Welcome to Scran & sIPs™, thank you for taking the time to participate. To kick things off, please can you tell us a bit about how you and Dan came to start the City of Aberdeen Distillery?
Dan and I had been brewing beer and wine (respectively) for a number of years. In 2009 we heard about the guys at Sipsmith down in London and their battle to get a licence for a small 300 litre still. Up until that point stills under 1,800 litres in size had been banned which has been the case since the 1700s and we were inspired by their story and their gin. We realised that we already knew a lot about botanicals as we were using them in our alcoholic drinks already. That’s how we made the switch. It took a couple of years for everything to come together into a viable business and the rest, as they say, is history.
Arguably, when you think of gin, Aberdeen isn’t the first place that comes to mind. How have you gone about shifting consumers’ mind-sets?
Curiously, Aberdeen was one of the main export ports for Juniper berries which were used by the Dutch to make jenever – an ancestor of modern gin. The North East of Scotland is well renowned for its food and drink. Perhaps Aberdeen & the shire requires more marketing – for example, our Scottish Bramble Gin is made with locally farmed brambles (known as blackberries further south) and a lot of soft fruit is grown in the region. If you visit Aberdeen by road or rail, you’ll see polytunnels, as we have the perfect climate for growing soft fruit. You’ll often find soft fruit in the supermarket which is grown in the region around Aberdeen.
The region is well known for its whisky, shortbread, and now Brewdog! – who are based just down the road from us – and we participate in festivals that promote the region's great food and drink. There are lots of whisky distilleries just outside of the city, and we also now have eco-friendly wineries and breweries in the city. In Huntly you can find the famous Scottish Dean's Shortbread and Mackie's of Scotland are also based in Aberdeenshire. The list goes on... Aberdeen is the gateway of the whisky country but also to a whole manner of other great food and drink companies.
You have said that you are not just proud to be based in Aberdeen but “to be of Aberdeen” – can you tell us more about what you mean by this?
This is about authentic and true authentic. Many products claim to be authentic while actually being quite the opposite. It would have been easy to setup a pastiche of a distillery and just buy in our gin. Our gin is distilled right here in the city by people who live and work right here in the city. Our distillery was constructed by local tradesmen and we have “gone local” everywhere we can. We also get involved in the local community so that Aberdeen can be proud to have her own distillery.
Consumers know that the claims made on gin bottles don’t always stand up to scrutiny, some gins simply brand their gin with association to a locale then make dubious claims in association with the region – for example, there are gins associated with Aberdeen that are actually distilled in Warrington or London i.e. are actually English Gins.
Visitors at the City of Aberdeen Distillery soon discover that we actually do what we say – all of our gins are actually distilled in a historic railway arch in Aberdeen. When people leave us they have a knowledge of what gin is and a new found understanding of what goes into the bottle.
Our gin really is of Aberdeen!
You have a unique offering compared to other UK based gin manufacturers in that you offer on-site distillation, a gin school, genuine small batch demi-john sampling and sales – why was it so important to you to be able to give consumers such a broad offering from the outset?
We wanted our customers to be able to experience the full process: from gin being distilled (by us or them) to sampling and learning about different flavours, to taking that experience home and being able to re-create it there.
We felt that having this breadth would give us a unique customer offering that is unique in the area and rare across the country. To have the distillation, activities and retail elements in the same building, this is something we absolutely knew we wanted, however we did struggle to get permission. We eventually attained permission and we are able to offer something really special to anyone who visits Aberdeen…all under one roof (or railway in this case).
It’s great to be able to serve samples direct from the demi-johns to those visiting the region – it really helps to form a lasting memory of their time in Aberdeen, whether popping into the shop or attending one of our three experiences, the memory will then serve to encourage word of mouth and encourages more adventurers to the region.
Marks & Clerk is also a firm with a proud Scottish heritage so it’s really exciting to hear about other innovative organisations taking inspiration from their history. Looking ahead however, how do ensure you remain innovative and able to keep up with – or set - gin trends?
That’s a challenging question, if there was a single easy answer I think everyone would be doing it. The truth is that one has to keep up with what is going on in the market and anticipate what customers will be looking for next. That could be new flavours to new experiences.
In this ever changing climate, considering diversity is a way to provide both more choice to the consumer and ensure business resilience. For example, we have a range of 4 bottle sizes to choose from – go big on one flavour or sample a range with smaller bottles or even our tasting box. You can even build your own tasting box right down to the gins and the tissue colours.
During the pandemic we even launched an online prototype of the Gin School (design a gin online, it is then distilled and sent out) – MakeYourOwnGin.co.uk .
In 2023 we will be looking to develop this further as to capture a wider UK audience, especially those currently considering a visit to the Silver City with the Golden Sands and might want to know where their gin was distilled.
Speaking of which – some of your flavours are quite unusual for gin, such as chamomile, how do you go about choosing these?
We experiment with a wide range of flavouring botanicals and combinations of botanicals in order to learn what works (and what doesn’t). Chamomile is an interesting botanical to choose as we found a definite regional preference for this flavour. We eventually realised that Brits see Chamomile in a very particular role (calming tea) so we ended up changing the name but not the flavour of this gin. Its popularity increased overnight!
We pack a punch of flavour in all of our gins and like to ensure we have a wide range of flavours to choose from. Both fruit gins (true gins at around 40%!) and London Dry. Even the London Dry gins have lots of flavour – our Lemon & Lime Gin is incredibly zesty and our Fresh Gin has flavours of fresh orange/grapefruit.
It’s also fresh because we make the gin every 2 weeks to ensure the best possible flavour (because…secret…gin doesn’t last!). From fruit gins to sweet floral, from fresh gins to chocolate gins, the possibilities of flavour, when it comes to gin, is most impressive and endless.