, juniper berries. These are what make a gin taste like a gin. At Kyrö Distillery Company, their most famous gin’s other key components are deeply rooted in the very heart of Finnish nature.
“Our Napue rye gin is made from sea buckthorn, cranberries, birch leaves and meadowsweet, giving the scents and flavours of an early-morning, misty Finnish meadow,” Koskinen says. He loves gin, of course, and his favourite way of drinking it is in a Ramos gin fizz – a true challenge for a busy bartender, since the cocktail has to be shaken vigorously for over a minute. The result is heavenly.
Still, in the world of cocktails, it is hard to ignore the gin and tonic. The trajectory of the drink has taken it from being that rather bitter tipple used for medicinal purposes in outposts of the British Empire to becoming a mainstay in clubs and bars by the First World War and then synonymous with American country-club lounges. With its regular appearance on the TV show Mad Men, it got an extra swing into our era. Now, this summer, maybe it’s time for our Finnish friends to show us how best to enjoy an ice-cold G&T
The Finn Gin
1 shot of Napue gin
A sprig of rosemary
A few cranberries
Fill a tumbler with ice, pour in the gin and tonic, then garnish with the rosemary and cranberries.
Words by Alfredo L Jones
Photography by Veera Kujala, Kimmo Syväri & Mikko Koskinen
Special thanks: Kyrö