As we pass peak craft and the British Isles weigh anchor in an ocean of new gin bottles and whiskies aged in baby-tear cocktail casks, it’s worth separating the change-driven sloggers from the lifestyle distillers and big-brand offshoots.
Because starting up a (legal) distillery does require a battle plan.
To brutalise an excellent point by Gin Foundry, it’s not enough to want to mess about with rose petals. You have to be able to increase the attractiveness of your chosen family of drinks – be that gin, whisk(e)y or other. It’s even true of vodka, a category allegedly described by Mr Grey Goose himself as having only three ingredients: water, alcohol and money.
Money, of course, is the most obvious issue. Your still alone can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, and that’s just the machinery. Now add on:
- finding and buying a location (near water/transport/ingredients),
- building or renovating the place,
- a skilled distiller,
- a high-tech water filtration system,
- and setting up a solid distribution network.
- I forgot bottling services and marketing: add those on too.
And then there’s a troubling part of the equation for Scotch in particular: time.
Can you play the waiting game?
You don’t have to age gin or vodka (you can, but it’s unlikely to better the spirit). With whisky you’re looking at a minimum of 3 years after distillation before you can even start selling.
‘We’re not good at being patient here,’ admits R&B Distillers co-founder Alasdair Day. Given that the two distilleries (‘R’ on Raasay, ‘B’ near Peebles in the Borders) won’t be selling any whisky till 2020, one wonders how they hold out.
With some cunning pre-planning, of course.
‘Through working with a Highland distillery to create our RAASAY While We Wait and BORDERS whiskies we’re able to tell a story of what’s to come in 2020 and beyond.’
If you’re going in for whisk(e)y-making, then the long game is just something you have to accept. Day’s paternal great grandfather was a whisky distiller, and his book of recipes still exists. One of them, from 1820, is used for R&B’s TWEEDDALE Blend. So, by the time 2020 rolls around, as Day points out, R&B Distillers will actually have been in the making for 200 years.
The trouble with being a craft leader
While time may be less of an issue for gin distillers, there’s nothing like breaking new ground for throwing up difficulties.
Across the high seas, in Vancouver, The Liberty Distillery (maker of a Navy-strength pink gin to add to your list) was the city’s first small-scale producer in 2010. They’re considered one of only three true craft distillers in town as they use regional raw materials, and mash, ferment and distill onsite. But this very process was the source of one of their greatest challenges.
‘We were the first distillery to register in Vancouver and at that time building a craft distillery did not fit into any construction/building category. As an industry rated F1 High Hazard, we were categorised the same as an oil refinery,’ explains Director of Operations Lisa Simpson. Not a logistical dream, then.
On the flipside, one benefit of being in the vanguard means that the community is quite tight.
‘The craft distilling community … is comprised of a group of like-minded individuals dedicated to creating their “style” of spirit with the goal of making the best spirits possible. To this end, there is a strong sense of community and support,’ Simpson adds. There will always be an element of competition, but the overarching goal concerns bettering the products themselves.
Which brings us to another issue: how to set yourself apart from the fakers.
What makes a real craft spirit?
Durham Distillery’s Curtis Wayne Pierce, Jr believes openness plays a big part.
‘It is tough, particularly with the number of brands claiming to be craft, to help people see how we truly are a craft distillery…all we can do is show people the still [named Lily], let them meet the people who make Durham Gin and be open about who we are and how we create our product.’
Lisa Simpson points out that true craft distillers are really those who ‘love to express and talk about their work’. These are the types who put in the research, are driven on by the lows as well as the highs, and aren’t motivated purely by white-knight private equity.
And then there are the problems that only those who’ve done their research and are still brave enough to go ahead must deal with. Take the brown long-eared bat.
A native of, among other places, the Isle of Raasay, it’s a protected species in the UK (along with all other bats, in case you’ve been cruel to any). Which means that when R&B Distillers were planning the island’s first (legal) distillery, they knew they’d have extra responsibilities.
‘It was important to us that the building really assimilate into the existing environment,’ says Day. ‘Wildlife surveys weren’t just a pre-planning requirement, but also an aspect that we really wanted to get right.’
The team even constructed ‘bat boxes and a bat hotel in the roof during the winter before the bats returned from their annual migration’. There is also one human hotel, at the time of writing, on Raasay.
By Sophie Skarbek-Borowska