An extremely smart grey and glass-clad building looking out over Ayre Road in Kirkwall towards the town's harbour is home to the Orkney Distillery. After two years of planning and construction, the distillery opened in 2018 and brings a fascinating attraction to the heart of the town. The area around Kirkwall has long been home to two whisky distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa, but the Orkney Distillery is one of the new wave of gin distilleries that has swept across Scotland and beyond.
Why gin? The short answer is "why not?" The longer answer revolves around changes to the legislation that means it is possible to set up distilleries with much smaller stills, which in turn means that artisan gin distilleries are a much more practical proposition. A second answer concerns the much greater popularity of gin than used to be the case. And then there's the economy of gin production versus Scotch whisky production. Once a Scotch whisky producer has distilled their spirit, they have to mature it for a legal minimum of three years before it can legally be called Scotch whisky: and much of it is matured for far longer than that. Anyone setting up a Scotch whisky distillery needs deep pockets and a very long term view of their investment.
Gin, on the other hand, offers rather quicker returns on investment. Most gin producers buy in their spirit, and then re-distill it with "botanicals", a wide range of natural flavourings usually from plants (and almost always including juniper). What emerges from the still is the finished gin, which can then be bottled and sold immediately it's cooled. The magic of gin, and the key to the huge variety of different gins on offer, lies in the botanicals chosen by a particular gin producer to flavour their gin. (Continues below image...)
The visitor to the Orkney Distillery enters via the large and attractive coffee and gin bar that occupies much of the front of the ground floor of the building. If you wish, you can simply enjoy what's on offer here, and browse in the distillery shop. Those wishing to see how gin is produced are first shown a short audio-visual presentation. You then go through to the still room. This is home to two nice little stills. If stills had religions, then these would without doubt be Russian Orthodox. There's just something about the shape of the top bulb that makes us think of a Russian church spire. Elsewhere there seems to be a growing trend for gin stills to be given names. That hasn't happened here, not yet anyway: given Orkney's heritage we suspect that something suitably Norse can only be a matter of time.
One of the nice things about a small scale distillery is that some parts of the process are far more obvious than would be the case in a typical Scotch whisky distillery. This is particularly true of the two worm condensers, one for each still. These comprise a coil of copper tube contained within a copper cylinder of water. The vapour from the top of a still passes through the coil and is condensed into spirit.
The still room is backed by a bottling and packing area. The upper floor of the distillery includes a small tasting room and a much larger function and tasting room, which offers great views out across Kirkwall's harbour. There are also windows from the tasting room (and from the bar) that allow you to see into the still room.
The Kirkwall Distillery produces Kirkjuvagr gin, which is pronounced kirk–u–vaar. Kirkjuvagr is the Old Norse name for Kirkwall, which seems highly appropriate as it is produced here. At the time of our visit the gin was produced in three styles. The standard bottling is simply labelled Kirkjugvar, and is a very drinkable gin with complex and subtle flavours. The second bottling is Kirkjuvagr Arkh-Angell gin, which is of a higher alcohol content (57% by volume compared with the standard 41%). It is described on the label as "storm strength", and is said to be very smooth on the palate. Also available at the time of our visit was Kirkjuvagr Harpa gin, a limited edition produced for a gin festival.
Kirkwall is a great place to visit, and the arrival of a gin distillery and visitor centre right in the heart of the town will add to what it already offers to those coming here. What impressed us was the obvious attention to detail that had gone into the building of the distillery and the very high quality of every part of the operation, from the building itself to the finished product.