Hoping to find the perfect blend in a Finnish spirit

Wild Geese: Shay Holohan, Helsinki Distilling Company, Finland

Cork-born Shay Holohan is an Irish distiller with a difference, eschewing the rolling green hills of his native country for the much colder climate of Finland to make his mark on the business.

"There isn't the whiskey culture that you find in other countries, but there are fantastic raw materials," says an enthusiastic Holohan as he proudly guides visitors around the store rooms and machines at the headquarters of the Helsinki Distilling Company.

The walls and ceilings of the listed building that houses the distillery are rough-hewn, but the pot still gleams and there is not a speck of dust or dirt to be seen anywhere.

With a production target of 40,000 litres of cask-strength whiskey by 2016, Holohan (41) and his two Finnish partners are eager to start seeing some return on their investment, but the cleanliness is a portent of the tough regulations and long delays involved in starting such a venture in Finland.


“There’s a lot of paperwork to be completed and everything takes a lot of time,” says the Cork native over the hum of the air conditioning that regulates the temperature on the production floor.

“The paperwork has taken well over a year and you don’t get your licence to distill until the authorities have been here to visit and say it’s okay.”

Holohan's partners in the venture are master distiller Mikko Mykkänen, with whom he prepares the distillates, and board chairman Kai Kilpinen, who also looks after marketing and organises tastings for buyers.

Given the hoops through which they had to jump to get permission to open the first private distillery in the city for almost 100 years, it is hardly surprising to learn that alcohol was once entirely prohibited in Finland.

That ban was lifted in 1932 but an extremely restrictive attitude towards the sales and marketing of strong alcoholic drinks remains in place.

Even with a licence to produce spirits, Holohan and his partners are not allowed to advertise their wares or sell directly to the public, while everything they produce has to be tested and registered with the state monopoly Alko, which regulates the supply to consumers.

Many producers would baulk at the regulatory framework and the state-run monopolies that control alcohol sales in Finland, Sweden and Denmark but, perhaps surprisingly, Holohan says it has its advantages.

“For a small producer like ourselves, it’s not actually a bad thing. It means it’s more difficult to sell to private individuals, but their shops will stock our product and make it available to private people for us.”

The first phase of the renovations has seen the installation of the 300-litre pot still on the ground floor.

And, now that production of whiskey, gin and applejack (a spirit similar to calvados) are all under way, there are plans to open a bar on the first floor with a space for tastings and corporate events, providing much-needed income streams as the business finds its feet.

“The initial investment is quite substantial. You have the cost of all of these machines, of building the factory as we want it to be. You also have to wait three years to get the real income flow, but we’ve factored that in,” says Holohan, who abandoned a successful career in IT security to found the distillery.

“We have said that we will get to the point where we have products in bottles ourselves and then we will go and look for external investment to really bring the products to market,” he adds.

To qualify as whiskey, the spirit must spend three years ageing in the barrel.

Few distilleries can wait that long, so, as with many others, the first Helsinki Distillery product to hit the shelves will be a high-quality gin which Holohan expects to retail at about €44 for a half-litre bottle.

“We’re at the more expensive side,” he freely admits, “but if you compare us to craft gins and not the mass-produced gins, it’s up there with them. And our quality is far better than these mass-produced gins.”

The price hasn’t scared off Finnish spirits enthusiasts. The first batch of gin from the distillery is already sold and Holohan has orders from several well-heeled private individuals who want entire casks of gin and applejack for their wine cellars.

Holohan sees a bright future in the business.

“We have a seven-year plan so we know our capital needs and our projected income flows. There are a lot of small distilleries popping up, so I’m sure there’ll be some consolidation there.

“There’s also a big shortage of whiskey in the world. That might sound funny, but I think that’s something positive,” Holohan says, adding that tastes and habits in Finland are changing. I think people are moving from spirits that are high in alcohol to drinking a whiskey that is something to be savoured.”

While Finland may be the focus at the moment, thoughts of home aren’t too far away.

“Walking in now to the co-op in Mitchelstown, it would be great to see one of our products there, or in an-off licence in Cork. That would be a proud moment.” www.hdco.fi.