Jyri Pylkkänen, Glenfiddich & The Balvenie Regional Malts Brand Ambassador, Shares His Whisky Market Insights

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Jyri Pylkkänen

It is not often you come across a Finnish person in Singapore. After spending the majority of his life in Helsinki, Jyri Pylkkänen finds himself exchanging his Scandinavian home country’s climate and way of life with Singapore’s (where he is based) sweltering heat and humidity and Southeast Asia’s melting pot of culture. The move comes after he was appointed as the new Regional Malts Brand Ambassador for Southeast Asia, focusing on Glenfiddich and The Balvenie.

Blessed with a tall frame, a glorious moustache and a beard, Jyri could easily make the cast of Netflix’s Vikings but instead finds himself in the world of alcohol and spirits. Growing up in the little city of Porvoo, along the south coast of Finland, Helsinki was the natural port of call for young Jyri back then. Embarking on either sports or academics are the two obvious paths for young Finns, but Jyri decided against both and sought opportunities elsewhere. Jyri stumbled across a gig in a nightclub while on the lookout, where he was promoted to make drinks behind the bar two weeks in. This new world was an eye-opener for Jyri, which quickly sparked the flames of passion in him.

Porvoo, Finland

Since then, Jyri established himself within Finland’s nightlife scene, spearheading multiple successful activations and co-founding two award-winning cocktail bars in Helsinki. Men’s Folio spoke to Jyri Pylkkänen about his early days in the alcohol scene, his plans for the region and his favourite whiskies to enjoy.

Jyri, when was your first exposure to alcohol? What did you drink?

I remember we had this thing called Salmiakki in Finland; it’s a kind of liquorice but heavier. You’d infuse that with alcohol and down it as a shot. That was my first experience with alcohol.

So, what drew you into the world of alcohol and spirits?

As I was quite young and looking for opportunities in life, I found myself working in a nightclub to earn some money. After two weeks, I got promoted to make drinks behind the bar, and I love the interactivity of it. I was the side guy when I was younger. I met new people, the bar community, everybody supported each other. It was a small, big world for a young boy back then.

I realised this was my passion and something I wanted to pursue. I worked at various pubs with various concepts and eventually found my place in cocktails. This turned out to be the biggest decision of my life, as I am still working in the industry. After that, I met my best friend and former colleague and decided to open a cocktail consultancy. It worked out pretty well, and after saving some money, we opened a few bars with different concepts, one of which included a New York-style cocktail joint.

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Scotch Manhattan crafted from Glenfiddich

It was also during this period that you developed a love for whisky?

Yeah, when we started our first bar in 2011, it was heavily based on gins and whiskies. That was the first touch point that made me feel I needed to learn about whisky. When I tasted The Balvenie and Glenfiddich for the first time, I went, “Yeah, these are the whiskies I really want to go in our cocktail menu and to recommend for our guests” because these two Speyside houses are totally different with their notes.

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The Balvenie Distillery

Your journey with William Grant & Sons started in Helsinki as the Experience Manager for Glenfiddich and the Balvenie. How many years ago was that?

I started in Apr 2016, working across the portfolio for William Grant & Sons, but my main focus was on Malts, basically Glenfiddich and The Balvenie.

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Glenfiddich Distillery

What was your impression of the two whisky brands after joining William Grant & Sons, compared to when you worked with them at your own bar?

The first trip to Dufftown to visit our distilleries in the Speyside areas was an awakening. Dufftown is the most beautiful area. You can feel the heritage and history of our distilleries and smell the aroma floating there. Everything has been tied together since Glenfiddich started in 1887.

After that came The Balvenie, which was more about the craft. When you visit The Balvenie distillery, you see our barley fields and the maltmen working 24 hours a day in different sieves. Our Head Cooper, Ian McDonald, maintains or repairs the casks every day. Then you have our malt masters working day by day to create our most beautiful expressions of The Balvenie.

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The Balvenie’s oldest liquid released to date, The Balvenie Sixty.

You are the newly appointed Regional Malts Brand Ambassador for Southeast Asia. What drew you to this part of the world?

I really love the culture here (in Southeast Asia), and even though I’m from Finland, I hate the cold weather! With the culture here and the emerging markets for whiskies, this is going to be a really cool place to be an ambassador and see how these areas grow with single malt whiskies. Every country has a different approach to whisky. It’s nice to see how it’s evolving in Thailand or Indonesia, with single malts and Singapore being the big one.

What countries do you cover?

Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam.

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The Balvenie DoubleWood 12, Jyri’s daily dram of choice.

You mentioned that Asia is an emerging market for whiskies. How would you assess the maturity of the Southeast Asian market in terms of whisky appreciation and knowledge?

There’s still a lot to do here in Southeast Asia regarding how people approach our brands, their feelings about The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, and whether they know what single malt and blended whiskies are. So, there’s much to do with the consumers and the trade market.

So, what are the first impressions, in terms of brand association, recall, and messaging, of Glenfiddich and The Balvenie that you want to cultivate in the minds of consumers and in the trade market?

I want to highlight that we are the pioneering single malt spirits for Glenfiddich. We were the first single malt whisky sold in the market in 1963. With The Balvenie, we are all about craft because we own all the homegrown barley, coppersmiths, coopers, and malt masters. 

Both brands take a slightly different approach. The Balvenie is more about the craft and handcrafted. Glenfiddich is the maverick of whisky making and honours a pioneering spirit.

Describe Glenfiddich and The Balvenie to a novice whisky drinker.

They are different styles, with The Balvenie being heavier with honey and vanilla notes with a hint of peat, together with honey and nutty notes. Glenfiddich is lighter, sweet and fruity, with apple and pear notes and a little bit of vanilla turning to subtle oak notes, which makes it really easy-going. If you’re starting to enjoy whisky, I think Glenfiddich is a perfect starter for you.

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The Balvenie’s homegrown barley

And now do it again, this time to a seasoned whisky drinker.

Glenfiddich: the most unique and pioneering spirit is what I always say because connoisseurs and experts may have already forgotten what Glenfiddich is. We have so many expressions with Glenfiddich that are easy to approach; there’s something for everyone, from beginners to connoisseurs.

The Balvenie: It’s all about the craft; people love the idea that we’re making it by hand. There isn’t such a distillery like The Balvenie in Scotland at the moment where you can appreciate and taste the level of handcraft in every expression.

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Stills inside the Glenfiddich Distillery

What are your favourite expressions of The Balvenie and Glenfiddich?

I would say Glenfiddich 15 Our Solera. I was born close to Christmas, and during this period, different layers of spice, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, would unfold. These spices are in Glenfiddich 15. My first memory was opening a bottle of it during Christmas with my friends. The first sip was the most perfect for the occasion.

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Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Our Solera Fifteen

For The Balvenie, it would be The Balvenie 21-Year-Old Portwood. When David C. Stewart, our malt master, started to introduce the finishing touches, the first was the 12-year-old Double Wood, followed by the Portwood. He trialed how to use port pipes to casks for finishing and was amazed by the end results. It gives a little bit of spiciness, but together with that honeyed and nutty soul of The Balvenie, it is the perfect balanced combination for me.

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The Balvenie Portwood 21

What’s the best way to enjoy whiskies, or is there such a thing as “the best way”?

Since we’re all individuals, there are different ways to enjoy it. Neat is the most common and the best way to taste whisky. I would also add some water. If you water the ABV down, it’s easier to approach, enjoy and unlock new flavours. You can do highballs since you have the soul of the whisky but it’s lightened up because of the soda. I’ve noticed people in Southeast Asia enjoying highballs because it’s so warm here. I really love cocktails as well, and it’s easy to combine The Balvenie and Glenfiddich to craft different cocktails.

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Are there any general misconceptions about whiskies that you would like to debunk?

Yes, people who haven’t tried whiskies usually think that whisky is heavy, really smoky, and peaty, but it’s not like that. Glenfiddich and The Balvenie are classic Speyside whiskies with lots of fruit, honey, notes, and nuttiness. When I started my whisky career, I had a very peated dram of whisky and thought, “What is this madness?” because I was not used to that kind of flavour. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a very harsh Islay whisky, but I recommend tasting different styles of whiskies and finding your favourites. 

There’s also the classic single malt versus blended whisky debate. People who don’t actually know what blended and single malt whiskies are are always thinking that single malt whiskies are the best and always better. Well, they usually are, but there are so many good blended whiskies as well. So there’s always a place for every whisky, depending on the occasion.

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Hogsheads seen inside the Glenfiddich warehouse.

What are the signatures of each of the brands?

I return to our Five Rare Crafts and how we make whisky for The Balvenie. That is the soul of our whisky that our makers pass through the generations to tell stories of how our distilleries work. With Glenfiddich, we have made whisky since 1887. It has always been very consistent, and that’s the process that I also want to highlight. Glenfiddich has a wide range of differentiated by the various expressions; there’s always that Glenfiddich soul in every expression.

During the COVID years, there were auctions for ultra-rare bottles and expressions. Many brands are entering this niche by offering exquisite whiskies to clients. Where do The Balvenie and Glenfiddich stand in this position?

We’re one of Scotland’s most known whisky makers and are in a good spot with the high-end whiskies thanks to William Grant & Sons. We have beautifully aged whiskies for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich in ageing warehouses. The Glenfiddich Grande series is very luxurious, with whiskies ranging from 21 to 29 Years Old. With The Balvenie, we have The Balvenie Stories and Rare Marriages, which are all about our makers. Two years ago, we launched a 60-year-old Balvenie.

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The Balvenie 25 Year Old Rare Marriages

To close the interview, what are two expressions from the two brands you recommend as a daily dram and one to crack open for a special occasion?

Daily dram? Easy, The Balvenie 12. I really love its flavour; you should always have that on a shelf at home. I’d go for The Balvenie 25-Year-Old Rare Marriages for a special occasion. It’s a combination of sherry and bourbon cask.

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Glenfiddich 23 Grand Cru

Even though it’s quite strong with a 48 percent ABV, it’s very fruity. It’s rare for the whiskies at that age to have ABV above 48 percent. The Glenfiddich Grand series is made for different occasions. I would raise a dram of Glenfiddich 23 Grand Cru to celebrate a promotion or other special moments with friends.

This article was first seen on MensFolio.com.

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