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Issue 87 - A 'Reel' Shetland Gin

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016

 

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A 'Reel' Shetland Gin

Christopher Coates meets the distillers of Shetland Reel Gin

Only 186 miles from western Norway, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean and separated from Shetland’s mainland by two ferries, is the remote Isle of Unst. Home to a population of around 630 and just over 46 square miles in size, it is the northernmost inhabited island of the British Isles. Rolling grasslands and dramatic cliffs, which attract significant seabird colonies, characterise this rural outpost that plays host not only to Puffins, but also to the remains of at least 60 Viking longhouses. Like the rest of Shetland, it did not become part of Scotland until the 15th Century and even today shares a strong cultural link to its Scandinavian roots. It is a magical place of long winter nights and endless summer days. Being located so far north, at midsummer it never truly gets dark on Unst and locals refer to the midnight twilight as ‘the simmer dim.’ Lying on the same latitude (more or less) as Anchorage, Alaska, the island claims a significant number of ‘most northerly’ titles, including the UK’s most northerly settlement, most northerly church and most northerly lighthouse. This list also now includes ‘Scotland’s most northerly distillery,’ located at Saxa Vord, which means ‘Saxa’s Hill’ and is named so for a giant of Norse mythology.

The distillery can be found in buildings at the Saxa Vord holiday resort, situated on the site of a former Royal Air Force (RAF) outpost; a radar placed on the summit of a nearby hill of the same name – it also happens to be Unst’s tallest – has played an important role in the defence of Britain since WWII. The radar was of critical significance during the height of the Cold War and RAF Saxa Vord’s motto ‘Praemoneo de Periculis’ (Forewarn of Danger), gives insight into the role it played in scanning the wide open skies for Soviet aircraft.

Rebuilt in 1989 as a self contained community to house the families of those working at the RAF radar facility, these domestic buildings were purchased by Frank and Debbie Strang in 2005 following the base’s closure. Today, the self-catering holiday homes, lodges, restaurant and bar act as a community hub.

In 2013, Frank and Debbie partnered with distilling industry veteran Stuart Nickerson and his wife Wilma on the launch of the Saxa Vord distillery, home of Shetland Reel Gin. Stuart has worked in the Scotch whisky industry for over 30 years; starting as a project engineer on Speyside, he later managed a series of preeminent distilleries before starting his own consultancy and negotiating the purchase of the Glenglassaugh distillery in Portsoy. He managed the distillery’s refurbishment, the restarting of production and eventual sale of the site to the BenRiach Distillery Company, before turning his hand to the gin industry at Saxa Vord. Today, Unst’s distillery welcomes visitors and is kitted out with an immersive tasting room, where guests may learn more about the gin’s botanicals and production.

The modest size of Shetland Reel’s distillery equipment also makes it one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries. The gin has nevertheless held its own in a crowded marketplace, expanding into new territories as the word spread nationally and internationally. Most recently, in April 2016, Shetland Reel gin won a silver medal at the San Fransisco World Spirits Competition, an achievement that can be attributed to the significant time and effort invested in creating the recipe. When initially crafting the spirit, Shetland Reel’s team aimed to create a traditional gin using familiar botanicals such as juniper berries, coriander seeds, orris root, cassia bark and citrus peel, but were also keen to add a uniquely Shetland twist. This piece of island identity came in the form of locally grown apple mint, provided by Unst Market Garden. In November 2015 a second gin was released, Shetland Reel Ocean Sent, which also contains a piece of Unst: native bladderwrack seaweed from the island’s coastline.

Concurrently, the distillery has also begun to release a small number of aged malt whiskies, sourced from Glenglassaugh Distillery by Stuart, that have been independently bottled at Saxa Vord. These tentative first steps into the world of whisky may just give a hint as to the direction in which the team hope to take the distillery in the future. For now, Shetland Reel’s team will have their work cut out for them, as competition in the Scottish gin scene is fierce – over 70% of the gin produced in the UK comes from Scotland.

Despite rubbing shoulders with some heavyweight peers, Shetland Reel is nevertheless difficult to overshadow. After all, one can’t help but think of the incredible journey the liquid has taken to reach the glass, and how, had history gone a little differently, it might just as easily have ended up as a Norwegian gin instead.

Visitor Information

Shetland Distillery Company
Saxa Vord Distillery, Unst, Haroldswick,
Shetland Islands, ZE2 9EF
+44 (0) 1957 711 217
www.shetlandreel.com