VOR Gin distillery began life in 2009, with an idea of creating a true Icelandic spirit. Based just outside Reykjavik, the distillery has been growing in stature within the country and across the Nordic regions.
As with all new distilleries, the journey to open doors was not that easy. Lets not forget that the global banking collapse hit Iceland particularly hard, but more importantly, that there are only three distilleries in Iceland, so there’s not exactly a thriving micro-distilling culture either… Years of planning, accumulating information and knowledge came before Eimverk Distillery went from being founded to actually producing spirit.
With the owners (three brothers and their father) coming from a family business with a background in farming and agriculture, they knew that they wanted to produce the first sprit that was truly 100% Icelandic. Moreover, they wanted to set a precedent for Icelandic Whisky as a category and in doing so, Icelandic craft distilling. The bar was set high and it meant getting it right first time.
To create their spirits they began with ensuring the process went from grain to glass. To do so, they use barley from their own farm and since they decided to begin distilling; they have been steadily growing more year after year to grow their production capacity. Currently to meet their demand, they also source barley from other local farms.
As all those who have ever visited or even seen an image of Iceland will attest, the climactic conditions are unique. When it comes to growing crops such as barley, despite the volcanic soil, conditions are not that dissimilar to those in the northern parts of Scotland. However, due to the cold climate and remote region, there is no need to use pesticides and because of this, the quality of the crop and its eco credentials are second to none.
Eimverk began officially producing spirits in 2013, with the gin coming just under a year later in 2014. Now, while this is a review about their gins, and not their other sprits, it is important to understand how they make their whisky, as it is by understanding this that one has to acknowledge that by all EU definitions – no matter how tasty – what they have made is not Gin and they are breaking all known legal frameworks by calling it so and retailing it as such.
Going from grain to glass, the process begins with taking their barley and malting it, before fermenting it. Once their wash is made they distil it twice to create their New Make Spirit (think classic whisky production, on a small scale). These stripping stills are no ordinary stills, true to the famed resourcefulness of Icelandic life; the team designed a lot of their own mashing kit & pot stills. Nicknamed Maria & Jani, two old dairy tanks were converted (swapping the chilling element for heating elements) into the distillery’s pot stills.
The spirit that emerges is only distilled to somewhere between 67% to 80% ABVs (we don’t want to divulge the exact number as to not reveal too much of their production details). Cut with a little water and tasted neat and un-aged, the grassy tones of the organic barley are clear. Once aged (and sold as their whisky named Floki), the smooth nature and deep flavour could rival many a Scotch Whisky. So why does this matter for their gins?
To make VOR Gin, they redistill this New Make Spirit with botanicals. While this means that the final spirit carries through all of the base cereal notes, this is also the issue. To be called Gin, by the EU laws, distilleries must use a spirit that has been distilled to a minimum of 96%ABV and clearly, Eimverk Distillery do not do this.
At the higher ABV of 96%, much of the underlying flavour has been stripped and the base spirit is significantly more neutral. This singular fact is one of the main reasons that it was made into a law and what helps differentiate Gin from Genever. Many Gins made in America don’t abide to this rule (although very few stop at the low ABV that Eimverk do if they use the spirit as a base for gin) but they too are breaking the law once they are retailed in Europe, which is why many of the US distilleries have variants they use for export markets. In brief, VOR Gin is actually a juniper-laced whisky, not a gin.
So does it matter? Yes and no. More on this later… First, the spirit itself!
All the ingredients, both imported and foraged are organic. For those who are wondering about the statement and wondering about the certificate – the gin is not certified as some ingredients are organic by default (as they are foraged) and therefore they can’t get the certificate because they are not grown under a controlled farming situation.
The name VOR is Icelandic for spring and it was this time of year that was the inspiration for the recipe. The botanicals in question are a mix of traditional and local, which combines to form an unusual mix with a strong sense of place.
Juniper and angelica root form the heart and are sourced from across Iceland and Scandinavia (as there is not enough growing in the country and the flavour is quite distinct so need to be rounded off by imported berries), with rhubarb, crowberries, birch leaves, creeping thyme, Iceland Moss, sweet kelp and kale providing a unique line up.
It’s not 100% Icelandic as the label suggests, but it’s as close as humanly possible. With such a different botanical mix, fine-tuning the recipe took about 60 attempts just to figure out how the Icelandic ingredients would work in harmony and how to harness them all in a cohesive flavour journey that could showcase the unique terroir that it grows in.
The botanicals are steeped in the base spirit for almost 1 week of maceration ahead of distillation in a 300lt Arnold Holstein still, affectionately called Elisabeth.
VOR Gin to taste…
Made in batches of around 500 bottles per run and cut to 47% ABV, VOR Gin is packed with flavour. The underlying cereal is evident. The malty nose bursts from the glass and is more reminiscent of genever or un-aged whisky than gin. Served neat, there is also a lot of fruit upfront on the nose. Crowberries and rhubarb emerge alongside a resinous juniper to taste, but it never strays too far away from young genever territory. Overall, the impression is one of a very malty gin, with vegetal grassy notes and underlying angelica underpinning the journey. It’s nice, but very unusual!
With tonic, the jammy notes from crowberries are more prominent, the more subtle botanicals start to sing and the “ginnyness” can be coaxed out from the omnipresent barley a little more. Pair it with rosemary or lemon thyme as a garnish for optimal effect.
With barrels and a keen interest in whisky and other aged spirits, it was almost inevitable that the distillery released a barrel-aged version of their gin, which was released in 2015.
Aged in virgin oak for a six-week maturation, the amber toned liquid is sweeter and more floral than the original. The wood has added a lot of sweetness and depth to the gin, with juniper really pushing to the fore in the extended, spicier finish. In a strange way, it’s actually more like gin (in the context of strange, barrel aged, genever‘esque gin) than the original and the added sweetness works well in tonic.
Eimverk Distillery have plans for a fruit gin (similar to Sloe Gin but done with their inimitable Icelandic style), due for release soon. Having had an advance preview we can assert that this infused gin will appeal to many. Using their oak aged gin as a base, they add Bilberries, blueberries, crowberries and a bit of sugar for sweetness. The resulting liquid has dry, almost raisin-like berries on the nose. Deep red fruits explode on the mouth, leaving behind a slightly nutty finish with a touch of oak for added depth. Plans are afoot to make it more widely available, most likely to be bottled at 21% ABV. There is also talk of a Navy Gin in the pipeline too…
With their spirits exporting to 12 countries and with well over 25,000 bottles of VOR sold it’s easy to say that the gin has already proved popular and even easier to predict that it will continue to rise. Retailed at around £30 for a 50cl in the UK market, it remains expensive but once an importer and distributer, this figure should tumble. It may not happen overnight, but as the distillery is both owned and run by a family company, it allows them to move at their own pace and will ensure long term growth.
So, the million-dollar question – does it matter that it’s not technically Gin? Well, in our opinion, while we would prefer it to be named something else, the flavour has enough juniper and as a “progressive, new-wave gin” it’s a lot more enjoyable than some of the new-wave offerings out there. Crucially, it is well made and really does instil a sense of place in a glass.
However, it’s important for everyone to care about protecting the production requirements of Gin, as even though VOR Gin is trying to be a progressive and not a disruptive gin, in doing what they do they set a precedent, which others will use to their advantage.
It’s a timely reminder that there needs to be a acknowledged term for these new gins that are challenging conventions and a desperate need for someone to actually police it. If as an industry and as gin fans we do not point out what is and what isn’t allowed we will be into territory that is so far away from the category’s heritage, we may indeed lose sight of what gin actually is.
VOR is not gin as defined by EU law. Despite the distillery’s protests of this being a mere technicality, these rules and laws were set long before they began as a distillery and something many ginsmiths have been forced to uphold. This is not a new thing, nor red tape for those who like to make life harder. In calling it Gin, it is disrespectful of all those who have had to work that extra mile, spent that extra money for their column stills and jumped through all the hoops to import high quality neutral spirit to adhere to regulation.
VOR is however an incredibly tasty, evocative and interesting spirit with a strong sense of place and with memorable flavours that’s very, very similar to gin and one we’d happily serve come Gin’Oclock.
We’re reminded by the story behind the inception for this young Icelandic distillery. The team questioned what it meant to be an Icelandic gin. There was no real precedent there and they have strived to create first and foremost a quality example of tasty spirit. It’s not a genever, but it is maltier than a gin. It’s not classically styled, yet neither is it completely alien.
There is a saying on their bottles of Aquavit inscribed in Icelandic, which has now become part of the company ethos and can be loosely translated as “The road away from home is the road home”. If that means bending the rules, trying something new and taking a risk to create a truly worthwhile spirit, then we’ll take that journey with them (all-be-it with trepidation and mild disgruntlement). Hopefully, the destination will be a good one for all and as a result, Gin as a category will continue to grow into new and exciting areas.
For more information about VOR Icelandic Gin, visit their website: www.VORGin.is
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