Selkies Come Alive with Orkney Gin Company
Orkney Gin Company is a small-scale family business run by Gary and Andrea Watt. They began to distill gin as a hobby, which grew into a company known for its signature Scottish flavours and ingredients foraged from Orkney, a set of islands off the north coast of Scotland. Their three gins, Johnsmas, Mikkelmas, and Rhubarb Old Tom are award winning, each with their own uniquely seasonal flavour. Made using the traditional bathtub method, each gin is lovingly and painstakingly distilled in small batches.
I caught up with Gary and Andrea and chatted about the flavours and mythology behind the Orkney Gin Company.
GW: We started making gin years before we became a business, making gifts for family and friends. We decided to try many different gins, and styles of gins, and preferred the bathtub method. (For more information about the bathtub method, go to the bottom!)
We worked hard to come up with a gin that would mean a lot to us, and Orkney’s traditions. We came up with Johnsmas and Mikkelmas a year or two before opening, and spent a very long time tweaking the recipes to ensure they were as good as they can be – there was lots of tasting! It took a lot of trial and error, but thankfully we had a lot of time, because it can take a wee while to get an alcohol license. We find that using really high quality botanicals really makes all that difference, and we just couldn’t decide which of the two to release first, so we just went for both! Two complete opposite gins – Summer and Winter if you like!
SD: What challenges did you have in setting up your business and how have you overcome them?
GW: It can take a while to work your way through licensing and paperwork. That took a few months. It was difficult to know what needs to be done, because it was all new. We have had problems in the past with sourcing enough of the beautiful ceramic bottles we use. When we released the Rhubarb Old Tom in 2017, there was a shortage of bottles, which left us using a lighter hued bottle for it. We actually found that it went well with the red on the label and ended up keeping it!
SD: Are distribution costs a problem for you – how do you minimise those?
GW: Definitely. I think one of the things that can be easily misunderstood is that it’s even more expensive to ship large amounts to and from Orkney, as it has to go across the water as well as up through the UK. With larger orders, we don’t have as good a choice of couriers up in Orkney either, so the costs can be a lot higher.
SD: The ‘bathtub’/’cold compound’ method of making gin is quite time-consuming. (For our readers who don’t know what the bathtub method is, see below!) Why do you still make it this way, and what do you think it adds to the gin?
GW: Quality and taste are so important to us. We tried many different techniques, and found this definitely works best for us and complements the botanicals in our gin well too. We find that you get a completely new and fresh flavour profile that is sometimes less clear in a distilled gin. I think each of our gins really compliment this technique; our Johnsmas’s fresh rose, heatherflowers and mint would taste and smell completely different if heat was used. Same with Rhubarb Old Tom’s gorgeous chopped rhubarb – it’s so fresh, it would almost be a shame!
The colours of the gin are also so unique – the Rhubarb Old Tom turning a light pink when tonic is added is so lovely. Cold compounding gin can be easily misunderstood – our gin is still distilled, 7 times in fact, which ensures it is extremely smooth even before the botanicals are added. Then the botanicals are steeped for a long time, in stages. Filtering can take a long time, but we think it’s definitely worth it. Another thing that is really important to us is tradition, and cold compounding was actually the most common way of making gin hundreds of years ago.
SD: Many of the botanicals in your gin are taken from the surrounding islands. What do you think this adds to the story and flavour of your gin? Is the strong Scottish influence important to you – or is there a Norse/Norwegian influence?
GW: There is definitely a massive Norse/Norweigan influence in our gin, sometimes I’d say more so than Scottish. As many people know, Orkney used to belong to Norway many years ago, and as we love learning about our history and traditions, we just love that side of things. From the names of the gin, the ingredients, the bottles that remind us of receptacles washed on the shore, to our logo, and the way we present ourselves. We are very proud to be a Scottish Gin with strong connections to our Norwegian past. I do think there are some aspects of our gin that are very Scottish too, like our use of heather flowers, and heather berries – they are seen to be very Scottish. I suppose, we are very lucky that Orkney is where it is. There is so much beautiful history and tradition that can connect us both to Scotland and Norway. All of the botanicals we use that are local to us have been gathered and grown ourselves, so maybe we’d just call it Orcadian!
SD: You mention that your gin tastes ‘of the island’ – without giving away any trade secrets can you tell us what specifically Orcadian botanicals are used in your gin? What makes it different?
GW: It tastes of the Island, both in a sense of the taste, and the traditions we base it on. We use rose petals and rose hips, heather flowers and heather berries, and we grow our own mint too. We also use Orcadian rhubarb from our friends and family also. I think the fact we forage for some of the ingredients and grow our on mint in our families garden is a really lovely touch, it also ensures it’s grown somewhere we know is a nice safe area, with clean air. I think that you can really feel the crisp summer days when you taste our Johnsmas and our Rhubarb Old Tom, and especially our Mikkelmas, with its warm mulled botanicals that reflect the cosy nights spent indoors in the dark autumn and winter months.
SD: Another uniquely Scottish element to your gin is the Orkney selkie on the labels. How else does Scotland’s mythology inspire you?
GW: Yes, it’s a myth that’s always interested our family, ever since our daughter wrote a story about them years ago. We liked the idea that they are interesting, alluring creatures. We enjoy the stories, and particularly like reading stories of Orkney’s traditions, especially the ones about Mikkelfeast and Johnsmas. They’re about people lighting bonfires, and having a good time. Although times were incredibly hard in the past, we are left dreaming of the ‘simple’ way of life, with none of the new technology we use nowadays.
SD: Your packaging as a whole is fabulous – and very different – can you tell us the story behind it?
GW: We wanted our packaging to reflect ourselves, and our product. the bottles are very well made – they’re reusable and versatile. The idea came from finding old stoneware bottles and jars on the beaches in Orkney. We love the way the ‘Orkney Gin Company’ is almost an old fashioned way of naming yourself ‘and co.’ and ‘bros’ etc. which is being used less and less. We love how the selkie woman is surrounded by the text. The look overall is not fussy, and definitely represents what we sell – something good quality, made by a family run business (not a huge organisation).
SD: What is your favourite way to drink your gin? Is there a particularly good cocktail for each flavour?
GW: This is a hard one! Since starting up, we have noticed gin is used in so many new, different ways. I’d always say that because Johnsmas is so lovely and fresh, I think it tastes great in a tall glass with ice and tonic, and a little orange peel. This definitely lets you get a real taste of the gin. Our Rhubarb Old Tom is great with Ginger Ale, and the same with our Mikkelmas, however, we have seen some great cocktails made using all of our gins. The Rhubarb Old Tom is lovely with prosecco and raspberries, and the Mikkelmas makes a fantastic hot toddy.
We recently tried Mikkelmas in a spiced chai latte style, and it was amazing. Because Mikkelmas is such a cosy drink, we find that it suits the winter dishes so well too, such as salmon gravadlax and Christmas pudding. Johnsmas and Rhubarb Old Tom make a delicious boozy drizzle cake, and recently, a friend of mine introduced me to Duck with a Rhubarb Old Tom sauce.
SD: You sell three flavours of gin – Johnsmas, Mikkelmas, and Rhubarb Old Tom. Each one is inspired by a particular season. Where did that idea come from? Do you have any plans for any more flavours?
GW: As explained earlier, our three gins have been heavily influenced by tradition and the time of year. We have a couple of ideas, one which we are keeping under wraps. Our new one is named Johannistag meaning Mid Summer’s Day or St Johns Day in German, and it’s a very special commemorative gin, made 100 years after the Scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Orkney’s Scapa Flow commissioned by Nicholas Jellicoe, Admiral Jellicoe of Scapa Flow’s direct descendant. It is a delicious Old Tom, inspired by Orkney’s fresh botanicals, and uses Orcadian Honey.
The bathtub method:
A neutral spirit is used as a base to which oils and flavour essences are added to give the notes of botanicals. The technique is not used that frequently anymore as it’s easier and faster to create gin in high volumes by doing distillation runs, rather than macerating botanicals and filtering them. However, as Gary mentioned, heat from the distillation would make the gins taste very different. This method is also known as the ‘bathtub’ as gin was traditionally made in ceramic bathtubs.
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