Still game

Still game

Husband and wife team Alex and Jane Nicol have come up with a winning recipe for working together, as BQ editor Peter Ranscombe finds out.

Spending a morning with Alex and Jane Nicol is to be caught up in a whirlwind of activity. Spencerfield is the family-run firm that owns a range of whiskies – namely The Feathery, Pig’s Nose and Sheep Dip – along with Edinburgh Gin, the award-winning spirit that has proved so popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

When we first met back in 2009 it was at the family’s farm near Inverkeithing in Fife, where Alex and Jane explained how working side-by-side had brought them closer together.

They launched Spencerfield in 2005 after Alex had left whisky giant Whyte & Mackay, where he had been chief operating officer. Before he departed, Alex bought two ‘orphan’ brands – Pig’s Nose and Sheep Dip – which he felt hadn’t received the attention they deserved. These two whiskies became the building blocks for the couple’s new business.

We rendezvous at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery, which sits in the basement of the Rutland Hotel at the West End of the capital’s Princes Street. It may be early morning, but the distillery’s Heads & Tails Bar and visitor centre are already a hive of activity.

Spencerfield launched Edinburgh Gin in June 2010 and opened the distillery in the summer of 2014. “We have gin makers coming round our distillery most weeks for tours to find out how we’ve done it,” explains Alex, 61. As if on cue, when we sit down for a coffee in the bar at the Rutland Hotel, Alex pops over to another table to say hello to a fellow distiller who will be having a tour around the distillery later in the morning.

Gin had always featured highly in their plans. Alex had worked as marketing manager for Beefeater gin in Plymouth before coming back to Scotland in 1990 to become marketing director at Glenmorangie. While at Glenmorangie, Alex also had access to the archive of Crabbie’s, one of the historic brands that the company owned, and he was able to read about the firm’s production of gin in Edinburgh.

“Gin was in our thinking right from the very start,” Alex remembers. “We were interviewed for the very first issue of Jamie Oliver Magazine back in 2008, which was great fun. Back then we were talking about the gap in the market for a high-quality artisan gin – and that proved to be the case. It felt like we had been talking about doing it for ever.

“When you’re starting a business, it’s good to stick to something that you know,” Alex adds. “When I started a business, I didn’t start doing painting and decorating because I’m not very good at that, as Jane will attest to. But I do know a little bit about spirits distillation and I know what the pitfalls are and how to develop the product. Do what you know; don’t start making jewellery if you’re an organ player.”

“And once you start a business and want to expand it, look at doing things that are similar to what you’re already doing,” interjects Jane, 57. “Don’t rush off over there to try something new, because it’s unlikely to work because it’s so different to what you’re already doing.”

Gin production in Scotland has soared over the past decade. For some small distilleries, gin is a stepping stone to whisky production. To make Scotch, your spirit needs to sit ageing in oak barrels for at least three years – and a quick glance at the whisky shelf in any bottle shop or supermarket aisle will tell you that five, ten or twelve years are far more common ages for our national drink. While all of your stock is sitting there ageing, gin can provide some much-needed cash flow, as it can be made one day and sold the next, without the need for any extended ageing.

For other producers though, gin is reward enough. Yet the number of new gin distilleries springing up throughout the UK does set alarm bells ringing for Alex. “Making gin is a science, not an art,” he explains. “It all sounds very romantic making your own gin, but a distillery is really just a giant chemistry set and you either do it well or you don’t.

“It worries me sometimes when you have people who are property developers one day and then gin makers the next. We know a lot about making gin and we know a lot of distillers, who have come in and given us advice. But we still employ a distiller to make sure we get it right and we’ve spent a considerable sum on a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) with Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to increase our understanding of the process.”

As well as making the core Edinburgh Gin, Spencerfield has also created Cannonball, a navy-strength gin designed to be mixed in cocktails, and a range of special edition gins, including: Christmas Gin with frankincense and myrrh; Valentine’s; and Seaside, which included botanicals such as seaweed, scurvy grass and ground ivy to give it a mineral twang.

Another popular brand extension has been its range of gin liqueurs, which have so far included elderflower, raspberry, and rhubarb and ginger, and which use fresh ingredients. Adding the word “liqueur” is important because, although gin can be made one day and sold the next without the need for any ageing, it still needs to taste primarily of juniper berries in order to legally be called a gin and must contain more than 37.5% alcohol by volume, as opposed to the 20% strength of the liqueurs.

Alex had a clear idea how he wanted Edinburgh Gin to taste from the very start. “I like my gin to be old fashioned,” he explains. “I wanted it to taste of juniper and I wanted to be able to taste the citrus flavours too. It’s a London gin with a Scottish twist.

“That’s the fun about working with a small company – if you think something is a good idea then you can develop it within a month. If you worked for a big company then you’d be sitting on your hands for five years while an idea goes through committees.”

Spencerfield turned over £3m last year and is on course to bring in £4m of revenues during the current year. Having growth at 30% a year for the past ten years has allowed the company to expand without the need to go cap-in-hand to the banks.

“It’s a bizarre little family business,” smiles Alex. “We’ve never run on debt. We’re very Thatcherite in a way. If we couldn’t afford it then we haven’t done it. The whole development of Edinburgh Gin has been funded by our whisky sales – whisky is the backbone of our business.”

The company’s growth is now starting to step-up a gear. The headcount has expanded from seven full-time staff last year to 19 this year, freeing up Alex and Jane to concentrate on the next big project.

With any family business, it’s always interesting to look at the division of labour. “Jane does all the hard work – dealing with HM Revenue & Customs, the accounts, the back office and the shipping – while I fanny about with the marketing and the sales,” laughs Alex.

All of the Nicols’ children are also now working in the family business. Finlay, 30, who trained as a chef, is studying for his master’s degree in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt while working at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery, putting his skills to good use through flavour matching.

Harriet, 28, has been with the company since day one and is now using her events management degree to grow the business, while Hannah, 26, also helps out at events when required. “It’s interesting having our children working with us because our conversations are less about peripheral things like rugby and more about business,” muses Alex. “You just can’t help it. We’ll be sitting around having lunch and there will be questions about the products, about who’s doing what, about why we’re making such a small margin on certain products.”

“It’s like we’re having meetings all the time, but we’re not having meetings in the office,” laughs Jane. “When Alex was working for big multi-national companies, I never used to see him. Now I get to see him all the time. That’s probably the best thing about working together. The worst thing is trying to keep him focused on any one thing for longer than five minutes.”

Alex laughs and joins in the joke. “We have to have separate offices,” he nods. “The best thing about working with Jane is that she’ll worry for the both of us and then nag me into getting things done. The worst thing is that, after being married for 30 years, she knows all my foibles.”

Once our coffees are finished, we speed off to the next location in the story of Edinburgh Gin – a former biscuit factory in Leith. Built by Crawfords Biscuits in 1947, the site was empty for eight years but has recently been turned into an arts and fashion hub, with plans to house twenty studios over two floors. That still leaves plenty of space on the ground floor for Spencerfield to build its second distillery and the first to operate in Leith since 1974.

As we walk around the construction site, Alex’s and Jane’s eyes light up and their arms start to whirl as they point out where the new spirit still will sit and where the bar and events space will be put. They have exciting plans for the facility and, in the space of just a few short months, their business will have gone from having no distillery to having two.

When Edinburgh Gin was launched, critics were quick to point out that it was distilled under contract at Broxburn – technically outside Edinburgh in West Lothian. “For a long time, the whole marketing stance for some other people was that they would go around all of the bars in Edinburgh telling them that Edinburgh Gin wasn’t really made in Edinburgh,” Alex shakes his head.

“Some of the new entrants to the industry don’t understand how the industry works,” Jane adds. “You don’t go around slagging off other people’s products – you just get on with what you’re doing.” Such disparaging comments are now water under the bridge and Alex is enthusiastic about the new venture in Leith.

“What’s exciting about the bigger site is that it will offer an experience for visitors,” he says. “We will be able to have bands playing at events or bring in guest micro-brewers to serve drinks or chefs to serve street food. Anyone can name a gin after their town or city, but to make it a success you’ve got to put in the work. It’s got to be about much more than just putting a label on a bottle.”