“It has been a wild ride. We’re almost perpetually sold out of everything,” says Sam Britten, the man behind Orkney Craft Vinegar’s meteoric rise over recent months.
Sam is speaking whilst checking his brand-new brewing kit in his business’s brand-new base, right in the heart of Kirkwall. The rapid growth, the expansion, the explosion in interest; it all came after what Sam affectionately calls ‘the incident’.
Earlier this year, Orkney Craft Vinegar was featured on two nationwide programmes hosted by James Martin – his weekly ‘Saturday Morning’ and his ‘Great British Adventure’, which focused on Orkney for its first episode.
“After we were featured, we basically sold all the stock we had within two days. It was just unprecedented and a massive leap from what we were doing,” says Sam. “You would go on our website and all you’d see was ‘sold out’ across the board, so right away we knew we had to regroup and plan where we would go from there.”
For a business that began life in 2017 in a garage in the Orkney village of Orphir, ‘the incident’ has certainly made an impact.
Now based in a bespoke unit, with brewing kit that offers ten times the production capability, Sam has also been able to employ more staff and begin to develop his range further - as well as keeping customers happy, with orders continuing to come in from around the world.
Alongside the Bere Malt and Honey & Meadowsweet versions, Orkney Craft Vinegar now offers Rhubarb and, the latest addition to the range, Sugar Kelp vinegars. Ingredients are almost all exclusively foraged from the Orkney landscape. For Sam, that’s the cornerstone of his business.
“We go and pick our ingredients ourselves,” he says. “We don’t order in things wrapped in plastic and packaging; we just use what’s in the surrounding area, turn it into wine and then into vinegar. It’s as simple as that.”
We watched on as Sam and his team splashed around in the shallows at the Brough of Birsay, a small tidal island off Orkney’s west coast. With the summer sunshine beating down, they were collecting seaweed for the Sugar Kelp vinegar.
“It’s definitely the nice part of the business, going out and picking the ingredients. We can only collect this here at low tide, so there are often early starts and late evenings, but it’s all worth it,” according to Sam.
It’s the commitment to ingredients from Orkney’s natural larder and the slow food ethos that makes Orkney Craft Vinegar special. It’s not without its challenges, though, especially when demand for your product skyrockets almost overnight.
Some of Sam’s range can take around six months to make, with the Bere Malt vinegar left to mature in oak casks to further develop its flavour. Others, like the Honey & Meadowsweet and Rhubarb versions, might only take three months, but the seasonal nature of the ingredients means that the number of bottles on offer is always limited.
That’s not something Sam is prepared to compromise on. “We don’t plan on making products that can be mass-produced or churned out. We’re not going to start taking in ingredients from Scotland or the south of England,” he says. “When the creativity comes, we’ll do a test batch. If it works, we’ll make it and then we’ll sell it.
“First and foremost, it has to taste good. Secondly, it has to be sustainable. Then we go from there.”
Orkney is a community that’s proud of its food and drink producers and local residents are always keen to support local businesses. So, when Sam put out an appeal on BBC Radio Orkney to source some fresh rhubarb, he wasn’t surprised to collect three tonnes of the fruit. That has occupied much of his summer so far, as well as working on the new Highland Park Malt Vinegar, which incorporates their peated malt and is matured in whisky-soaked seasoned sherry casks from the world-famous distillery.
After the initial tidal wave of interest following the James Martin programmes, the business has adapted accordingly. With staff members in place to handle tasks like marketing and admin, Sam can focus his energy on development and producing. That’s exactly where he wanted to be back when he launched the business in 2017.
“I’ve really enjoyed the last few months. It has been incredibly busy, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m enjoying it much more now that my efforts are focused on production rather than worrying about emails and those kinds of things!
Collecting seaweed from the shore as the sun rises, foraging for ingredients in Orkney’s fields, and tickling the taste buds of celebrity chefs. Post ‘incident’, life is pretty good at Orkney Craft Vinegar.
“I’m really quite excited about what the future holds,” says Sam.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.