The Orkney larder is famous around the world. The islands have some of the finest food and drink to be found anywhere, and the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to go with it. One new business, Orkney Craft Vinegar, is already beginning to make an impact in culinary circles further afield.
“To my mind there is no really good UK vinegar producer and we wanted to be the first. We’ve had to learn as we go but it’s just kind of logic really.”
Sam Britten is typically understated when it comes to his business. Along with his father-in-law, Keith Harrison, he launched Orkney Craft Vinegar in 2017, combining knowledge and skills learnt in previous jobs with a desire to do something different.
But starting a business from scratch, especially one that requires such skill, attention to detail and creativity, is a real challenge.
“There’s no handbook to making vinegar,” said Sam. “If you want to make beer then there is lots of information online. There’s nothing about vinegar!”
That didn’t deter the duo though. Sam originally had the inspiration for the idea whilst working at the Barony Mills in Orkney where he was responsible for milling bere – an ancient island barley. He was also malting grain to be used in whisky and beer and decided to take the alcohol, ferment it and try turning it into vinegar.
“It all goes back to my previous life as a chef when I used vinegar as a seasoning in lots of sauces instead of citrus fruits,” he said. “It just made sense to me that people might want to use something local instead of importing something from the continent. The result is the same idea of acidity as citrus.”
Now, from its small base in the village of Orphir, Orkney Craft Vinegar is finding its way to kitchens and cafes across the world, including places like Cape Town, San Francisco, New York City and the Faroe Islands. Its two vinegars, Bere Malt and Honey and Meadowsweet, are becoming increasingly popular ingredients in recipes and even cocktails – one bar in Brooklyn has created a bespoke shandy with dark porter beer featuring bere malt vinegar instead of lemonade.
The process is important to Sam and Keith. Customers are now looking for something exciting and innovative. “In particular, chefs are always searching for something ‘hyper-local’,” said Sam. “They’re not looking for traditional balsamics from Italy or Spain, they want something homegrown. For us, one of the main drivers is to use local ingredients”
When you find out just how much care, attention and time goes into each bottle of Orkney Craft Vinegar, you can really appreciate why the product is becoming increasingly popular. The Bere Malt Vinegar is made using bere barley and is left to mature in oak barrels – sometimes for up to a year – before being bottled. This helps it develop its deep, complex flavours.
Meanwhile, the Honey and Meadowsweet Vinegar uses pure honey and Orcadian spring water. This becomes a mead which is then infused with locally grown meadowsweet, before being fermented a second time into vinegar – a long process but, according to Sam, one that’s key to its success.
“The vinegar has a floral taste to it from the meadowsweet, which you can find across Orkney during the summer months. It also has a kind of almond and elderflower taste – just the perfect balance between acidity, sweetness and florals. It’s apparently very good in gin cocktails!”
Now just over a year into business, the team is already planning for the future. There are new client opportunities to explore and even a potential visit from a very popular television chef on the horizon too. The range is also set to be expanded, with a whisky cask-aged bere malt vinegar nearing completion, and a rhubarb-flavoured vinegar being trialled too.
It has been a busy year for Sam and Keith, and with such a small team and production space, what they’ve achieved so far is nothing short of incredible. The business joined Orkney Food and Drink in 2017 and has attended a number of trade shows on the Scottish mainland with other local companies.
“Orkney Food and Drink has been amazing and the visits south helped generate a lot of interest,” said Sam. “It’s good to be part of the Orkney producers group too, there is a particular interest in Orkney ingredients and we’re committed to using them.”
For now, though, the Orkney fields are full of meadowsweet, the rhubarb is in season and the barrels in the store sit full of vinegar, ageing to perfection. Can Sam quite believe how far the business has come?
“It has been a huge learning curve. Of course we’ve had some disasters on the way, but we’ve taken them all in our stride and we’ve had such a massive response. We’re just excited about what comes next.”
Visit the Orkney Food and Drink website for more information on Orkney's producers and stockists.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.