‘Real people making real drinks from real stuff’, says master distiller Mikko Mykkanen, explaining the Helsinki Distilling Company’s mission, slapping a copper still beside him, as if to drum in his point ‘Drinks to sip and appreciate, not, you know…’Raising several imaginary glasses, Mikko conveys the quantity-over-quality approach that has hitherto defined his nation’s attitude to alcohol. Along with urbane restraint, his firm exemplifies a renewed pride in all things-Finnish: the distillery is housed in a former dock-zone abattoir that is a brick and-white-tile monument to 1930s Helsinki Modernism, and its award winning spirits incorporate a sweeping range of native botanicals.
A complex gin crafted with lingonberries and angelica whisky and aquavit distilled from Finnish rye; there’s even a superbly smooth sea buckthorn grappa. For good measure, the Helsinki Distilling Company’s forthcoming bar will tap into the whisky still’s residual heat to power the world’s first ‘whisky-fired sauna’. Back in the city centre, the refinement and re-national is at ion of Finnish drinking culture hits an apotheosis at A21, a sepulchral, back-to-black cocktail bar that hides behind net curtains at the foot of a 1980s office block. ‘We asked ourselves: how would all those American cocktails taste if they’d been invented here?’ says chief bartender Laura Nissinen, garnishing a birch mojito with artful clumps of moss, ‘You know, everyone’s had Sex on the Beach, but what would Sex in the Forest be like?’ A21’s mysterious but most palatable answer is a coniferous, earthy infusion of Helsinki gin, thyme, blueberries and cranberry black tea, sipped through a silver birch straw.
Finland’s traditional Rudolf-and-spuds cuisine has proved more cheerfully resistant to epicurean trends-no-nonsense fuel for no-nonsense people. But a quiet revolution is underway at Savotta, a former police station neatly tricked up as a plank-floored old farmhouse that overlooks Helsinki’s showpiece imperial Senate Square. A heads car fed waitress lays out wooden trenchers with the cornucopia that sprouts from Finland’s summer forests: rump of reindeer fawn in chanterelle butter; Arctic char with blackcurrant leaves. Desserts come smothered in berries, birch syrup and a scattering of black pellets that are referenced with a knowing smile, ‘Visitors always ask if these are something from the reindeer,’ she says. ‘Sometimes they are even more surprised when I tell them it is liquorice.’