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Saxa Vord


A Reel-y interesting place


You may be excused for asking "Saxa Who" if you've not already heard of Scotland's most northerly distillery. No, not that Orkney one, but the one tucked away on an island called Unst which is one of the group of Shetland Isles. Embarrassingly I'd remotely heard of Saxa Vord some time ago but then promptly forgotten about it, so when I booked my trip to Shetland I was thinking more of photography and R&R than distillery visits. It was only when I started mentioning my forthcoming trip that a couple of people asked if I'd be visiting the distillery.

Saxa Vord distillery is on the site of the old RAF base of the same name which in its time was home to various aircraft (English Electric Lightning, Phantom F-4 & Tornado F3) during the cold war years when they typically escorted Soviet TU-95 probing flights out of UK airspace. Over the last few years Frank and Debbie Strang have been regenerating the old RAF base, turning it into a resort comprising self-catering accommodation, a hostel and a bar / restaurant. The distillery itself is the brainchild of Stuart Nickerson and his wife Wilma. Yes, that Stuart Nickerson we all know and love from his Glenglassaugh days.

In 2013 Stuart submitted plans for the distillery to Shetland Isles Council which were granted and the first commercial distillation was in September 2014. OK, let's make one thing clear; at the moment we're talking Gin and not whisky. The brand is called Shetland Reel Gin and Stuart currently produces three expressions; Original Gin which uses sweet scented leaves of apple mint grown locally on Unst, Ocean Sent Gin which is influenced by the seas surrounding Unst and even features native Bladderwrack seaweed and Simmer Gin which is named after the long Summer twilight hours. Simmer Gin features a recipe of eight botanicals including orange peel and liquorice root.

But what about whisky? Stuart has plans to begin whisky production and they may even come to fruition in the next 1-2 years according to distillery manager Mark (Turnbull), but more of that later.


How do you get there? it's true, we're talking north, very north, in fact 60 north and that's well north. Unst is actually closer to Norway than it is to Aberdeen so getting there is an adventure in itself, as I found on my recent visit. You'll probably start by travelling to Shetland which means a 12 hour overnight ferry from Aberdeen, or a flight from Aberdeen or Edinburgh. Travelling from Munich I flew Munich to Edinburgh then onwards to Sumburgh (Shetland) which is a 45-50 minute flight. Did I say adventure? The runway literally begins where the sea ends which makes the approach interesting, even more so than a previous flight to Wick. The plane banks towards a distant island but even to the point where the wheels are down and you're only metres from land, you're actually only metres above water. Then there's the runway, the main road to the airport and south of the island crosses it so of course you need to stop local traffic when a plane's landing or taking off.

Here you see a Loganair flight from Aberdeen coming in to land.


Before my trip I e-mailed Stuart asking whether I might be able to drop in at some point. He apologised saying he'd personally not be there but I could call in advance to arrange a convenient time. Sadly I forgot to take the details with me so couldn't do that, however my interest was piqued and I decided to try anyway. A drive to the north of shetland took me to the first ferry which in turn took me to the next island called Yell. If I thought Shetland was remote then Yell is at another level but I took the advice of my B&B hosts to venture away from the main road and explore the side roads. Definitely a good tip offering stunning scenery! After a bit of exploration my journey continued northwards to the second ferry from Yell to Unst. Just ten minutes later I find myself on Unst and heading further north towards Saxa Vord resort which is eventually sign-posted from the main road shortly after the field containing the Viking long boat and Viking grass-roofed house. In the corner of a courtyard opposite the craft brewery is the entrance to Saxa Vord distillery. As I approached the doorway wondering whether anyone would be there it opened and a chap introduced himself as Mark, asking how he could help me. Mark turned out to be distillery manager, distiller and general good guy who immediately invited me in whilst apologising he was in the middle of measuring out his latest distillation from a very large container into slightly smaller ones. Let's just say good hand-eye coordination are needed here.

Once finished he invited me to look around and even asked if I wanted to take any pictures. Now there's hospitality and I don't need asking twice so a quick run back to the car to collect my camera before he could change his mind.

What I found was a small (I believe craft is the in word) still in the corner of a large warehouse-type building, a comfortable visitor / tasting room to the side and obviously lots of storage. Pointing to one area the length of the side wall Mark explained that was the area currently planned for their whisky production. He explained that they were hoping to begin in two years if not next year.




Meanwhile, back at the whisky; Saxa Vord may not yet be producing their own whisky but they are bottling whisky. They buy a selection of single malts, vat them and bottle their own blended malt under their Shetland Reel label. So far they have released two different batches with batch 1 being released in late 2015 as a limited release of 1800 bottles. It comprised four Speyside and one Islay malt and was bottled at 47% abv. It won a gold medal at the San Francisco world spirits competition. Batch 2 comprises Speyside, Highland and Islay single malts and is again bottled at 47% abv after being reduced from cask strength with local Unst water. As I write this article batch 3 is currently being bottled and a release for Christmas-time is planned. My own tasting notes for batch 3 will be online in the near future.




My heartfelt thanks to Mark Turnbull for his hospitality and taking the time during his busy schedule to welcome this eccentric Yorkshireman for an unplanned visit. Thanks again Mark and good luck to the whole team for the future. I can't wait for the start of your own whisky production.



A selection of previous Dram-atics highlights


  The Liquid




Class of 64-65



Elementary my dear Sukhinder

Fab Fo(u)rties

Drams at Dawn

Prohibition Three Ways



Matching Malts to Music




  Festivals & Events

Limburg 2016

Limburg 2015

An annual Pilgrimmage

Limburg Crooks & Nannies


April 2016

coming soon-ish


Limburg - Whet Dreams

Autumn 2013 Speyside








  Getting About

St. Magdalene / Linlithgow

Islay Revisited




  The Maniacs

Motor Maniac meets Malt Maniac

Anoraks Bottles & Castle

Nosing New Make

Blend of Maniacs



  The Malt Maniacs Awards - MMA  

MMA 2016 It just gets better & better

MMA 2015 The Gathering of the Drams

MMA 2014 Unplugged

MMA 2013 Unplugged



MMA 2011 Winners







A brace of luxury

Debussy plays Pitaud





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