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07 June 2019

The entrepreneurs meeting the thirst for craft gins

Row of Gin and Tonics

The UK's 10-year "ginaissance" has brought with it a wave of independent craft distilleries serving up everything from pink to seaweed varieties to gin enthusiasts.

Sales of the juniper-based spirit are booming and the number of UK distilleries trebled between 2010 and 2018 - with gin thought to be the key driver.

FSB member Natalie Reid co-founder of The Gin Co-operative website, which showcases Scottish gin makers, puts the boom down to a legal challenge brought by Sipsmith Gin, which opened London's first copper pot distillery in more than 200 years.

"Up until 2009, if you wanted to make gin you had to have massive gin stills that pretty much equated to massive financial backing," Natalie says.

"It opened the doors for others to distill small batch gins and energised and inspired the current gin renaissance."

For a product to be sold as gin, it must have a minimum alcohol volume of 37.5% ABV and it must taste predominantly of juniper.

Apart from that, the possibilities are endless and the drink's versatility is key to its success, says FSB member Claire Fletcher, of Lussa Gin.

Claire, along with neighbours Alicia MacInnes and Georgina Kitching started Lussa Gin in 2015, on the Hebridean island of Jura, where they grow or forage all the botanicals they use.

They started out in the kitchen with a 10-litre still but have since bought a 200-litre copper still and have renovated old stables to use as the distillery.

"We started the business by investing a small sum of money ourselves and we have grown it slowly and steadily," says Clare.

Lussa Gin has sold more than 15,000 bottles since August 2016. They turned a profit in their first year of trading and are aiming to produce between 8,000 and 9,000 bottles a year.

Claire says setting up a gin distillery has been challenging: "People assume it's a bit of a cash cow and it isn't! It's been very expensive."

FSB members Dr Lorien Cameron-Ross and her husband Kevin co-founded Loch Ness spirits after being introduced to craft gin in 2015.

"We were looking for a business we could run from home and fit around our family commitments," says Lorien.

"We have abundant botanicals growing on our land, including juniper. Essentially everything lined up in a way that making our gin was a very obvious decision."

However, while the natural resources were in place, the couple found the process of setting up a distillery "convoluted and lengthy".

"We had to work with a number of agencies and satisfy legal requirements as directed by HMRC, trading standards and environmental health, to name but a few," says Lorien.

"Not having a background in the spirits industry made this challenging but a methodical approach, combined with a healthy dose of patience, got us through."

There are different types of licences required of spirits producers in the UK, obtained from HMRC.

Like all food and drink businesses, distilleries have other requirements to meet too, including environmental health rules, health and safety, hygiene, labelling and insurance requirements.

And while a remote location can set craft distilleries apart - it does bring other challenges.

Shetland Reel was set up with the aim of producing the first single malt whisky from the UK's most northerly inhabited island, Unst. It is based in a converted former supplies depot at RAF Saxa Vord.

"We are currently raising the finance to install Shetland's only single malt distillery but, like many other distilleries, because gin is quicker to produce and quicker to market, we decided to give it a go!," says Debbie Strang.

Debbie and her husband Frank co-own Shetland Reel - which also produces a malt whisky blend - with Wilma and Stuart Nickerson. Stuart is a master distiller with over 30 years' experience.

"Stuart taught two local guys to distil, and our first pallet left for Germany in 2018. Our USP and what gives us a real difference, our location, will always mean that we have logistical challenges but I think we have now ironed out most of them," says Debbie.

"We are making in-roads throughout the UK and building on our existing exports to Germany, Canada, South Africa, Japan and Belgium."

They doubled sales last year and were finalists for the FSB's Scale-Up Business of the Year Award.

Fellow awards finalists Lussa Gin, who were regional winners in the Start-Up Business of the Year category, face similar logistical challenges to get their gin to their customers - including in Germany and Sweden - as they are two ferry journeys from the mainland.