Vodkas from Finland
After having been the property of Sweden from the twelfth to eighteenth centuries, then of Russia until 1917, when it declared its independence, Finland was also dominated by its occupiers when it came to vodka.
It was supposedly the soldiers returning from a war in Russia who brought back to the country the first stills and the knowledge of how to make spirits from grain. For a long time, distilling was done at home clandestinely, and the practice spread quickly. By the eighteenth century, spirits are thought to have replaced beer as the most popular drink.
The first industrial distilleries were set up by Swedes, including Hans John Falkman, who worked for the Swedish royal court before moving to Helsinki in 1842 when the Swedish crown took over the monopoly rights to distillation.
In 1875, there were eighty-three distilleries in the country, and this growth was to continue. In 1880, a second yeast production unit (necessary for the fermentation of the mash) was set up at the Rajamäki distillery. Within ten years, it had become the country’s major vodka company, called Puhdistettu Paloviina, meaning purified and burnt spirits.
Independence had hardly been won when in 1919 a period of general prohibition of alcohol began. The distilleries were nationalized and the use of alcohol was suppressed, except for medicinal or industrial purposes.
As in the United States, illegal imports and the distillation of spirits known as “moonshine” became common.
In 1932, Prohibition ended, but the Finnish state retained its monopoly over the production of vodka and alcoholic liqueurs. A new distillery, Koskenkorva, was created in 1938.
The Rajamäki distillery, the oldest in the country, became famous for the production of the alcohol used to make Molotov cocktails, used by the partisans in their battles against Russian tanks and to run the motors of military vehicles.
After World War II, Finland was in a precarious position as a close neighbor of the Soviet Union. At first neutral, it gradually became closer to its Scandinavian neighbors and then to all of Western Europe. It became a member of the European Union in 1995. One of the conditions of membership (as for Sweden) was the ending of the state monopoly, which led to the appearance of new vodka producers.
THE LEADER: FINLANDIA
Relaunched in the 1950s, the Rajamäki distillery benefited from its use of pure water. Finlandia vodka was made there, created primarily for foreign markets, and especially the United States, in 1970. Finlandia opened up the American market to Scandinavian vodkas, which had been unknown on export markets, a full ten years before Absolut arrived to offer the idea of purity to American consumers.
Perhaps Finlandia did not have the advertising genius behind it that the Swedish vodka did, but its results were not negligible, with worldwide sales reaching 1.7 million cases in 1997, a fifty percent increase over 1993 sales.
Made exclusively of grains (malted and unmalted), Finlandia used a high-technology production process, multi-pressure distillation, that was invented in Finland and exported to other distillers, mainly in Scotland. After the cooking of the grain flour under pressure, the starch is transformed into sugar through the action of enzymes, then the whole is fermented by the action of selected yeasts. The mash, containing nine percent alcohol, is first distilled in a continuous still, then the resulting vapors (with thirty percent alcohol) pass through a condensation column and come out with a ninety-three percent alcohol content after the elimination of the fusel oils. It is then rectified in a continuous triple column to eliminate the methanol and the remainingimpurities. The result contains ninety-six percent alcohol.
The alcohol is then carefully mixed with spring water from Rajamäki, which originates several dozen metres beneath the ground and owes its great purity to its origins in the nearby Arctic glaciers. Finlandia vodka is known for its great finesse, but also for its flavours of grains, appreciated by connoisseurs. Even the Russian Pokhlebkin, a fierce defender of his country’s vodka, acknowledged the great quality of Finlandia, describing it as “exquisite, with a taste that is very different from that of Russian vodka”.
Its original bottle evokes the Finnish glaciers and carries an image of white reindeer, the symbol of the country. A local saying holds that if you see the sun, the moon, and a white reindeer at the same time, all your wishes will be granted. A legend recounts the story of a [young girl who was transformed into a white reindeer after a spell was cast on her. A group of hunters, her fiancé among them, began to chase her, and the fiancé was mortally wounded during the hunt. His blood broke the spell and the reindeer became once again the young woman. At that moment, the couple fell into profound, eternal sleep.
Since its creation, Finlandia has widened its range of products, with the appearance of original flavoured vodkas: Cranberry and Pineapple. More recently, a luxury version was launched, called 21, to welcome in the new century. It comes in a superb bottle that looks like a perfume flacon.
The nationalized group Primalco, the successor to the former state monopoly, is still the major producer of Finnish vodka, with several other brands.
• Koskenkorva, the best-seller in Finland, was created in 1952 and has a distillery in the village of the same name, located in the heart of a vast grain-growing area. After distillation and rectification, the alcohol is transported to Rajamäki to be diluted with spring water. There are three versions of the vodka: forty percent alcohol, with a black label; fifty percent alcohol, with a silver label; and sixty percent alcohol, with a red label, sold mostly in duty-free outlets. Koskerkorvan Viina, with thirty-eight percent alcohol, is sweetened with three grams of sugar per litre.
• Viljavaakuna is a transparent vodka with forty percent alcohol and a smoother flavour.
• Leijonaviina, a transparent vodka, has thirty-two percent alcohol and is dry in taste.
• Poytäviina is transparent and contains thirty-eight percent alcohol, with three grams of sugar added to each litre.
• Dry Vodka is grain-based and transparent, with forty percent alcohol.
• Maximus is transparent, with forty percent alcohol.
• Tähkäviina, with forty-two percent alcohol, has a yellowish colour due to the addition of distilled malt.
• Riistaryyppy, a colourless schnapps with thirty-eight percent alcohol, is fairly sweet, with ten grams of sugar added per litre.
THE NEW PRODUCERS
Since the end of the state monopoly in 1995, new brands made by independent distillers have appeared on the Finnish market.
• Lignell & Piispanen, founded by two pharmacists in the city of Kuopio in 1882, became famous for its liqueur made with Arctic raspberries. In spite of Prohibition and the state monopoly, the company was able to survive by producing aromatic extracts for the food industry. In 1995, it brought back Savon Wiina (an alcohol from Savon, a province of Finland), which had been very popular before Prohibition. This colourless vodka contains thirty-eight percent alcohol. It is fairly dry and made exclu-
sively of grain. The company also launched Marskin Ryyppy, a colourless, delicately flavoured liqueur named after Marshall Mannerheim, the hero of Finland’s struggle against the Russians.
• Chymos, a producer of fruit juices and other food products (such as jams), has turned to the distillation of spirits, notably Pohjan Poika Vodka, whose name refers to the Finnish trappers who used to crisscross Finland’s lakes and forests in search of fur. This colourless vodka, with thirty-eight percent alcohol, has no added sugar. A second version contains fifty-nine percent alcohol.
• Cheveleff, founded in 1992, has a presence in many countries and deals in a variety of products, including cigarettes, clothing, and jewelry. It also sells Cheveleff vodka (distilled by Lignell & Piispanen), whose modern-style bottle has a sailing theme.
• Marli, based in Turku, sells the grain-based Nordfors Viina, with a thirty-eight percent alcohol content.
• Sahti-Mafia makes Pontikka (“moonshine”), a strong, transparent vodka with a fifty percent alcohol content. Its name is a reference to the clandestine distillation that used to be done at night. It also produces a traditional Finnish beer, Sahti.