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Kyrö Distillery Company’s Kalle Valkonen puts scientific knowledge into practice

Before mastering the art of distillery, Kalle Valkonen was developing biofuels at the University of Helsinki. Now he tells us about his surprising career turn.

Text: Reetta Mikkola

A few years ago Kalle Valkonen was growing algae in wastewater at the University of Helsinki, aiming at an academic career. Now he has left the academic circles to work as the head distiller of the hyped distillery, Kyrö Distillery Company. The unexpected career move took a four-month period at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California to change his mind.

Despite the amazing resources and an inspiring working environment, the American research culture was not all fun and games. Postdocs and PhD students worked around the clock.

“I realised that if I want to commit myself to research, all my life would be centered around it”, he says.

Valkonen was not ready for that. Instead, as fate would have it, he ended up distilling gin and whiskey in Isokyrö, a small town in Ostrobothnia.

”At the university, we used to seal up instruments with bubble gum.”

Practical knowledge

How on earth does a microbiologist become a distiller?

It all happened by accident, but looking back, the path seems natural. Valkonen was passionate about beer for several years, and had become something of a brewer himself. Just as he was looking for a new direction, Mikko Koskinen, an old friend of his, asked if he’d like to be in charge of a new distillery. They would be the first ones making Finnish rye whiskey. That settled it.

Valkonen is the kind of person who wants to study not only for the sake of knowledge, but to do something with what he’s learned. Luckily this new career puts his lab experience into good use.

“The knowledge in microbiology has been a huge advantage. When something goes wrong, I know where to start looking for the failure”, he says. Microbiology is for example an essential part of the fermentation process that the whiskey goes through before distillation.

This far, Kyrö Distilling Company has not been famous for whiskey, but for gin. In 2015 the company’s Napue gin was chosen as an ingredient of the best gin & tonic in the world. After that sales went crazy.

“Luckily we had just gotten our second loan from the bank. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had the money to buy enough bottles and corks”, he recalls.

Risky whiskey

When the five co-founders started their business in an old dairy, none of them had any previous experience of distillation. Fortunately the work in the university research group gave Valkonen an unprejudiced attitude towards solving problems. He’s not afraid of taking the axe by the handle even when the problem is everything but clear.

Sometimes that results in surprising yet innovative solutions.“At the university, we used to seal up instruments with bubble gum”, he says with a laugh.

”Knowledge is best when you can use it in practice.”

Before the distilled product can be called whiskey it has to set in wooden barrels for at least three years. It’s a lot like scientific research: you put your work into something for several years, but you never know what the result is going to be.

Is that kind of risky business scary?
“I’ve never thought about the risks, really! But the results seem promising. I hope that in three years we’ll have the product in stores continuously” he says.

Before conquering the world with whiskey, Valkonen will return to his studies. The Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland has a master’s program in brewing and distillation.
“I’m very excited about that! Knowledge is best when you can use it in practice.”
In the coming years that knowledge might well be bottled.

BIO

Kalle Valkonen is the head distiller of the Kyrö Distillery Company, located in Isokyrö in the Finnish Ostrobothnia. Valkone founded the company in 2012 together with Miika Lipiäinen, Mikko Koskinen and Miko Heinilä. Since then the company has grown into a business employing more than 20 people.

Before switching to the distillation business Valkonen was growing algae as a research assistant at the University of Helsinki. Kyrö Distillery Company is a part of the Slush Science Track Opening Event at the Päivälehti Museum.

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