In 2012, five friends pulled an all-nighter drinking American rye whiskey in a sauna in Finland—a country in which rye is the most beloved grain and is deeply rooted in everyday culture. By morning, they asked a watershed question: Why wasn’t anyone making rye whiskey in Finland?
This was the now-storied genesis of Kyrö Distillery, named for the charming rural village, Isokyrö, where it occupies an old dairy farm and produces spirits made from 100% Finnish rye, including a cream liqueur product that blends the two. By 2015, the brand’s gin was anointed “World’s Best Gin for a Gin & Tonic,” and today, Kyrö’s graphically distinct bottles adorn cocktail bars from Tokyo to New York. Bartenders and industry pros from across the world regularly travel to the remote distillery to experience the brand and happily ply themselves with rye. But how, in the span of eight years, did Kyrö grow from a bright idea post-sauna to a globally recognized brand—one that’s celebrated so far beyond its outlying origin?
Here, Kyrö co-founder and head of brand Mikko Koskinen discusses building a distinct brand identity; the advantage of embracing the unique characteristics of a location; and fostering ambassadors to advocate for you in foreign markets by providing an experience that will stay with them for a lifetime.
Q. The Kyrö brand is very recognizable, from consistent black-and-white photography and unique typography to its authentic, playful voice. What led your team to focus so heavily on building strong attributes, early on?
A. When we had the idea for the distillery in 2012, we felt it was a natural thing to do, since rye grain is an essential part of Finnish culture and nobody was making whiskey out of it. After prohibition in Finland, alcohol manufacturing and distribution were state-controlled. When we joined the European Union things liberated a bit, but we still don’t have a strong distillery culture because of this history. It didn’t feel credible for us to start producing premium spirits; in our domestic market, everything premium would have come from abroad. In the very sauna where we got the idea, one of our founders said that if we want to pull this off, we need to be better at branding than the Swedes.
Q. How did you go about building the brand?
A. We started a collaboration with a brand agency called Werklig in 2013. We didn’t have a history in spirits production but we did have a lot of history. We discovered this old dairy and it was the perfect place to build the distillery. In that spot in 1714, there was a big battle called Battle of Napue so there’s a war memorial just a couple hundred yards from the distillery. We started rooting the brand in local history.
We took influence from local agricultural tradition and formed our barrel warehouse to resemble a rye barn—to the point of making the concrete molds from old barn planks. If a brand is a world that the company creates, there are opportunities to bring it to life everywhere!
One thing that has affected many of our branding and marketing decisions is that when we started, Finland’s alcohol marketing law was so strict that we weren’t able to display our products on our webpage. We had to be clever in building a brand without mentioning alcohol and somehow create a link between the brand and the actual product. That led us to use black and white as well as our particular font, which was created from the Napue battle memorial stone engravings and helps us to brand everything that we write.
Q. Was there a particular moment when you began to see the brand gain wider, international recognition?
A. We started distillation in 2014 and sold roughly 5,000 bottles in the first year. The next year, we were growing quite nicely and started exporting to Japan. But what really made it for us was when we won the International Wine and Spirits Competition for “World’s Best Gin for a Gin & Tonic.” That gave us the boost and credibility to actually export because if you come from a location that doesn’t have a brand of its own or that supports your spirits brand, you need validation.
Q. What do you feel was the most important thing Kyrö did to get to that point?
A. What really helped us was the approach that we took in developing the product. Prior to starting distillation at Kyrö, I visited a distillery in San Francisco called St. George with a gin, Terroir, that captures part of California’s nature. It struck us that we could play around with gin; it doesn’t have to be like London Dry. If you make standard London Dry but in a different location, it doesn’t really provide anything new to the category. Taking that influence, we used botanicals and berries to try to capture the Finnish summer in a bottle of gin and that was key to success. It ties into our idea of taking the best of local history and surroundings and build everything on top of that.
Another key moment was six weeks ago when we first made our own hand disinfectant. We set out not to make a profit but to provide something that is needed and could potentially save lives as cheaply and quickly as we could. Right now we produce enough of it that all of Finland can disinfect their hands every week. A great brand is a byproduct of building a great company, and that can only be achieved if the company is built with straight values that are communicated—and you act on them.
Q. Can you tell me about the Kyrö Experience—in which you invite people to stay at the distillery and make their own gin, forage for botanicals, sauna, meet the team, and learn the local history—and how it has helped build understanding and awareness of your brand?
A. We used to have a program where we invited bartenders to the distillery for training. It helped us find out what things people enjoy and can’t get anywhere else, what things really communicate what Kyrö is about, and why our brand is interesting outside of Finland—because when you’re doing something for exports it can be difficult to see what things appeal to people outside of your own cultural sphere. We hired brand ambassadors through that and decided to scale the program so that more people could have the experience and more people in the world could really understand the brand and make it come to life in their home markets.
We export to 30 countries and we’ve had participants from about 25 of them. This also means that whenever we need to know something, we have a group of friends that we can rely on. It’s a natural way of growing a brand, not through mass marketing but instead, through torchbearers and strong advocates, because brand only lives in people’s minds.
Q. What advice would you offer someone setting out to build a global brand from a remote location?
A. If you start from somewhere that doesn’t really have a history in what you’re producing, it gives you liberty in defining it. It’s also going to be more difficult; if somebody founds a distillery in Kentucky, it comes with a lot of preexisting knowledge and credibility. When you start somewhere that is unknown, it gives you the freedom to learn what things people appreciate about that place, and to make that part of the brand.
The visitor center is really important. The fact that we’re so far away has kept us from being lazy. If you’re a whiskey distillery in Dublin, people know about Irish whiskey and want to visit a distillery when they’re visiting the city, so you’re guaranteed to have visitors. For us, we have to earn every visitor which means we need to make the experience stand out.
If you build something that is appreciated in both rural and urban areas, you can have a huge impact and good penetration in terms of who is enjoying it. Combine the best from your remote location and from bigger cities. It’s not cheating, it’s just a smart thing to do. For us, we combine the best from the cities—which might be design, marketing know-how, the latest sense of culture—with the down-to-earth culture of the countryside, where half of the staff is from.
Q. Kyrö’s marketing materials and social media content seem to embrace the people behind the product, your wonderful founding story, and Finnish culture. Has the human element been an important part of your brand story?
A. It’s an asset to be a small producer, which makes the products much more relatable because you know the backstory and philosophy behind them, and the people who make the product are ones you could actually have a beer or a gin and tonic with. Also, having all of the staff featured in social media makes it easier for them to feel ownership of what they are doing.
Q. What steps do you take when expanding to a new international market? How do you ensure your brand message is effectively communicated?
A. To my knowledge, there is no modern spirits brand that owns its own production, brand, and has more than 50% of its turnover from exports. It’s really uncharted territory. As part of all that, and until recently, I was supposed to move to Berlin to make sure the German market will grow and the brand will be brought to life in a meaningful way. Having a founder as part of efforts in certain markets makes it more tangible. It increases the knowledge of the market within the company tremendously and also helps to translate the brand in a believable way in that market. One of our founders lived in Chicago for a year.
If your employees form part of your brand, through social media and all of that, if you stop doing this when you move outside your home market there will be a discontinuity. We learned that having people that feel like they own the brand really helps bring it to life. It’s not just one of those export brands; it’s a brand made by people that you can actually go and have a drink with.
Q. What do your brand ambassadors do?
A. Our brand ambassadors are partially sales, partially marketing, and PR. They know what bars are launching and tour different bars to introduce the spirits to the staff. They might close a deal themselves or make a lead to a salesperson. Our German brand ambassador, Max, has been organizing a small Kyrö Experience with a sauna by a lake in Germany, so you get some of the Kyrö experience without traveling to Finland.
Q. What is your biggest dream for Kyrö?
A. One of the dreams is not running out of dreams, because when you’re building something with your heart, dreams are the things that fuel that passion. I would also love to see our rye whiskey really take off. I think we’re making something really unique and I think we will be able to make room for a Finnish brand in the world of whiskey.