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Sell Finnish liquor in local supermarkets, says Kyrö Distillery

David Mac Dougall
Newsmakers: Alcohol in Finland
Newsmakers: Alcohol in Finland
This week on Newsmakers, Mikko Koskinen from Kyrö Distillery discusses Finland's relationship with alcohol. Is the country too puritanical to change? Should Alko shops be abolished? Should advertising laws be more strict or more relaxed? And would you like to see more booze available in your local supermarket? David Mac Dougall talks about these issues and more, with the makers of award-winning Napue gin.

Hard alcohol like vodka, whisky or gin should be sold in supermarkets - but only if it's made in Finland. That's the suggestion from Kyrö Distillery's Mikko Koskinen, speaking on HSTV's weekly English-language current affairs show Newsmakers.

"What I would do is allow domestic products to be sold in supermarkets for example, and that would create demand, and it would create culture that's beneficial for the country" says Koskinen.

The idea from the makers of award-winning Napue gin is a radical departure from the status quo in Finland, where only beers, ciders and long drinks with lower alcohol volume can be sold in supermarkets at certain times. Wines, spirits, and other alcohol over 4.7% volume can only legally be sold in government-sanctioned Alko stores, with strict opening hours.

Koskinen concedes that his plan could spark legal action, if international drinks manufacturers think that allowing Finnish domestic alcohol to be sold in supermarkets, while imported booze is restricted to Alko stores, amounts to discriminatory practices.

But while the idea might sound like a non-starter, it could also be seen as a logical next step from current regulations which allow berry wine and traditional 'sahti' beer to be sold in commercial breweries or vinyards in the areas where they are produced. There is therefore a precedent for permitting the sale of drinks with a higher alcohol volume in outlets other than Alko.

"The most important thing would be having the sales at the distillery" says Koskinen. "And that's a reasonable demand". He says that someone living in the town of Isokyrö close to the distillery would have to make a 40km round trip to the nearest Alko to buy a bottle of Napue gin.

Koskinen, who started the Kyrö Distillery Company with friends in 2013, has both positive and negative things to say about Alko's network of stores, and its virtual monopoly when it comes to the sale of hard alcohol.

"The good part about Alko is that it might not be best in cities [...] but in smaller towns, Alko is actually providing reasonably good variety of alcohol and products to be enjoyed" he says. "In the cities, the variety would be better if Alko didn't exist".

In recent years, Finnish governments have tried to crack down on alcohol advertising, especially on social media. A 2014 law makes it all but impossible for drinks companies to promote their products via social media. There were also new restrictions on advertising beer, cider and long drinks on television. The idea behind it is to reduce the advertising of alcohol, impacting sales, and hopefully leading to lower instances of alcohol-related illness or death, over time.

Koskinen says that restrictions on alcohol advertising are warranted, especially targeting young people. But he argues there needs to be a rethink of other aspects of the laws.

"We need to loosen the advertising regulations" says Koskinen. "Whenever you make something forbidden you make it interesting, the same that has happened with drugs and prohibition, and it simply doesn't work".

The restrictions have lead to some surreal moments for Kyrö Distillery, which won a gold medal for its Napue gin at the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) in summer 2015.

"Legally as distillers, we can't say what we are distilling" Koskinen explains. "What we can do is sort of corporate marketing. We can tell about the people that work with us [...] but not our actual products". This lead to a situation where the Kyrö team were able to sample their award-winning gin on national television in Finland, but not mention the award on their website (which is hosted in Estonia for legal reasons) or social media.

"There's a slight paradox there, and I'd love the law to ease the paradox a little bit" he says.

Koskinen says the mission of Kyrö Distillery is to "make the flavour a more integral part of alcohol culture", by encouraging people to consume alcohol responsibly, with quality over quantity.

"We're sort of swimming upstream right now, and our goal is to turn Finland instead of just a vodka country, which is associated with heavy drinking and drinking only to get drunk, we would like it turn more into rye whisky region of Europe, which would be linked more with (culinary) aspects of alcohol" he explains.

After winning the prestigious IWSC award, sales of Napue gin took off domestically in Finland, and at first the company struggled to match demand with supply. Even now, they estimate that Napue gin accounts for 20% in litres, of all gin sold in Alko stores. Koskinen agrees that the company's conscious decision to offer a premium product with an affordable price tag has helped fuel their success. The company could have made more money with a higher price point, but Koskinen says their current marketing and sales strategy is "the sustainable way of building something that would last hopefully centuries".

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