Kirkjuvagr Gin, pronounced 'kirk-u-vaar', was launched in 2016 by Orkney-based husband and wife, Stephen Kemp (a former builder) and Aly Kemp (a former PE Teacher). Kirkjuvagr means 'Church in the Bay' in old Norse and was how Vikings described the location that is now Orkney's capital, Kirkwall. Having initially had their gin distilled at Strathearn Distillery in Scotland, Stephen and Aly opened The Orkney Distillery and Visitor Centre in 2018 to move production to Orkney and offer tours and gin making experiences. It has now been 5 years since since they opened the doors, and having followed their journey and been regularly in contact since their launch, we could wait to wish them a Happy Birthday and to catch up with Stephen for an interview and to look back over their last 5 years.
First, let's begin with a look at a short history of Kirkjuvagr Gin and The Orkney Distillery:
How has the distillery and team changed and grown since you opened?
The team has certainly grown and evolved over the years, with new faces joining us each summer season, and some others returning year-on-year to help with the busy periods. This year Iona has taken over responsibility for our marketing content, social media and public interface. She’s doing a brilliant job, and has really good, fresh ideas. Iona is Kirkwall born and bred, and we’re really lucky that Orkney tends to attract and maintain our brilliant young people as they are what really make the business so special.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when you began?
I think that when you enter any new industry you learn by doing. A lot of time was spent in those first couple of years attending events (some of which were a great success, and others that were the opposite). Being on Orkney, an awful lot of time, effort and cost was spent driving up, down and across the UK to attend events. If I knew what I know now then I would probably have remained a bit more focused. Nevertheless, every time you attend any sort of event the valuable takeaway is the networking – meeting new people and making connections across the country has been invaluable.
Is there an achievement that you are most proud of since you launched?
Naturally, every award received for each product is really satisfying, but I think that building the Distillery and opening our tourist offering was a real achievement given that we managed to design, construct and then open it just 18-months after formation of the company. This has acted as a ‘brand platform’ and gives us a home that enables us to welcome thousands of visitors from around the UK and the rest of the world each year. We achieved 5* Visit Scotland status and we are currently rated as ‘#1 of things to do in Kirkwall’ on Trip Advisor.
What has been the highlight of the past 5 years?
That’s a tricky question! Besides opening the Distillery and Visitor Centre there have been a number of highlights – visiting Japan and China and creating a number of partner relationships across European countries has been really nice – again it comes back to the value and appreciation I have of creating networks.
One big milestone for us was our bespoke bottle launch, that we did in conjunction with Craft Gin Club. The new packaging was the last piece of our brand development plan, and we finally achieved it in 2021. The bottle, for example, carries the Vegvisir (our logo) - it was said to be a mythical compass, or way finder. It was said that he who holds this compass will find his way home – we have this passage cast into the circumference of the base of the bottle, almost as a hidden piece of detail, whilst the Vegvisir symbol itself is ‘stamped’ into the bottle. The runes around the neck of the bottle spell the old norse word Afl, meaning strong/strength. This is symbolic of our strong bond to Kirkwall, and to our Norse heritage.
What's next for The Orkney Distillery in the near future?
We have a fairly major project underway right now, however it’s a little premature to release any details just yet ;-)
What are the big dreams and plans for the next 5 years?
We intend to continue to grow our export sales, whilst enhancing our product offering.
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