Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin
We’re almost certain that you, like us, will pronounce Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin wrong. Kirkuff-jafar, as we’ve affectionately come to know it in the Gin Foundry office, is one of the Orkney islands’ first offerings to the Gin gods and aims to one day be a truly local product, created by two born and bred Orcadians and laced with lashings of locally grown botanicals.
Husband and wife gin making teams are all the rage at the moment, with enthusiasts left, right and centre turning their passion into a hobby and their hobby into a business. Stephen and Aly Kemp are just one in a number of betrothed distilling duos to emerge in the past year, but with a team of fellow Orkney-dwellers behind them and a whiplash inducing speed to their work, we couldn’t quite let this one pass us by.
Kirkjuvagr (pronounced kirk-u-vaar, by the by…) is the thousand-year-old Norse name for Kirkwall, the Kemps hometown, which has served as nothing short of inspiration for their gin. “We’ve often contemplated the fact that Orkney’s wonderful suite of food & drink exports was absent of a high quality, powerfully branded gin product,” Stephen explains. “We wanted to create a brand that was connected to us and our place.”
So passionate are they about instilling as much as their home as possible into Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin that they harvest a great deal of their own botanicals, working with the University of the Highland and Islands’ Agronomy Institute. From UHI they take ramanas rose (beach rose), burnet rose, bere barley, aronia, borage flower and angelica root, as well as calamondin – a small, intense citrus fruit that the Kemps grew in a corner of the institute’s greenhouse last summer.
The gin’s botanicals were selected as much for their storytelling powers as for their flavour, explained Stephen: “The angelica is key for us and was grown from seed at the UHI site overlooking Kirkwall Bay. The seed came from the village of Pierowall on the island of Westray… The UHI Agronomy Institute, in conjunction with their Nordic Studies Centre, established that Faroese sailors took the plant here centuries ago, and that it was taken to the Faroes many centuries prior by Norsemen. For us to be able to use this within our distillation is fantastic, and offers a really important connection to our 1000-year-old Viking heritage.”
To develop the recipe for Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, Stephen and Aly created a shortlist of their favourite gins and selected properties from each that they wished to include in their own. “We really wanted to create a spirit with an element of citrus flavour and a hint of sweetness without being overpowering,” Stephen revealed. “We also wanted to create an incredibly smooth spirit that could be sampled or enjoyed neat. A number of distillations were trialled, and then we narrowed down the flavour profile to what we have now over a number of weeks.”
A number of weeks may sound like a short amount of time, but Stephen and Aly began their journey at a hundred miles an hour; they had the bright idea to start a distillery on the last Saturday of January 2016 (over a G&T, naturally), registered Orkney Distilling Limited in February and went to market six months to the day, on the 1st August.
It would be uncharacteristically credulous of us not to point out that for all the talk of island provenance, Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin is currently distilled by Strathearn in mainland Scotland. Stephen and Aly are not distillers; they are a builder and P.E. teacher respectively, so while they designed the gin and drove the concept, it was the distillers at Strathearn that crafted it into what it is today.
Stephen talked us through the connection: “We were introduced by my architect who had a family member who knew Stuart at Strathearn, and from there we forged a fantastic relationship with them. Aly and I understood that we would need to receive some very high quality teaching when we embarked on the project, and we were so lucky to have been able to receive this from Tony & Stuart at Strathearn. They assisted with spirit design and are at present assisting us with the distillery design and layout.”
The Kemps are in the process of bringing the gin to Orkney, though. They’ve acquired a site on Kirkwall seafront and have just commenced tearing down the dilapidated warehouses that currently sit upon it. The Orkney Distilling Company building is due to open in August, and will not only take distilling in house, but will have a visitor centre that aims to exploit the islands’ tourist market. It is also worth pointing out that they are not alone in creating a “temporarily third party made island gin” either. It’s almost become somewhat of a trend amongst islanders to do this ahead of opening up their distilleries at some point down the line (for example 2 have launched from the outer Hebrides in the last 3 months alone). It’s also a pretty good idea to build up a reputation and routes to market before all of the relentless overheads of having your own operations start to flood in, so long as everyone is being transparent about the process.
Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin is distilled on a 100l Hoga still. All of the botanicals are placed directly into the still with a neutral grain spirit and distilled over a varying number of hours, depending on wind or rain or sun or snow… alcohol is a fickle mistress. When it comes to constructing the new distillery, the Kemps are building for growth. They understand that scaling up is necessary, but any attempts they’ve made so far to recreate their gin in a 500l still changes the integrity of the spirit too much; instead, they’re investing in two 100l stills.
Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin to taste…
Juniper sweeps the senses straight into a pine forest, though there’s a hint of island about it; a faint saline splash on the nose that reminds us of a crisp sea breeze.
To taste, the gin is a flower bomb. The beach rose, burnet rose and borage explode onto the tongue, bringing an almost soapy taste when sipped neat. The saline from the nose is present, too. It’s almost as though a strain of seaweed has been used in the botanical bill, but for a producer to use such an ingredient and not shout about it would be too unusual, so we’re not entirely convinced it’s that. It’s complex overall and unsurprisingly from the listed ingredients, has a strong rosey hue that doesn’t ever become pungent nor ever really dissipates throughout, along with a warming spice underpinning the gin and a hint of something almost smoked lurking towards the back.
With tonic, Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin holds its own; the flavour journey is similar to when tasted neat, with flowers making a loud entry whilst that dark green, vegetal quality creeps up quietly, wrapping itself around the tongue entirely. There is a sweet orangey citrus burst towards the middle of the sip, which seems to elevate the flowers, lifting them above the green taste and carrying them to the end, wherein they blossom across the mouth, bringing with them memories of summer picnics and sticky sweet perfumes. It’s a lovely gin, surprisingly delicate for its robust hometown and evocative of summer strolls and handfuls of poppies, plucked from the beach.
Stephen’s suggested serve is a twist of orange rind (“calamondin fruits are really intense once dried and offer a unique and vibrant citrus edge to the spirit that explodes the moment you add a twist of orange peel to your drink”), which would certainly help to bolster the citrus qualities. We’d follow the same suit, perhaps tossing in a handful of juniper berries to up the piny qualities as well.
Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin has a lot of islanders behind it; the graphics on the bottle – blue, silver and white swirls, depicting the waves that crash around the islands from all sides sit on a sticker that bears the gin’s name (as well as a handy little guide on how to pronounce it!), alongside that hard-fought provenance message, which describes the gin as ‘unmistakably Orcadian’- were designed by local designer Kerry Cooper, whilst copy and PR has been crafted by author David Flanigan.
There’s nice details in there too, like the compass on the top of the cork and the foiled nature of some of the metallic parts of the label. Various digital elements (video/media etc) have been created by local friends, whilst Dr Peter Martin and John Wishart of the Agronomy Institute have supplied endless resources.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gin has been well received on the islands, with batch one selling out on its launch weekend. “We’ve been incredibly lucky with the support we’ve received from people all over Orkney,” Stephen says, “which is fantastic, as when we started out we really wanted our brand to be something that Orcadians could get behind and be proud of.”
Success in Orkney is one thing, but whether Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin travels across the United Kingdom is another matter… at £40 for a 70cl bottle, the gin is priced in the higher echelons of the comfortable price point for consumers. The Kemps have a lot of competition too; Scottish gin is flying off the shelves at an incredible pace, yes, but its creators are multiplying like wet gremlins after midnight. There are many, many, many great gins on the market, and the ones that succeed are those that combine good liquid with strong branding, a transparent way of operating and a decent price point. Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin scores well on many of these fronts and looks like it could indeed cement space for itself in the Scottish market. Only time will tell if this will be enough to become a national brand, but with the impending distillery opening and their visitor centre, it looks like they’ll be adding some weight to their offering that might just tip them over the edge.
They have the liquid and they’re certainly honest about their work with Strathearn. The yell of provenance is loud and will increase further once the move has occurred. Whilst a good amount of the Orkney-harvested botanicals, admittedly, are not that Orkney in nature (they are exotic plants grown in a greenhouse), perhaps there’s a more poetic way to look at it. The greenhouse botanicals give a sense of the Islands’ people – their curiosity, their appreciation for nature and their creativity when it comes to cultivating impossibly alien flora on their rugged little rock. It certainly seems emblematic of the Kemps, who have – within the space of a year – added to their Country’s flourishing Gin scene with a worthy contender.
For more information about Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, visit the website: orkneydistilling.com
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