Thursday, April 18, 2013

Finnish whisky

Early 20th century wine and spirit store in Turku (Marli)
Finland was occupied by Russia in 1808-1809 and the imports of all neutral spirits (paloviina) were prohibited by the Finnish senate under the new Russian order in 1809 (revised in 1859 and 1889). The imports of whisky were prohibited too, as most of the Finnish customs officers classified whisky as neutral spirit. Cognac was
One of the first Finnish whisky ads 29.5.1904
allowed and marketed at least from the 1820s, although much of it was probably coloured and/or spiced neutral spirits imported from Estonia, Germany and Sweden.

The English traders complained in 1901 that customs of Finland were not fair as imports of cognac were allowed, but not of whisky. It was until 27.5.1904 the senate declared that whisky was not a neutral spirit and the imports should be allowed. Just in the next couple of days there were over a dozen of traders advertising their whiskies in the Finnish newpapers. The first companies with big advertising budgets were Buchanan's, Dewar's and The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) with different brands, such as King George IV, White Label, Highland Club, House of Lords and Perfection. Several Finnish wine traders advertised their own whiskies, often unbranded at the beginning of the century. Kinahan's Irish "L.L." Lord-Lieutenant Blended Whisky (without the 'e') was imported from Dublin (before its liquididation in 1910) and some unbranded American ryes and bourbons were available. 
"The biggest whisky company in Scotland, DCL, importer for the courts and all countries. Owns the biggest export warehouses of only the old clarified absolutely pure and noble. Highest and the most original brand: "King George IV" gold label, next "Distillers", "King George IV" white label, "D.C.L." (pronounced Di, Si, Ell.) and "Highland Club". British favourite drink: "King George IV" gold label for courts, clubs and first class hotels."

Below is is quite an impressive piece of early Finnish whisky journalism, published in the newspaper Otava 2.6.1904, just a week after the legalization of whisky, written by "Kimmo".

(Very) Roughly translated to English (sorry, Kimmo): "... Despite these original forms of civilizations [referring to the distilling of paloviina] we have been flooded with western European civilization in the form of cognacs, wines and liqueurs. Mostly this European civilization has been French, German and partly Hungarian. Therefore no-one can claim that Finland would not be European enough. Only English civilization has been an unfamiliar and a forbidden fruit for us. We have imported machinery, cloth, many useful tools, even noble ideas and exported butter, timber and reels, but civilization in the form understandable to Ananias Piirakainen, we have not received. The English do not have
anything else than the whisky-civilization, but the Finnish government have until now counted whisky as a neutral spirit and therefore have prohibited the import, as we do have enough of our own domestic civilization of illicit distilling. But now has the change come, now have the doors of whisky-civilization been opened for us, too! According to the senate it is now allowed to import whisky and it will be handled equal to cognac in the customs. Hardly was the decision signed when the Helsinki papers were filled with big whisky adverts. In this era of electricity, whisky was probably flowing through the cables as soon as it was allowed to enter the country. But let us see now what the former forbidden fruit is! The word whisky (pronounced uiski) is derived from the gaelic words "uisge beatha", which mean the water of life. It is a spirit burnt from malted barley. It was first distilled and drunk in Ireland and Scottish Highlands only, but later it spread to England and the world. As early as in the 14th century the Irish have been said to be able to distill whisky. Just as we have many sorts of spirits, so does the whisky come in differnt sorts. The most famous are the "L.L." (Lord Liutenant) made in Dublin and "Scotch Whisky", which tastes peculiary smoky. In the Northern America whisky is mainly made of rye and corn. "Rye whisky" is made mainly of rye, "malt whisky" of bare malts and "bourbon" of corn and malted rye. In addition there is "whisky cordial", which is a liqueur made of whisky. Well, that's enough for the time." 
Advert 1904

Uusi Suometar (29.5.1904) magazine knew that whisky was made with malted barley, with sometimes oats added, and that it was more expensive than cognac because of the longer maturation time and that the average proof was 53% abv.

The sales of whisky in Finland did not increase as expected. In 1904 there were only some 6000 litres of whisky imported and the next year it fell below 5000 litres. It was a tiny amount compared to the sales of other legal spirits of over 400 000 litres per year; paloviina sales were just below 200 000 litres and cognac over 100 000 litres per annum. The whisky sales increased slightly from 1908 to 1911; 6367 litres,  8568 litres, 11083 litres, 12959 litres, respectively. During the First World War 1914-1917 alcohol sales were allowed only in first class hotels and pharmacies, and as a result the Finnish consumption of alcohol per capita was the lowest in Europe. The Finnish senate passed the alcohol prohibition law in 1907 and again in 1909 and 1911. However it was not confirmed by the Russian goverment until 1917 after the Russian revolution and just before the Finnish independence in 6.12.1917 and it was until 1.6.1919 that the Finnish prohibition law took effect.

Glen Grant ad from 1932
As the alcohol prohibition was imposed, the Finnish state founded Valtion Alkoholiyhtiö Oy (State Alcohol corporation) to provide the nation with the alcohol for medical, technical and scientific purposes. Neutral grain and potato spirit was imported from Sweden and the UK. The corporation acquired the Kronan distillery in august 1919 for own production of spirit and yeast. The next year the distilleries of Tornator (Tainionkoski) and Hyvinkään Tehtaat (renamed as Rajamäki in 1923) were acquired. New distilleries were built in Enso in 1936 (lost in the WW II to USSR) and Koskenkorva in 1941. Distilleries produced both grain and potato spirits and additionally rectified sulphite spirits, which were cheap sideproducts from paper plants. The most commonly available alcohol during the prohibition was smuggled Estonian or German neutral spirit. Valtion Alkoholiliike was lead by a apothecarist I.R.Lindqvist, who apparently did not wholly support the prohibition and kept a broad selection of imported beverages available for medicinal purposes. The legal sales of strong spirits varied from 13 989 litres (1919) to 70 704 litres (1927) per annum during the prohibition 1919-1932. Most of it was probably neutral spirit and cognac (23 varieties), but at least seven different Scotch whiskies were imported. The selection included 5 malagas, 8 ports, 15 madeiras, 6 sherries, 1 marsala, 5 tokays, 6 sauternes, 8 other sweet wines, 28 reds, 21 whites and 5 champagnes, arguably sufficient selection for purely medicinal purposes.
Whiskies available for medicinal purposes in Finland 1926-1927
After the repeal of the prohibition, the state monopoly Oy Alkoholiliike Ab for alcohol production and sales was founded in 11.2.1932 (renamed as Alko in 1969 and Altia in 1999). The first shops opened 5th April 1932 at 10:00 am (5-4-3-2-1-0) . The sortiment was rather good with 156 items, including 16 blended whiskies.
Whiskies available in the Finnish Alko 5.4.1932, prices in FIM
The first whisky trade was made in a hurry during the spring of 1932. The newly founded company was not very organized and the first consignment with DCL for 5 600 cases (67 200 bottles) of whisky was signed on a small sheet of notebook in 5.3.1932. As the DCL wanted to confirm the transportation by sending a telegraph "Where is the ship?", the Finnish side responded: "Comes tomorrow - to the port of Scotland". Somehow the trade was pulled through in less than a month and the first shipment arrived just on time before the opening of the first shops in 5.4.1932. The whisky trade even got a head start as some shipments were caught up by pack ice in the Baltic sea and for example the deliveries of cognac were delayed.

Viski-Viina, product n:o 2
Later in that year one Irish (Paddy), one Canadian (Canadian Club) and one pure malt (Glen Grant) whisky were added to the selection. Viski-Viina, a matured Scotch grain whisky blended with two thirds of Finnish neutral grain spirit, was also introduced in 1932. The Finnish taste preferred the "cut" cognac Jaloviina, and so Viski-Viina was discontinued in 1941. In 1933 the Leijona Whiskies were introduced. They were Scottish (most likely DCL) whiskies bottled in Finland, aged 3, 5, 7 or 8 years and branded with one, two, three or four lions respectively. One and two lions were not popular and were discontinued in 1941, four lions was available until 1997. Kolmen Leijonan Whisky (three lions) is still for sale as a blended whisky and it was also available as a vatted malt until 2010.

Vatting tanks in Salmisaari
Alko investigated the possibility of own whisky production in 1930s and Bengt Thorbjörnson of Vin & Spritcentralen of Sweden was consulted on the subject. He advised against own whisky production and in fact against own maturation. Despite of that Alko kept importing considerable amounts of whisky in casks. A barrel of Finnish pure grain spirits was laid down in oak cask before the WW II, but it was used as a blending material for the popular Rajamäki Akvavit after the war, rather than marketed as whisky.

First real attempts to produce Finnish whisky in Alko started in the 1950s. The experiments were made in the Rajamäki distillery, which at the time had four different stills in use: two versions of the French double column Barbét still, a ten fold Savalle still and a Guillaume rectifier. Most likely the old Barbét still was used. Pyynikki brewery provided the peated barley malts and the distilling expertise of Sami Suominen, who had been studying brewing and distilling in the USA. Production was 60-70 000 litres per annum and after nine months of maturation in Alko's own imported sherry casks the whisky was considered "as good as an excellent American whiskey". For some reason the whisky did not get into market, but was rather used as a flavour component in Tähkäviina, a spiced spirit manufactured by Alko in 1960-1999. Another "own" whisky production by Alko was the Lion Blend, a retake on the unsuccessful Viski-Viina, a blend of Scottish whiskies and unmatured Finnish grain spirit, blended and bottled in Finland (1969-1990).

Whiskies for sale in Alko, 1972
Cooper in Salmisaari, 1950s
In 1973 Alko experimented with maturation of new make Scotch whisky in the Rajamäki warehouses using Alko's own oak casks. A similar sample was matured in a Scottish warehouse for comparison. After few years the Rajamäki warehouse was considered too warm and the stocks were moved to the bigger, colder and damper Salmisaari cellars. Most of this spirit (46 350 litres) was later used for the Lion Blend.

Alko's own whisky distillation started in 1975 in Rajamäki with an old spice still. The peated malts came from Lahden Polttimo maltings. Later quite substantial amounts of these peated whisky malts were exported to both Scottish and Japanese whisky distillers in the 1970s and the 1980s. Today Lahden polttimo produces malts for Teerenpeli and Macmyra under the name of Viking malt.

Malt exports from Lahden Polttimo (tons of barley)

Old spice still in Salmisaari
After some test runs the whisky production was transferred to Koskenkorva in late 1976, where the old Barbét column still was used. The trays of the column still could be set to seven different settings, all producing different spirits, much in the style of the lomond still. The barrels were acquired from Swedish Vin & Spiritcentralen at the beginning, but it is likely that Alko's own sherry casks and even oak chips were later used, too. The whisky production increased to million litres per annum in 1980 and the first commercial bottling
A diagram of a Barbét double column still
of Alko Whisky was released in 1.10.1981. The column distillation probably dimished the smokiness and the resulting spirit was quite light and woody, resembling more brandy than traditional Scottish malt whisky. The Alko Whisky was not a success among the Scotch whisky drinkers and the sales soon fell to a couple of hundred thousand bottles per annum and it was discontinued in 1994. The whisky matured for over ten years was released as Kypsytetty 10-vuotias Viski (marketed 1994-2000) and the younger surplus whisky was used in blended cocktails such as Prince Edward, Finn Cream and Vilakka. There was also a whisky bottling of Alko's fifty years anniversary presented for the employees of Alko in 5.4.1982.

Alko Whisky (1981-1994)

Viski 88 (1983-1994)

In 1982 Alko started to develop a stronger and more "Scottish" whisky, based on the success of Kolmen Leijonan Whisky (three lions), which was a Scottish blend bottled and partly matured in Finland since 1932. Viski 88 was released in 1.11.1983 and it became quite popular, being the most sold whisky in Finland during the 1980s and the the early 1990s. It was a blend of Scottish and Finnish whiskies with a total malt whisky proportion of 40-50% and matured in Finland. The name was chosen in the celebration of the founding year 1888 of the Rajamäki distillery. The label presents Väinämöinen (the leading character from Kalevala, the national epic poetry of Finland) as pictured on the wall of Vanha Ylioppilastalo (Old Student House) in Helsinki. Coincidentally, that is where the recent Uisge festival has been organised in 2012 and 2013. After the accession to the European Union in 1995 the name of Viski 88 was changed to Double Eight 88 and the production was discontinued in 2000 as the Finnish whisky ran out.
Alko 50-years anniversary bottling

Several independent Finnish whisky distillers have been starting production in the new millenium. Brewery restaurant Beer Hunter's in Pori was founded in 1998 and small batch whisky production started 8.11.2001. Holstein stills and mixture of Spanish sherry casks and new Portuguese casks are used for the Old Buck whisky. Teerenpeli beer restaurant was founded in 1995 in Tampere. Whisky production started in 2002 in pot stills and the first batch of 3yo whisky was released in 2005 and now an 8yo is available. Brewery restaurant Koulu (School) in Turku began their distilling in 2009 in Tuorla and their first ex-bourbon oak matured whisky named Sgoil has just been released as a 3yo. Hermannin Viinitila has recently distilled whisky in co-operation with the monastery of Valamo.
Alko Whisky 10yo 1994-2000

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  1. Tervehdys

    Mainio kirjoitus! Olen itsekin silloin tällöin poiminut asiakirjalähteistä tietoja suomalaisen "viskikulttuurin" historiasta, joten on mukavaa havaita, että on muitakin aihepiirin ajallisista ulottuvuuksista kiinnostuneita. Muutoinkin blogisi on jo pelkästään käsittelemiesi aihepiirien ansiosta hieno poikkeus viskiblogien joukossa.

    Menestystä harrastukselle!

  2. Näinköhän saavuttaa tämä viesti vielä mutta minkähänlainen arvo olisi tänä päivänä avaamattomalla Lion Blend pullolla? Juomakelvoton taitaa olla koska haihtumista on tapahtunut.

    1. Vanhojen blendien keräilyarvo yleensä on kehnonlainen ja tuskin kahta intohimoista suomiviskin keräilijää yhtaikaa saa kilpaa huutamaan. Eli korkeintaan kymppejä veikkaisin. Avaa, maista ja käytä loput Irish coffeen seassa, ei se juomakelvoton ole ;)

  3. Niin mä vähän veikkasinkin :D En viitti availla, lupasin sen jo yhden keräilijän kokoelmiin :)