The Orkney Distillery

Officially opens its doors to visitors for tours.

Published: 2nd July 2018

For some 10,000 years, people have called Orkney home. An archipelago in the north of Scotland and Scotland’s most populated island, Orkney has witnessed and still bears the remnants of civilisations long lost and their marks on the timeline of progress. Scattered across the island you’ll find sites of Neolithic origins including ceremonial stone circles, tombs, ancient monuments and ancient settlements. The fact that these sites have stood the test of a thousand winters and more is a testament to the Orcadian ability to build things that last.

Fast forward to January 2016, and you would have found yourself face to face with another pair of Orcadians, setting out on an adventure that used the local landscape as inspiration and would see them create, build and start their Orcadian legacy right in the heart of Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital.

Stephen Kemp, a builder by trade, and his wife Aly, a PE Teacher, both loved gin and spirits. The couple found themselves sitting one evening enjoying a few G&Ts discussing all things gins and laughed about one day opening their distillery on the island. The next day the couple still had that little niggle of ‘I think we could do this – and make it amazing’. By February 2016 Orkney Distilling Limited was registered and the husband and wife set to work creating the recipe for their first gin – Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin.

Some gin makers can take over 24 months from the start of their gin journey to getting their gin to market. Stephen and Aly did it in 6 months. With the same dedication and drive Stephen put into his career in the building trade and with Aly’s passion and hunger to learn more, the couple set to work. They looked at their favourite gins and created botanical profiles for each of the flavours they liked, profiles for the botanicals they didn’t like and everything else in-between.

From the offset, they both knew how they wanted their gin to taste and knew they wanted it to have a clear connection to their local landscape. They soon realised that Orkney had an abundance of natural botanicals and sought the help of the University of the Highland and Islands’ Agronomy Institute to discover what botanicals were available. One of their key botanicals was angelica, which stories of old say was brought to the island by sailors from the Faroe Islands – it was the Norsemen (Vikings) who brought it to the Faroes centuries beforehand.

One thing the couple knew was their limitations when it came to distilling their gin and through a mutual friend sought the guidance and help of the team at Strathearn Distillery in Perthshire. By July 2016 Stephen and Aly had a gin, a brand and business. With a successful launch that saw their gin met with praise for both it’s taste and story, the couple wanted to be faithful to their initial dream and set to work sourcing a site for their new distillery.

Stephen knew of some derelict warehouses at the harbour front in Kirkwall that had sat abandoned for a number of years and was to many locals an eyesore. For the local economy, the slow decline of fishing was slowly replaced by ferries carrying high numbers of visitors all eager to experience Kirkwall’s increasing reputation for great food, a look around the many independent and unique shops and the chance to see the stunning local landscape. Stephen and Aly knew they had found the perfect site.

With the site purchased and with the input and advice of the team at Strathearn, Stephen and Aly submitted their plans to the local council for the Orkney Distillery & Visitor Centre, which would be the new home to Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin and their navy strength gin Kirkjuvagr Arkh-Angell Storm Strength Orkney Gin. 

Demolition work began to clear the site in February 2017 and work quickly progressed during the spring and summer before winter took hold. Like any building project trying to get a building watertight before winter can be a challenge, but when you have some of the most unpredictable and wild winter weather of anywhere in the UK, including winds of over 120mph to contend with, it takes nerves of steel and a little bit of luck.

With walls constructed, the roof on and watertight windows and doors, the distillery’s gin stills were installed and tested. Opting for two 100 litre traditional copper pot stills will ensure that the gin making process and results match the gin produced at Strathearn. It also provides additional space for future expansion. Stephen and Aly knew they had a responsibility to both the people of Orkney by creating a building that fits into its surroundings but was an accurate representation of their gin and brand. With black cladding and angled roof lines that capture the roof of the old warehouse that sat on the site and surrounding buildings, the new modern distillery blends seamlessly into the harbour front.

Stephen and Aly have not only captured some of the landscape in their gin, they’ve also added their mark in the timeline of Orkney and created a building that will genuinely help them tell the story of Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin. It will provide a go-to gin haven for visitors wanting to learn more about Scottish Gin; it will create employment for the local community and help play a role in Orkney’s story of being a must visit Scottish Destination. Stephen and Aly undertook this project with real passion and grit, staying true to their initial goals. Create a gin that was intertwined with the local landscape and told the story of Orkney. Build a distillery that was a reflection of their business, brand and would provide a go-to destination for those seeking to learn more about the wonderful world of Scottish Gin.

Orkney has a reputation for producing world-class spirits. For whisky drinkers, they have the  Highland Park Distillery situated in Kirkwall. Alongside Deerness Distillery, makers of Sea Glass Gin who also offer a distillery tour and the Orkney Gin Company who produce a range of Scottish Gins. Now the Orkney Distillery & Visitor Centre is a new jewel in Orkney’s crown as a must-visit destination for gin lovers.

As the earliest settlers on Orkney who took inspiration from the landscape and left a legacy of historical importance that continues to shape our understanding of Orkney, of island life and it’s people, Stephen and Aly can rest assured their new distillery will be talked about and admired for many generations to come.

Book a Tour

Tours start with a short audio-visual presentation describing the story of Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin and the history of the islands. Your guide will then show you the working processes of the distillery and how Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin is hand-crafted in small batches, detailing the unique blend of Orkney-grown botanicals that are used. Finally, you’ll head to the tasting room to relax and sample the range of gins, where you can enjoy your perfect Gin and Tonic.

The new distillery and visitor centre will officially open from 2nd July 2018. Guided tours will run at 11am and 2pm each day (except Sundays) with extra slots opened up for peak periods. Tours will last approximately 1 hour.

The team will also soon be launching a Kirkjuvgar Gin Making Experience. Spend the day at The Orkney Distillery, where you can tour then craft your own gin recipe under the guidance of the distiller. Spend the afternoon in charge of your own miniature still, creating your very own personalised bottle, which you can take home at the end of the day.

You can check live availability and book your places by visiting www.orkneydistilling.com/pages/book-a-tour 

You can learn more about Orkney Distilling here.

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