First it was thousands of litres of hand sanitiser and DIY cocktail kits, now it’s a car park covered with artificial grass and an al fresco, physically distanced gin experience.
Like so many Orkney businesses dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown, Orkney Distilling has had to adapt and innovate to survive the financial shock of lost trade, but its spirits are high once again.
The team at the distillery’s five-star visitor centre in Kirkwall had been gearing up for another busy tourist season when restrictions related to the pandemic were imposed back in March.
Over the space of 48 hours the company’s income from its tours, bar, meetings and events venue, and its wholesale gin sales and exports were wiped out. Only its retail sales business remained intact, forcing some lateral thinking from owners Stephen and Aly Kemp.
“Right away we had to ramp up our online store,” says Stephen. “We invested heavily in online marketing, which allowed us to maintain that revenue stream and meant we could continue to communicate more directly with our customers and audiences across the UK.
“We ended up with so many orders the Royal Mail gave us our own cage that we could fill up on a Monday morning and wheel across the road to the Kirkwall Post Office!”
Online sales successfully boosted, it was on to hand sanitiser manufacturing, with Orkney Distilling producing tens of thousands of litres of its Angell Spray solution.
“It was all about keeping things going,” says Stephen, who was initially reluctant to go down the hand sanitiser route given the stringent and complex rules governing the production of biocides. In the end, his wife Aly persuaded him to pursue the idea and it proved an unexpected lockdown hit.
“We sent our sanitiser all over the UK,” he continues. “That really did offer a lifeline revenue stream for a couple of months, until the big manufacturers all caught up and people began to look away from the small producers.”
The Orkney Distilling team then came up with the concept of creating special cocktail kits containing everything needed for the perfect home drinks mix.
“It was just a case of wanting to keep in touch with our local audience and customers when the lockdown was on and people weren’t able to visit any hospitality establishment,” explains Stephen. “We could see the opportunity was there to create a product that people would like and it was almost like bringing a bit of the bar to their home on a Saturday night.
“Sadly we weren’t able to deliver all over Orkney so we reverted to a click and collect service, but it worked really nicely and it was great to get such fantastic local support from everyone.”
Now, as lockdown restrictions start to ease and we enter the new normal of physically distanced trade and tourism, Orkney Distilling has adapted again, changing its tour format and creating a new covered outdoors space in the car park to the rear of its visitor centre.
Oot the Back, as the company has christened its al fresco experience, is almost ready to open with its licensing now in place.
Customers will be seated in cosy private booths, with rustic wooden furniture created from old pallets and benches, under a canopy of lighting. The distillery car park surface is even getting a makeover with artificial grass being laid to soften the environment.
“There’ll be a QR code on each table and that takes you to our webpage and our drinks menu,” says Stephen. “You can order and pay online from your phone and your drinks will come to your table. We’re also looking at some kind of basic food offering.
He adds: “It’s maybe a different way of working, but hopefully it’ll be a nice venue for local folk and tourists alike. It also gives us an opportunity to have some kind of sheltered outdoor market or Kirkwall BID event there, so it’ll be something really positive to come out of this crisis.”
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.