Scottish gin is enjoying something of a renaissance. Will Pocklington visits Scotland’s first farm-to-bottle distillery, and discovers that they’re doing some exciting things.
The air tasted boozy as we stepped into the old barn with its high ceiling and shiny vats and stills. Ahead, a line of weathered bourbon casks ran parallel to the huge windows offering a panoramic view of Lunan Bay. The red Angus soils between us and the sea was laid bare in places. “So these fields here are for next year’s vodka,” explained a voice beside me, pointing towards them. Very soon they’d be planted with seed potatoes.
The voice belonged to Arbikie Highland Estate commercial manager Adam Hunter, who would go on to tell the story of Scotland’s first farm-to-bottle distillery. We were standing in it.
Now, we all know any good story relies on a few essential constituents: it needs characters; it needs an interesting setting; it needs its own style; and its many tendrils must eventually come together to point towards an overall theme. A bit of history and ‘setting the scene’ never hurt, either. And in an era when provenance, traceability and sustainability have become buzzwords for an increasing number of consumers – and many of us (actually) care about the origin and make-up of what it is we’re buying, eating and drinking – the Arbikie Highland Estate seem to have all bases covered.
The story revolves around a small cast. Other than Adam are master distiller Kirsty Black, Christian Perez, and the three brothers who oversee the whole operation and grew up in the house next door – John, Iain and David Stirling.
The Stirling family itself has a rich history with strong ties to the land, farming on the West Coast since 1660 until the brothers’ great uncle Bill acquired 100 acres at Arbikie on the east coast of Angus in the 1920s. The farm was then passed down to their grandfather John Stirling, who expanded the acreage further before son Alec took the baton.
Then came John, Iain and David who grew up working on the farm before embarking on their respective careers away from it. But in 2014 they returned, and in the barn where as youngsters they’d help milk cows before school, they’re now producing vodka, gin and whisky – not a bovine in sight.
It’s not quite a case of ‘three farmers start making their own booze’, though. With collaborative expertise in accounting, sales, marketing and branding, the Stirling brothers spotted an opportunity and have thrown a mass of passion and know-how at it.
“Our estate must be the perfect place to build a distillery,” they state on their website. A fresh water supply runs off of the Angus Hills in the background; the North Sea’s waves crash on Lunan Bay to the east; and several thousand acres of prime farmland lie to the west. Combine this with evidence that a whisky distillery stood on Arbikie in the 1790s, plus the skeleton of a building already in situ, and it’s hard to disagree.
But they’re not just unique in where they are. It’s what they are doing that is really turning heads. Arbikie are the country’s first potato vodka distillery. They also use this potato vodka as the base spirit for their range of gins. What’s more, they grow their raw material on the farm. And the whole distilling process is done manually – from putting the potatoes in the mixer and moving the spirit between wash still and pot still, to adding the correct quantities of various botanicals.
“Supermarkets have very strict specifications for fruit and veg, and for big producers this means a lot of waste,” Adam explained as we stood by the potato grader on our walk around the farm later. “Some of the waste potatoes are used as livestock feed and a few are sent to local catering colleges, but we now use a significant proportion to make vodka. In a day when we’re trying to be less wasteful, this is a great example of using something that would otherwise be thrown away.”
It takes approximately 6kg of spuds to make a litre of vodka. And, unlike grain-based vodkas, the crop’s variety has a noticeable influence on the spirit’s taste – even to the untrained palate. Maris Piper, Cultra and King Edwards are the choice at Arbikie.
When making gin, it’s then up to Kirsty and Christian to work their magic with the botanicals, which vary according to the type they’re making. The master distiller’s eponymous creation, Kirsty’s Gin, for example, aims to embody the sea, land and rock from the surrounding area using kelp (indigenous to Lunan Bay), blaeberries and carline thistle.
As we continued our tour of the land around the distillery, the aforementioned tendrils which support its very ethos presented themselves: we passed blackthorn hedgerows already earmarked for next year’s sloe gin; we visited one of Arbikie’s very own juniper plantations which, eight years from now, might throw a berry or two and take away from the need to import from Macedonia. Everything points to a long-term view. “This is a business the brothers want to be handed down from generation to generation, for another 500 years,” Adam explained. “If we have to wait for these plans to be realised, then we shall wait. This isn’t about making a quick buck.
“We want to become the most progressive distillery in the world, whether that be in the use of energy, the use of crops or how we make and bottle the spirits,” he added. And he wasn’t joking. A good story indeed... This one, however, is far from finished.
Scottish gin — What’s all the fuss about?
Gin sales are booming and Scottish gin is bang on trend, says Chrissie Fairclough. So why choose Scottish?
It’s true, gin is having a moment. Depending on your weekend proclivities – from dinner parties to heading down the pub – boozy conversations from Caithness to Kent are humming with the same buzzwords. Watch out for ‘craft’, ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’, ‘botanicals’ – and there it is – ‘Scottish gin’.
The reason for this great rap, like most things Scottish, is slightly tortured. Let’s start with the obvious. First and foremost, there’s no doubt that being in the home of whisky distilling gives you a head start: you’ve already got the credibility, the nous, the people, the kit, and, oh, so much heritage. This is largely why production of Gordon’s and Tanqueray moved to Fife in 1998, meaning that – virtually overnight – Scotland could boast making some 70 per cent of gin consumed in the UK.
No one knew then that just one year later would see the launch of a game-changing gin of such proportions it would revitalise the category for decades to come. Enter William Grant & Sons. This whisky distilling family bought two stills at auction in the 1960s – a Carter-Head still and a small pot still – both restored to working order by in-house distillery specialists and pivotal in their recipe development of a new rose and cucumber-inspired gin.
It’s clear that without whisky expertise, the launch of Hendrick’s in 1999 would not have taken place. As it was, this disrupted the market significantly; enough to make other whisky distillers sit up and pay attention. And that they did: fast forward a decade and you could take your pick from Caorunn (Balmenach Distillery), Edinburgh Gin (Spencerfield Spirits) and The Botanist (Bruichladdich). The result? Gin was no longer the boring drink your parents drank. And Scotland played a key role in that.
This is where the small-batch story hots up. While the big guns in whisky were getting busy on the gin front, two separate but significant movements were happening on either side of the pond: in the UK, the law was quietly nuanced to allow HMRC to grant licences to distil spirits on stills smaller than 18 hectolitres; whilst in the US, a craft distilling revolution was brewing.
For makers of Scottish craft spirits, this was a perfect storm. It created a vision for the future, drawing on the skills of the past. So a new band of budding distillers was born: the Scottish Craft Distillers Association was founded in 2014, with the main aim of growing the craft distilling industry north of the border. What’s more, it had welcome backing from the world-renowned International Centre for Brewing & Distilling – which just happens to be based in Scotland – at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.
Since then, the change in the Scottish gin market has been rapid and dramatic. Over 35 craft distilleries have opened, launching over 100 different expressions. Even for aspiring whisky distillers, starting with gin makes sense. It can be made quickly and launched onto the market without the need for any of that maturation stuff. And the Scottish economy is loving it. According to Euromonitor, in 2010 domestic gin sales were about half those of blended Scotch whisky, at £774m a year – yet today, both are worth about £1.2bn. Moreover, by 2020, Scotch sales are set to stay flat, while gin is predicted to soar to over £1.5bn.
The future of gin in Scotland is bright. The number of craft distillers is rising in tandem with consumer interest in the category. Like whisky buffs, gin-lovers are promiscuous – building collections to represent different flavour profiles, provenance and brand stories. So, from a demand perspective, the market has a long way to go just yet.