The Finnish sauna – from diplomacy to ryeful business-ideas

Written by: Jonas Papathemelis
Photo by: Kyrö Distillery
Founders of the Kyrö Distillery sitting in a Sauna, where the distillery's business idea was ignited.

Saunas have always been a significant part of finnish culture and identity. It is not exactly  known when the first saunas started to heat up, but they have been tracked back to the bronze age between 1500-900 BC.  With over 3 million saunas in Finland, they are located everywhere where finns are. And no wonder, the typical finn goes to the sauna at least once a week, and often it is on a saturday.  Since 2020 the Finnish sauna culture has been listed as a part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Fun fact: Often when people moved to a new place, the first building to be built was a sauna, the people would live there until the actual houses were finished. 

The sauna has been a key place for important conversations and meetings. For example, during the cold war, finnish president Urho Kekkonen (in office 1956-1982) used to meet and keep up diplomatic relations with Soviet leaders in a sauna at his residence in Tamminiemi. Kekkonen also met with other finnish politicians and important executives to discuss ongoing affairs in the sauna.

The legacy of the so-called “Sauna-diplomacy” also exists today. Almost every Finnish embassy in the world has their own sauna, and the embassy in Washington D.C organizes a diplomatic networking event at their sauna every month.

It can be said that the Sauna is the only place where finns tend to engage in conversations with strangers. This applies especially to public saunas where sauna-goers tend to enclose themselves in the same space with strangers for a long time. 

Going to the sauna with friends can ignite great business ideas, because the sauna is a way to take a break from daily life. This is the way the idea for the finnish Kyrö Distillery was formed; during a sauna session between the founders. One of the founders, Miika Lipiäinen, brought american rye-whiskey to the sauna as a drink to enjoy. While enjoying the whiskey, the founders started wondering why there was no one making whiskey out of rye in Finland, even though finnish people consume more rye than any other people in the world. 

Kyrö has built their brand strongly around their sauna founding story, and the most recognized part of their brand is the picture of the founders posing naked in a sauna.

When asked, why did Kyrö decide to build the brand around the sauna? 

Kyrö’s Communications manager Hanna-Leena Huhtala describes: “When the distillery actually started to get going, the sauna was the only real differentiating factor for us. Many of our competitors were long-standing and hundreds of years old. Therefore we had to stand out with something unique.

In the beginning Kyrö served their first official batches of whiskey at their pop-up bar in Helsinki in 2014. By 2015 their gin, which was developed as a side project, won an award for the best gin for gin & tonic. This resulted in their gin being completely sold out in two days. Over time Kyrö has grown into a well known and praised distillery around the world, with a revenue of 5,5 million euros. 

Even though the distillery has grown a lot, one essential aspect has remained:

“We still go to the sauna a lot. Nowadays we also talk about other things than just work-related topics. But in the end we might still put together our new projects while sweating on the benches.” Huhtala tells. 

When asked if the distillery have their own sauna, Huhtala answers:

“Yes we do have a Sauna at the distillery, but unfortunately not one that we could open to the public.”

So come to Survivor Sauna at Vierula on the 7th of April and try to survive the hard löylys. And maybe you might meet your future co-founder and find the next IPO-worth business idea in the sauna.