Iain Stirling and his brothers are taking ingredients grown on their family’s farm and turning them into a range of award-winning gins and vodkas, with whisky also on the horizon, as BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe discovers.
Farmers seldom sit still, so it seems perfectly natural to begin an interview with Iain Stirling as he leads the way through the fields of the farm that surrounds Arbikie distillery, overlooking the beautiful Lunan Bay north of Arbroath in Angus. Swinging his arms from left to right, he points out some of the ingredients that will be used to make the spirits for which the family business is gaining a growing reputation.
As well as the obvious candidates – like the potatoes and wheat that are used to make the gins and vodkas – Iain also draws attention to some of the botanicals growing on the hedges, which will make their way into the gin. And then there’s the juniper.
“There’s an interesting story behind the juniper,” he muses as he pauses beside several rows of bushes. “Back when the Dutch were creating jenever – which later developed into gin – they bought the juniper they needed from the North-East of Scotland.
“This was in the days before the whisky industry became so large and gin was a much more important drink. Eventually there was more money to be made through whisky and so distillers burned the juniper to heat their stills.”
It’s the kind of story that turns up regularly in conversations with Iain, wee snippets from the past that, as a history student, he spots and collects like a magpie. It’s the same when he’s let loose in the fields, spotting opportunities to take photographs that will be used weeks or even months later on social media to promote the farm’s liquid produce.
Although he comes from good farming stock – his family has been farming since 1660 and working the land surrounding Arbikie for four generations – Iain isn’t a farmer. He’s a drinks industry veteran and a marketing expert. He and his siblings – John, David, Andrew, Sandy and Sarah-Jane – grew up helping their father, Alec, to feed and milk the cows that used to occupy the barn in which the distillery now sits.
“People ask how young we were when we started farming and I tell them I was this high,” Iain says, holding his hand out to show the height of a child. “We five brothers would be out doing jobs on the farm two or three times a day. Farming’s a tough job and involves long hours so we all know what hard work is.”
Andrew still runs the neighbouring farm and owns Stirfresh, the Montrose-based producer, supplier and packer of fruit and vegetables. Sandy works in the Middle East, while Sarah-Jane is a lawyer in London.
John became a chartered accountant, while David is now based in Connecticut in the United States. Meanwhile, Iain joined the whisky industry, working for Whyte & Mackay as a project manager before joining United Distillers & Vintners (UDV) as it morphed into Diageo, Scotland’s largest distiller and the owner of brands including Bell’s, J&B and Johnnie Walker.
A spell with Volkswagen followed before Iain teamed up with John and David at their digital business, which evolved into marketing. That led to work with distiller William Grant & Sons and with other clients to develop premium drinks brands, including sourcing some of the spirits to go inside the bottles.
“That’s when it occurred to us,” explains Iain. “We had the expertise in the family to grow the produce, the experience of building manufacturing facilities, the experience of creating brands and marketing.
“John is an accountant and so he has the financial brain and runs our farms, and David is the blue-sky thinker. I sit somewhere in-between those two.
“All we needed was a big kettle and some distillers,” he adds with more than a bit of his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
The “big kettle” and other distilling equipment soon followed and the expertise to use them came in the form of first master distiller Kirsty Black – a former beer brewing expert after whom Arbikie’s “Kirsty’s gin” is named – and later production manager Christian Perez-Solar, who made wine in California, New Zealand and his native Chile before joining Kirsty.
The pair’s creations have continued to amass prizes, building on the initial success of Kirsty’s gin. A potato vodka and a wheat vodka flavoured with chili followed and have most recently been joined by AK’s gin, flavoured with honey made by bees from hives on the farm and named after Alexander Kirkwood Stirling, the father of Iain, John and David and affectionately known as Alec or AK.
For many of Scotland’s new wave of craft distilleries, gin – and indeed vodka – are often seen as stepping stones towards whisky production. Newly-made spirit needs to age for at least three years in oak barrels before it can be labelled as “Scotch whisky”, whereas gin or vodka can be made one day and sold the next, easing the cash flow concerns of businesses with their stock slumbering in warehouses.
Some small distilleries choose to sell samples of their new-make spirit – not labelled as Scotch – while others will release three-year-old whisky as soon as it is available. If their owners have deep enough pockets then others will simply wait.
Iain and his brothers sold 300 casks of founders’ spirit to enthusiasts, with the barrels ageing at the distillery. “At the moment, we plan to release the whisky when it’s 14 years old, which is a traditional age,” explains Iain. “But, if it’s not ready at that point then we won’t release it – we’ll wait. We’re not in any rush,” he adds, firmly.
That combination of tradition and innovation is evident to see throughout the distillery. While the raw ingredients may be as fresh and traditional as they come, the heating vessels and other pieces of equipment inside the barn are temperature-controlled stainless steel instead of wood.
The information that appears on the back labels of the bottles is also innovative – the company lists details about its raw materials down to the location of the field in which the crop was grown and the year it was harvested. “We offer that kind of traceability because we can do it,” explains Iain. “Our approach is ‘field to bottle’ as provenance is very important to us and our discerning consumers, and takes advantage of Arbikie’s unique terroir.
“Farmers and food producers are required to keep those kinds of records now and some consumers expect it. The drinks industry is slowly catching up.
“Fundamentally, we don’t think you can have traceability with the food on your table and not with your alcohol. There’s a lot of education and discussion going on – that’s why we do trade shows and public tastings.
“People ask why our products taste different and we can explain that they’re our potatoes or our wheat or honey from our bees. It’s a farming story as well as a distilling story.
“The members of our farm team are essential because they not only grow and harvest all the crops, but they also help around the distillery too, particularly with the bottling.”
While the current incarnation may have been founded in 2014, there was a distillery at Arbikie as long ago as 1794. David spotted the former whisky site on a map from the National Library of Scotland.
The next steps for the business include opening a visitors’ centre at the distillery. Work is already well underway, with new dry-stane dykes keeping tourists away from the heavy machinery working in the farm yard, with the new car park offering a view of Lunan Bay that will no-doubt feature as the backdrop to thousands of holidaymakers’ photographs for years to come.
Exports are also high on the agenda. With David based in the US, America appears to be a natural hunting ground.
“I’m looking at overseas opportunities at the moment,” explains Iain. “Both the European Union before Brexit, plus the US. David lived in Manhattan for about six years before moving to Connecticut so it’s a space he knows well.
“We’ve looking at cocktail bars and high-end retailers, very similar to our demographic here in the UK. Customers in the US like the provenance story and they are already familiar with Scottish distilling because of whisky.
“We’re working with retailers like Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Hedonism Wines. It’s a competitive market because the customers know what they want and they know what they like.”
Arbikie’s may have been the first potato vodka in Scotland but, within just a few weeks, Ogilvy Spirits just down the road near Glamis released its own bottle. “It’s nice to see fellow farmers doing well,” says Iain. “As soon as they launched we sent an email saying, ‘Good luck – it’s great to see you doing well’. It’s not an easy thing to do.”