From its base in North-East Fife, Eden Mill brewery and distillery is making waves as far away as China and the United States. Peter Ranscombe catches up with Paul Miller to find out what’s next for the unique drinks plant.
Some entrepreneurs dream of opening their own distillery; others fantasise about owning their own brewery. Paul Miller decided to do both.
Looking back over his career history, perhaps it’s not surprising that Miller has a passion for both beer and spirits. Having cut his teeth at International Distillers & Vintners – now part of Diageo, Scotland’s largest whisky distiller and the owner of brands including Bell’s, J&B and the legendary Johnnie Walker – Miller went on to become a regional director at Scotch maker Glenmorangie and then spent more than a decade at brewing giant Molson Coors’ Scottish operations, first as its sales director and then as its managing director.
Then in 2012 he took the leap and set up his own business – Eden Mill, Scotland’s first and, so far, only brewery and distillery on a single site. And that site has an interesting history.
As he bounces down from one of the stools in Eden Mill’s tasting room, Miller points excitedly to a painting on the wall. “A Dutch art dealer – complete with a cravat, monocle and mustard-coloured cords – pulled up one day in a Rolls-Royce and showed us this painting,” he explains. “It shows the site as it would have looked in 1855 – the whole history is encapsulated in this picture.”
The Haig family, a name synonymous with the development of the Scotch whisky industry, had been making single malt down the road at Strathkinness since 1796 and moved to the site at Guardbridge on the shore of the Eden estuary near St Andrews in Fife in 1810. The Haigs stayed until 1869 when they switched production to what is now Diageo’s Cameronbridge facility, one of Scotland’s largest distilleries, with part of the site becoming a brewery for a time and the rest being transformed into a paper mill.
The mill closed in 2008 and, when the site was bought by the University of St Andrews in 2010, Miller spotted an opportunity. But the idea of opening a brewery or distillery in or near the ‘home of golf’ had been germinating for much longer than that.
“When I was at Glenmorangie, I used to pick up visitors from all over the world at Edinburgh airport and then drive them up to Tain or fly them over to Islay to visit Ardbeg,” Miller remembers. “I began wondering why more people hadn’t built distilleries nearer to the Central Belt.
“It crystallised when I was in the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews in 2008 at three o’clock in the morning and I was talking to my then big boss, Pete Coors, who owned the Coors Brewery. He had all his big American customers over and they were all playing golf, as they do every couple of years.
“Pete turned to me and said: ‘Hey pal, tomorrow I don’t want to play golf – take me to the nearest brewery or distillery’. And I was like: ‘Pete, I don’t know where the nearest brewery or distillery is’. I was thinking it must be at least an hour away – there was Inveralmond brewery in Perth or maybe Tullibardine distillery.
“He couldn’t believe that, in such an iconic location as St Andrews with such high consumer footfall from all over the world, no-one had looked at the opportunity to make and sell some kind of alcohol beverage brand rooted in the town.”
The seed was sown. Having lived in Fife since 1994 when he moved back from London, Miller already knew about the high quality of the area’s barley and other grains; Pepsi’s Quaker Oats division has a plant nearby at Cupar. He also saw the opportunity for a tourist attraction. “At any given time, almost two-thirds of the people staying in St Andrews are visitors of one sort or another, be they students or golfers,” Miller says. “It makes sense for the town to have something else beyond the golf and the very smart university.”
Miller also took inspiration from Coors. Although the company owns some of the world’s largest beer brands, it also has Blue Moon, which was based at a craft brewery in the baseball stadium in Denver.
He spent two years looking for a suitable site within the town of St Andrews itself but, with its medieval street layout and protected architecture, he couldn’t find the right premises for a boutique brewery or distillery. “I kept looking and kept looking and I even looked as far away as Kinross, but that was stretching it too far,” Miller admits.
When he heard the university had bought the old Guardbridge paper mill, he got straight on the phone. The site was already zoned by planners for industrial use. Despite the university having not decided how it was going to use the site, Miller persuaded it to let him use part of the empty complex to set up his Eden Brewery. After patching holes in the roof, he was ready to go.
To fund the venture, Miller teamed up with his friend Tony Kelly, a long-time friend and telecommunications entrepreneur whose knowledge and experience with digital media complemented his own skills in production and sales. The pair are still the company’s sole shareholders and have continued to finance the expansion personally.
Eden Brewery initially produced 20 to 25 barrels a week from its five-barrel brew-plant, supplying pubs and bars in the surrounding area with kegs and bottles. In tandem, Miller began offering tours of the tiny brewery, which were an immediate hit.
“The problem was that people visited the brewery and wanted to buy a product that had been authentically made in St Andrews – and all we could do was sell them a three-pack of beer and a glass for a tenner,” explains Miller. “People were prepared to pay for a product that had provenance and authenticity and a three-pack of beer was in no way maximising the opportunity.
“So, in January 2014, we set about creating a distillery. Everyone thought we were mad. But I said that by the time of the independence referendum in September 2014 we would be making whisky.
“We had the distillery ready by September, but we were waiting for HM Revenue & Customs’ approval. We put our first spirit into cask on 14 November 2014, which was phenomenal in 11 months. People always think a distillery costs about £8 million and takes about eight years to build.”
The university was still humming and harring over how to best use the site, but it allowed Miller to expand into the area that currently houses Eden Mill, allowing him to construct a bonded warehouse and the visitors’ centre.
In order to be sold as ‘Scotch whisky’, a spirit must be made in Scotland from cereals, water and yeast and aged for at least three years in oak casks. Once, the accepted wisdom was that it took ten, twelve or even more years for the whisky to mature and reach the stage where customers would pay decent prices to drink it.
Yet the emergence of craft or boutique distilleries has started to turn that idea on its head. If the quality of their spirit is really high and if it’s aged in the right wood then it could be ready to drink much earlier than the whiskies of the past.
Having laid down his first spirit to mature in November 2014, Miller still had to wait a further year before he could start to sell his first single malt whisky from Eden Mill. But, in the meantime, he had another trick up his sleeve. Eden Mill is launching its own range of blended whiskies. These bottlings will use Scotch made at another distillery but which will then finish its ageing in some of Miller’s wide range of weird and wonderful casks.
“We will take this four- or five-year-old blended whisky as our index or reference point and allow visitors to taste it,” Miller explains. “We’ll then allow them to taste the different finishes so they can see how the different types of wooden cask affect the whisky.
“It’s one way of helping to demystify Scotch and help drinkers to learn what they like and why they like it. Visitors want to buy Scotch when they come on a distillery tour and they don’t want to wait another year or 18 months, so these blends will give us something to sell to them in the meantime.
“We have an incredible policy for our wood – everything is either interesting, first-fill, or virgin oak,” he adds. “You won’t see anything that doesn’t meet at least one of those three criteria. That goes back to my Glenmorangie days. We don’t spare the horses.
“We employ more distillers per litre of spirit and produce more than any other distillery in Scotland – we’re proud of that too. We have six fully-qualified distillers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Our kit is very traditional – very labour-intensive and very hands-on. It’s quite fun as well.”
Beer might be how it all began for Eden Mill and whisky might be Miller’s passion – but it’s a third tipple for which his company has perhaps become best known. Gin wasn’t originally part of the business’s plan, but the resurgence in the popularity of Scottish gin – with other micro-distilleries making it as a way of generating cash flow while their whisky ages – presented an opportunity.
In true Eden Mill style, Miller didn’t want to just make any old gin. His distillers came to him with the idea of creating a hopped gin – only the third in the world, using beer hops as part of the mix of botanicals – and Miller gave them his blessing because it fitted in with the story of the brewery turning into a distillery.
“I thought they were mad,” laughs Miller. “It was like Marmite – some folk hated it and some folk loved it.”
As well as the hopped gin, the firm has also made a ‘golf’ gin using the types of botanicals found growing around golf courses in Scotland, an ‘oak’ gin aged in wooden barrels, ‘love’ gin made with floral and berry flavours, and a gin that includes the buckthorn berries found growing along the east coast.
While the tastes may be different, there’s another factor that sets the gins apart too and that’s the shape of the pewter bottles, with their swing tops, reminiscent of Kilner jars. “We bought a whole load of these bottles in 2013 to put our premium wood-aged beers in as a high-quality gift,” Miller explains, as he picks up one of the distinctive containers.
“But we bottle everything on site by hand and we couldn’t fit these bottles into the bottling machine. So rather than getting a new nozzle fitted to the bottling machine, we just left these two palettes of bottles sitting in the corner of the warehouse.
“When the distillers asked to make a gin I said they could do it but I wouldn’t spend any extra money on bottles so they would have to use these spare ones. That’s how it all started and we’re now the biggest customer in the UK for the company that makes them. It was a complete accident – no marketing genius at all.”
The company’s ‘12 gins of Christmas’ advent calendar is back for a second year and the latest brand extension features ready-mixed gin cocktails, which are on sale in Aldi, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Scotmid and Spar. The gin cocktails are expected to add around £500,000 to Eden Mill’s turnover, taking revenues through the £4m mark during the current financial year, more than double the £1.8m of sales posted in the previous set of accounts, and putting the business on course to post its maiden profit.
Soaring sales are helping to finance the company’s £3m expansion plans. This time next year, Miller will be preparing to move into expanded facilities on the Guardbridge site.
The University of St Andrews plans to move its collection of rare books to the site and to construct a biomass plant, which will generate power for the institution. Eden Mill, which already employs 48 people, is taking the opportunity to expand its operations, increasing the size of its spirits still to 4,000 - 5,000 litres and its washback to 7,000 - 8,000 litres.
“Then we’ll be able to make around four-times our current production of whisky,” explains Miller. “That will allow us to sell around 20,000 cases a year once it’s finally matured.
“For once we’re planning further ahead and working out how much space we’ll need for the long-term, instead of just expanding piecemeal. We’ll also have a more conventional frontage along the roadside, which will help to make the visitors’ centre more visible.
“Some people refer to this place as the ‘Disneyland for adults’ and it does feel like that sometimes.”