In 1468 the Orkney islands were pawned to the Scottish Crown by Christian I of Denmark as a gift for his daughter’s marriage to James III of Scotland. Until then, Orkney had been part of the Scandinavian kingdom. The Norsemen lived on the islands from the late 8th century, and to this day you can feel the strong Norse influence. The Orcadians are very proud of their heritage, and it shows.
Drink like a Viking
The Orkney Distillery is fully embracing its Viking background. Its gin range is called Kirkjuvagr (pronounced kirk-u-vaar), which means Church Bay in Old Norse. The Norsemen would sail their longships into Kirkjuvagr, which over the centuries grew into the island’s capital – Kirkwall. The symbol of the distillery, a Viking compass, used to guide the Norsemen during their travels.
The distillery uses local botanicals, some of which the Vikings actually brought to Orkney centuries ago. They forage botanicals by hand, bottle and label on-site, and even the artwork for the labels is done locally… Truth be told, it sounds like most of the people from Kirkwall have had their hand in at some stage of building the brand (or the distillery)! It’s wonderful to see how everyone is there to help and support one another to develop a brand they can rightly be proud of.
Kirjkjuvagr gin range
The distillery’s gin range boasts five varieties, not to mention seasonal limited-edition bottlings created for special occasions and for various events hosted on the island. They aren’t afraid to play around with the local botanicals.
Their flagship gin, Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, is a classic juniper-forward spirit. One of the distillery’s defining botanicals is a variety of angelica which was originally brought to the islands by Norsemen. The angelica grows wild all around the islands – you can even find it at the back of the distillery! Other local botanicals include Ramanas Rose, Burnet Rose and borage.
The bere barley is also local to Orkney, and this traditional grain variety only grows in a very few areas of Scotland. It is believed that the grain was originally brought to Scotland by the Vikings. In fact, it is so popular that distilleries outside of Orkney are keen to get their share of the crop. The Orcadian ingredients are grown and handpicked by the Agronomy Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Kirkwall, although some can also be found in the distillery owner’s own garden. The changing weather on the islands makes it a challenge for the botanicals to grow consistently, so some years are better than others. It’s a continuous learning process for Stephen and the team to manage the gardens.
Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, 43% ABV, has a lovely balance between spice, citrus and floral. The recommended G&T serve is with your favourite Indian Tonic, garnished with fresh orange peel, although I personally prefer it with pink grapefruit. Alternatively, stir yourself a dry Martini with a lemon twist or simply enjoy it on the rocks with orange zest.
Arkh-Angell – Storm Strength Orkney Gin, 57% ABV, has the same recipe as their classic Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, yet with the extra strength different botanicals shine through. The name Arkh-Angell is based on a locally grown Norwegian angelica variety called Archangelica. Negroni, anyone?!
With winter on its way now, you might like something a bit spicier. Aurora – Winter Edition Spiced Orkney Gin – gets its warmth from cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and a touch of heat from pink and black peppercorns. Aurora, 42% ABV, remains smooth like the previous gins, clearly a common theme across the range. The recommended serve is with ginger ale, an orange slice and a cinnamon stick.
While Aurora reflects the Aurora Borealis and dark winter days, Harpa – Summer Edition Orkney Gin – celebrates the long summer days. Harpa is the name of the first month of summer in Old Norse. Harpa, 41% ABV, is all about juniper. It is a bit sweeter than the gins mentioned above. On top of an extra measure of juniper, it has Aronia berries and lemon and orange peel. Aronia berries are claimed to be the heathiest fruit in the world! It grows best in damp, mild conditions, making Orkney an ideal location. The berries are tart with a subtle sweetness, similar to cranberries. The recommended Harpa serve is with elderflower tonic and a good measure of summer berries.
Jumping on the pink gin wagon, the distillery has created the blush pink Beyla – Honey & Raspberry Old Tom Gin. Beyla was the goddess of bees in Norse mythology. The core recipe is Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin, to which they add Orcadian honey and Scottish raspberries. A fun fact, the bees that create this honey are the very same bees which pollinate the flowers growing in the gardens of the Agronomy Institute!
You can really taste lovely rich honey and a subtle fruitiness from the raspberries together with juniper. If you follow my social media posts, you might know I’m not a huge fan of raspberry in drinks, but I have to say the raspberry in Beyla, 40% ABV, really tastes like a real fresh raspberry, not like artificial flavouring. It is very subtle. As the colour is completely natural from the raspberries, the gin has a light pink hue, which will disappear over time if exposed to light for too long. The recommended serve is with light Indian Tonic or, for a sweet tooth, use lemonade. Garnish with extra raspberries. If you feel experimental, I recommend serving Beyla with Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade and mint.
Aurora, Harpa and Beyla all come in handy 50cl bottles, allowing you to sample the whole range at a lower price. Overall, all five gins are strong on juniper with extremely smooth mouthfeel. I was a fan of Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin before visiting the distillery, but after learning more about their story and the hard work they put into the process, I really am sold! Every inch of the process is carried out with passion and time, and they truly are telling the story of Orkney through locally sourced ingredients and handcrafted products.
Have you tried gins from Orkney Distillery? Do you have a favourite serve?
Disclaimer: My trip to Orkney was organised by the lovely team at Orkney Distillery
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