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5 Shiok Whisky-Asian Food Pairings From Glenfiddich & The Balvenie Expert Jyri Pylkkänen

 

Jyri Pylkkänen. Now, say it with me: "yoo-ree puul-kya-nen". Fantastic! We'll be seeing a lot more of Jyri as he's the newly appointed Regional Malts Ambassador for Glenfiddich and The Balvenie in Southeast Asia, where he will be hard at work spreading the gospel of great Speyside whiskies. 

Hailing from Helsinki, Jyri is something of a big deal in the Finnish bar scene. He stumbled into the cocktail scene at the tender age of 18 and rapidly gained national acclaim, co-founding two award-winning cocktail bars that remain as beloved institutions today.

 

Grotesk Helsinki is one of the award-winning bars opened by Jyri.

 

Jyri even etched his place in mixology history when he invented the Akogare - a Finnish twist on the whisky sour and the first-ever Finnish cocktail to be included in Mr. Boston’s Bartender’s Guide – the professional bartender’s bible since the 1930s. Seriously, how many of us could claim to have created a cocktail classic? Jyri later became William Grant & Sons's Brand Experience Manager in Helsinki. Now, the multi-talented Jyri is the new face of two iconic single malt brands in the increasingly thirsty Southeast Asian market.

With my curiosity piqued, I headed down to Jyri's office in Singapore to enjoy a highball with the man himself. I wanted to delve deeper into Jyri’s fascinating journey and understand what the future might hold for Glenfiddich and The Balvenie in Southeast Asia. We talked at length about his passion for whisk(e)y, the enduring value of traditional whisky-making techniques seen in The Balvenie Distillery and Glenfiddich's wide-ranging experiments with different cask finishes.

 

Jyri eagerly mixing us some Glenfiddich highballs at William Grant & Sons' Singapore office bar.

 

Naturally, I couldn't resist getting Jyri's Personal Picks for various occasions – from go-to drams to celebratory bottles. And, given Southeast Asia's remarkable culinary scene, it only made sense to ask which whiskies he'd pair with iconic Thai dishes, Chicken Rice, or fragrant Indian Biryani.

Let’s hear it from Glenfiddich & The Balvenie’s man of the hour!

Follow Jyri on Instagram: @finnishjyrdram

To keep up with the latest releases: GlenfiddichThe Balvenie | William Grant & Sons

"70% to 80% of the flavour of the whisky comes from the cask, so we have our own cooperage – if we were to just buy casks from somewhere else or use secondhand casks, we wouldn't be able to secure the quality casks for ourselves."
– Jyri, on Balvenie Distillery's preference to run its own cooperage 

[88 Bamboo]: Hi Jyri! Congrats on being the new face for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich in Southeast Asia! This sounds like a big and important responsibility!

How did you prepare for this exciting new chapter of your life? Did you start adding more and more chili to your food to brush up on your spice tolerance? Or did you spend more time in the sauna to get comfortable in the tropical weather? 

[Jyri Pylkkänen]: That's a good question. I think no amount of preparation helps with this heat, man. But I have always loved spicy food, so no need to add more. I'm a big lover of Asian food, generally at home. Back in Finland, I used to cook something Asian every week during the weekends, such as Korean BBQ, among other things. I always looked for new recipes to try and discover new flavors. And my wife loves Asian food, so it was easy and nice.

[88B]: I hear you’re a big fan of uncovering street food, and Southeast Asia is pretty much a Mecca for street food. What are 4 or 5 of your favourite dishes or desserts from Singapore and the region?

What would be your ideal Glenfiddich or The Balvenie expression to pair with each of these dishes?

[Jyri]: I’ll start with Thai food. I was last week in Thailand, in Bangkok, and our team took me out two nights to eat really local food in a really nice restaurant, and I was blown away. The food was perfect. So spicy, so savoury, so salty. Everything was so balanced together, with lots of hot sauces accompanying the food. I was in food heaven.

The first dish I loved when I came to Singapore was Chicken rice. Chicken rice... that was so good. I like those where you have garlic, a little bit of chili, and ginger in that, making it a little bit spicier. It's good. There’s also hotpot. Haidilao was my welcome lunch here in Singapore, which I loved. Char kway teow as well. There’s a really good stall near where I live called No. 18 Zion Road Fried Kway Teow. There’s always a long queue. It's always a 50, 60-minute wait.

 

Jyri recommends the Char Kway Teow from No.18 Zion Road Fried Kway Teow - which is widely recognised as Singapore's top Char Kway Teow joint.

 

And I love Indian cuisine as well. Chicken biryani is really good. That's super good. So I like different dishes from different parts of Asia.

Because Thai food is fresh, savoury, and spicy at the same time, you could pair it with a really sherried whisky, for example, the Glenfiddich Gran Cortes; that is an exclusive in China & Taiwan but recently available in our Malaysia market. But I would go with the Glenfiddich 12 just because of the bright freshness and the sweetness which balances the spicy food really well.

 

 

With Indian cuisine, with the biryani, Glenfiddich 15, because there's lots of spices. Like Christmas spices, there's nutmeg, clove, ginger, cinnamon. And in Indian food, you can actually find these same kinds of flavours as well. So, they combine really well together.

 

 

With Char Kway Teow, because it's fried, I would go with The Balvenie 12 Year Old The Sweet Toast Of American Oak from The Balvenie Stories collection. It's so toasty and kind of like buttery. The whisky goes really well with noodles.

 

 

For Chicken Rice, The Balvenie French Oak 16 Year Old. You have ginger, you have geranium, lots of spiciness because it's French oak. And that same spiciness with that ginger can be found in the dish and the little bit of chili. Really good combination.

 

 

With hotpot, I would easily go with a Glenfiddich 12 Year Old highball.

 

[88B]: On a professional note, what aspect of the role are you most excited about?

[Jyri]: For me, meeting new people, lots of new people from different countries, your colleagues, fellow ambassadors. But all in all, the training, what I do, the hostings and events, education for the trade, and our private plans, etcetera, are quite rewarding. I'll be a trusted advisor for the whisky industry here in Southeast Asia.

 

Jyri's last visit to Bangkok (Source: Jyri Pylkkänen)

 

[88B]: I saw that you mentioned you visited the distilleries before heading over to Singapore. Did you receive an intensive course on how everything is done?

[Jyri]: Yeah, when you start a new role, there’s always an induction. But I have to say, I've been maybe ten times to Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries because I used to work for William Grant & Sons in Finland, so while visiting the distillery itself was not new, the experience was a little different. We went deeper into the details of whisky production and the brands. This included conversations with our craftsmen such as conversations about wood types in the cooperage with Ian McDonald or doing the copperworks with Dennis McBain.

But it's always very nice to go there because that's always a deep dive into the brand knowledge and heritage.

 

(Source: Jyri Pylkkänen)

[88B]: You are a big deal in the Finnish cocktail scene, having opened several award-winning bars in Helsinki, and also co-inventing the “Akogare” which is the first ever Finnish cocktail to go into Mr. Boston’s Bartender’s Guide – practically a bible for cocktail bartenders since 1935.

I also understand your career started at 18 when you were working at a nightclub, and you somehow ended up mixing drinks behind the bar.

Could you tell us how that happened?

[Jyri]: I see you have done your investigations. Yeah, the Akogare! Akogare is Japanese. It means you're missing somebody.

 

 

When I was starting out at a nightclub, I was the person who stocked the bar and collected the glasses, everything like that, and did the dishes as well. So I started like that, and then they were actually missing a bartender, and the barman said, "Well, do you want to try to make drinks?" I had no idea what to do, but, yeah, take the glass, take the ice, pour alcohol, pour mixer. That was the basic start. But after that, I was like, "Oh, my God. This is actually pretty fun." And the community where I worked was so tight, and everybody loved each other. So that was the thing for me. I wanted to do this for my life. I had two paths: one was sports, and the other was the bar industry. I chose the bar industry.

[88B]: I see. So when it comes to whisky specifically, can you share with us a memorable early experience – a bottle you tasted, a conversation with someone, or an occasion – that got you really hooked onto the spirit?

[Jyri]I think when we started our company with my colleague, around 2008 or 2009, we were invited to the United States to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And that was a really specific thing for us, to hold a bourbon trail in Kentucky with beautiful weather, lots of good whiskeys, and lots of good people from the whiskey industry. So that was my first sparking point with whisky. We covered six distilleries, but it was just one day, so there was lots to discover!

 

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a famous route journey through many of Kentucky's iconic bourbon distilleries, also giving an exploration of Kentucky's beautiful landscapes and the Southern hospitality that accompanies bourbon culture.

 

We drove from Louisville to the Bourbon Trail, and from the Bourbon Trail, went to Nashville. We had one guy who lived in Louisville who is a bourbon insider, so we did all the distilleries. Yeah, that was really great fun. And at the same time, we went to see the Ringling Bros. Circus and the Kentucky Derby horse race. So, lots of memories from that trip.

[88B]: Glenfiddich has been around for about 140 years but has maintained a very maverick spirit in the Scotch whisky world. It’s one of the first Scotch makers to embrace single malts during the 1960s era when consumers only knew about blended whisky.

This maverick spirit has continued into the modern whisky era, with Glenfiddich experimenting with its aging and cask finishing processes, being the first to introduce an IPA cask Scotch, using Cuban rum casks, grand cru Champagne casks, and even Japanese Awamori casks.

Looking ahead, how does Glenfiddich envision the next chapter of its maverick legacy? What are a couple of themes along which we should be thinking about Glenfiddich, either in terms of the whisky-making process, or how the brand presents itself, or how it engages with a new generation of drinkers?

[Jyri]: We're going to continue experimenting with different cask finishings. We have lots of warehouses where we actually keep those, our valuable casks. Then, from our ancient warehouses, there can be some releases at some point. But yeah, there's a lot to discover. And let's see what Master Blender Brian Kinsman and the team are up to. I'm looking forward to that.

Nowadays, we have over 1.3 million casks laid down in warehouses, so that's massive. And our angel's share is approximately 1.75% per year. So, you can do the calculation on how many happy angels there are.

 

 

[88B]: Balvenie is known for its emphasis on traditional craftsmanship and a very meticulous hands-on approach. The distillery grows its own barley, and also maintains floor maltings and a cooperage – practices that are very rare in the modern whisky industry.

Now, I know whisky lovers appreciate the romance of these time-honoured techniques, but could you share some insights into why Balvenie chooses to retain these traditional practices? Are there specific flavour notes, textures, or unique character in the spirit that emerges from these old techniques that you just cannot replicate with modern methods? 

[Jyri]: We're always talking about our Balvenie’s Five Rare Crafts. The first one being our homegrown barley.

 

The "Five Rare Crafts" central to The Balvenie's identity.

 

Our own field, which has been taken care of by the Wiseman family for decades, helps make our whisky more consistent.

 

 

70% to 80% of the flavour of the whisky comes from the cask, so we have our own cooperage – if we were to just buy casks from somewhere or use secondhand casks, we wouldn't be able to secure the quality casks for ourselves.

 

 

We have our own coppersmiths who maintain our pot stills. George Singer takes care of our pot stills. He was the apprentice for Dennis McBain, who has been working at The Balvenie distillery since 1958. So, this is all about the traditions and transferring of the legacy and knowledge. It's really handcrafted.

 

 

We also have our own maltings, as you said. That allows us to be really accurate about which kind of barley we actually use.

 

The Balvenie's whisky experts: Malt Master Kelsey McKechnie and respected former Malt Master David C. Stewart

 

And we have our Malt Masters – Kelsey McKechnie, who was the apprentice for David C. Stewart. Now she's our Head Malt Master.

They take care of everything together with George Paterson, who's the Warehouse Manager at the distillery. George’s job is to basically go to the warehouse, he knows the whiskies, and he would send samples to Kelsey to a laboratory. And they would collaborate in this way to select the whiskies from the warehouses. No step could be replaced by any machinery.

I think we couldn't just replace anything with commercial machinery or anything. It's just a legacy, our craftsmanship, and our big family at The Balvenie.

[88B]: So consistency is incredibly important to the brand.

[Jyri]: Yes. For example, David has been there for over 60 years. He's the former Malt Master but now he's an honorary ambassador for The Balvenie. Still traveling a bit around the world, doing tastings when he’s needed, but Kelsey is taking care of the whiskies as the Malt Master now.

[88B]: How would you describe the differences in the identities of Glenfiddich and The Balvenie? Would one brand be slightly more exploratory and the other more traditional?

[Jyri]: They both are really traditional. We actually call Glenfiddich our pioneering spirit. But even though they’re so close that I could throw a stone from Glenfiddich distillery to The Balvenie, The Balvenie is more honeyed and has more nuttiness in flavour because of the barley we use and because of the pot stills we are using for distillation. Glenfiddich is more fruity and sweeter in character. So, two totally different types of whiskies.

"It's always about the occasion, and the company you're with. So, it's always a different experience with the same whisky. So, be open-minded. Don't keep prejudices. Give something a few chances at different locations."

[88B]: After working with Glenfiddich and The Balvenie for many years as a Brand Experience Manager, and now a Regional Malts Ambassador, I’m sure you would be hosting some fantastic masterclasses, I’d like our readers to have a little taste of that experience.

Could you share with us, what are some key things that beginners should focus on when first exploring and learning about whisky?

[Jyri]: Here’s the thing, in Finland, we start our whisky experiences with heavily peated whisky. So that's like going in one extreme direction. Instead, I would take, for example, Glenfiddich 12, which has sweetness, fruitiness, and pear inside the whisky. It's a really good starting point for you. And it's a pioneering whisky that created the single malt category.

 

Jyri strongly recommends the Glenfiddich 12 as a beginner's dram.

 

I’ll say, just be open-minded, don't be prejudiced about what you're having. And try it a few times even if you don't like something the first time – the same goes for food. Try a second time, a third time. When you have tried it seven or eight times, then you can be sure if this is not your thing.

It's always about the occasion, and the company you're with. So, it's always a different experience with the same whisky. So, be open-minded. Don't keep prejudices. Give something a few chances at different locations.

"Of course, when you taste whisky in the warehouse... you meet these guys like Ian McDonald who's our Head Cooper, and you see the casks laying in the warehouse, there's always that very spiritual atmosphere when you visit a distillery, it’s almost like stepping into a church!"

[88B]: Glenfiddich and The Balvenie boast a very diverse range of expressions, so it seems like there's always a perfect dram for any occasion or mood.

Could you share with us what are your personal favourite bottles from any range from Glenfiddich and The Balvenie for each of these occasions? (1) Go-to daily whisky (2) Cocktail mixing (3) Celebratory toast (4) Gifting (5) Holy Grail expression.

[Jyri]: My daily whisky is easily The Balvenie DoubleWood 12. That's my go-to whisky if I fancy a dram. I really love the honeyed character and a little nuttiness in that whisky. So it's perfect for my palate. And it feels really good when you have that bottle of The Balvenie on the table and your glass dram in the other hand and you're like, “oh, this is my moment.”

 

 

For cocktail mixing, the Glenfiddich 15. I love cocktails because I used to work in bars, and from Glenfiddich 15, I would make a Bobby Burns cocktail. Bobby Burns is half and half sweet vermouth and Glenfiddich 15, and just a splash of Dom Benedictine. Really a classy spirit-forward drink. Beautiful when you have it with your friends or you go to a bar alone as a cocktail. The soul of Glenfiddich 15 is spicy. You have nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, spices, and everything. So it goes really well in a Bobby Burns.

 

 

For celebrations; Brian Kinsman has created our Glenfiddich Grand series, and the whiskies are specifically made for different moments. There's one specific Glenfiddich 23-year-old Grand Cru made for celebratory occasions, and I would choose that easily.

 

 

The Balvenie 21 PortWood would be a great gift. If I want to gift something to my father, it would be The Balvenie 21 because he's a big fan of the whisky as well. I actually got him into it. Although I should have started him with a non-age statement whisky. I’ve set the bar too high now, and I can’t go any lower.

 

Okay, as for the Holy Grail, the most memorable expression, there are two categories of whiskies. There’s our official bottlings, and there’s also the whisky you could only taste at Glenfiddich’s warehouse - it's a different thing. I would say the Glenfiddich 50 when I had it back in Finland with Ian Millar who used to be Distillery Manager, and he was visiting. We had a really nice experience with the Glenfiddich 50 and our friends, so that's a really memorable occasion.

But it's always memorable when you go to the warehouse and George Paterson, who's the Warehouse Manager pulls some whisky out of the cask. The aroma in a warehouse, the feeling and your mindset already knows this is gonna be awesome. I have tasted a lot of whiskies from the sixties and seventies, straight from the casks - those are always special.

 

The Balvenie's former Malt Master David C. Stewart in his blending room.

 

One special moment was actually with former Malt Master David C. Stewart in a laboratory in Glasgow. He told us we could choose whatever we wanted from the shelf for a tasting, and I chose one drawn from a cask with my birth year, 1981. That was a really special moment to share with David in that environment and actually see what the Malt Masters are doing on a daily basis. He's such a nice, humble guy.

[88B]: And are there any bottles that are accessible to the public that would be a very special expression to you as well?

[Jyri]: I have tasted a 29-year-old Glenfiddich Grand Yozakura that was really special, but it's very limited. I like those limited versions a lot. There's the Glenfiddich Gran Cortes as well, from the current series, it's an Asia exclusive - our most sherried version of Glenfiddich.

 

The Balvenie Rare Marriage 25, 30, 40 are all special in different ways. So, there's a whole bunch of really nice and memorable whiskies.

 

 

Of course, when you taste whisky in the warehouse, it's different because your mindset is already, like, turned on to “Oh, it's gonna be awesome.” And then you meet these guys like Ian McDonald who's our Head Cooper, and you see the casks laying in the warehouse, and there's always that very spiritual atmosphere when you visit a distillery, it’s almost like stepping into a church!

[88B]: Last but not least, could we have a hint about the new releases from The Balvenie and Glenfiddich coming this year?

[Jyri]: Can! Every year we release a new expression in our Glenfiddich Grand Series range, so that’s something to look forward to some time this year. 

 

 

Our Grand Series range features whiskies finished in unexpected casks - for example, our 21 Year Old Grand Reserva is finished in a rum cask, the 22 Year Old Gran Cortes in Palo Cortado Sherry casks, the 23 Year Old Grand Cru finished in French cuvee casks, and the 26 Year Old Grand Couronne in French cognac casks. 

 

 

Last year we released the 29 Year Old Glenfiddich Grand Yozakura finished in ex-Awamori casks. It is one of my favourite expressions from Glenfiddich!

For The Balvenie, I would pay attention to our Stories range. The Balvenie Stories is a specific range for our high age statement whiskies. They carry our distillery’s soul in those bottles and are usually released in limited editions. We have exciting stuff lined up for this year!

[88B]: Thank you for speaking to me! I appreciate it! And congrats once again on the promotion, Jyri!

[Jyri]: Thank you so much for coming down, let's grab a drink!


Follow Jyri on Instagram: @finnishjyrdram

To keep up with the latest releases: GlenfiddichThe Balvenie | William Grant & Sons 

 

 

@CharsiuCharlie