Willy Wonka’s Whiskey Factory

The staff of The Helsinki Distilling Company gets up bright and early on most days to start production when clocks strike 7 am. The daily rhythm of the small team is hectic, but the spirits are patient as berries and fresh water take their own time to turn into fine drinks.

The first distillery to open its doors in Helsinki in the past 100 years also mirrors the story of a city. As alcohol became chastised as makings of the devil nearing the 19th century, the production of spirits saw more and more restrictions and finally culminated in full-blown Prohibition by 1919, hand in hand with the first years of a modern nation. The 20s shifted the city into parallel universes. What you saw on the streets was not the full picture. Underground and behind closed doors, another culture was taking shape – one of jazz, joking, cocktails and other flashes from continental Europe. The street view took a while to catch up and it seems Helsinki had to go through decades of outside influences to regain a self-confidence, now visible in a city that is bustling with self-made urban culture.

In 2015, the first batch of Helsinki-distilled gin once again touched local lips. Today, HDCO represents old time production values in a contemporary world: looking past multinational corporations and mass consumption, and relying rather on hand-crafted local force and prime ingredients. Appreciating what is around, but with eyes on the wider world.

“The history of distilleries also tells the socioeconomic history of a city, and we like to also share these stories on our distillery tours. We like to be honest, to educate and show people how products are made. We are proud to be part of a new wave of local production that can also be exported to the whole world”, says Irishman Séamus Holohan, one of three founders alongside Mikko Mykkänen and Kai Kilpinen. Séamus lists a row of fellow distilling and brewing enthusiasts, from the monks of the Valamo abbey to the Kyrö Distillery in western Finland, forming together a brave new movement. The Abattoir is a prime location to thrive on this power of small greatness. “If you need a fork lift or a new cleaning system, someone around will always have an answer. I also love the neighbouring coffee roastery, and my kids love Jädelinö ice cream and fresh pasta from Vaelsa. The only problem is that they now refuse to eat dry pasta from the supermarket…”

As Finnish law heavily restricts the marketing and advertising of strong alcohol, HDCO relies on exposure in the press as well as word-of-mouth. The distillery hosts popular tours to show how it is all done. “When people can come in and have a look, it’s no longer a black box. Aquavit is not just a bottle you throw in the freezer for a couple of hours and then throw back a few schnapps. It has a whole story, and showing that story does its part to trigger a different interest and appreciation in the taste, not just the effect”, says Séamus.

“Seeing the machines and barrels and ingredients is really exciting to people. It’s like coming to Willy Wonka’s factory.”

HDCO’s plant at the Abattoir makes gin, whiskey, aquavit and apple jack (the Finnish version of a calvados), as well as the refreshing Helsinki Long Drink. Their version of the beloved Finnish summertime drink lonkero is a blend of their very own Helsinki Dry Gin and pink grapefruit juice. The full cycle of gin from raw materials to glasses takes about a month, but whiskey is a more time-consuming process. The first batch is ready to be bottled in the fall of 2017. This August marks the two-year anniversary of the distillery, but the three-year mark is already even more eagerly awaited. The coming summer has its own big news , however: HDCO will open a bar above the distillery, just in time for the Sideways festival in June.

Distillery tours can be booked via: https://hdco.fi/

Séamus Holohan, CEO, The Helsinki Distilling Company