All three Stirling brothers grew up on the Arbikie farm in Scotland, where their family has been farming for four generations. As happens in life, they grew up and away from their home (and its industry), with John ending up as a Chartered Accountant, David opening a bar in New York and Iain based in the drinks industry, pulling spells at Diageo and Jim Bean, amongst others.
The return to the farm happened in around 2013, when the brothers – well versed in the drinks business by now – started looking into opening a distillery at Arbikie. Whilst researching, they discovered that there had been a distillery in operation at the farm up until 1794. This little nugget was the push they needed, and helped drive the philosophy upon which all Arbikie products would be devised. Iain explains: “In the 1700s you would have only used ingredients that were on your doorstep. When launching the distillery we returned to that era with our field to bottle ethos.”
Heriot-Watt University played a big role in getting the project off the ground. Iain, as a graduate of the school’s MBA in Marketing, had great faith in its knowledge of the industry, so leaned on it heavily during the business development stage.
When it came to product development, the Stirlings went back to Heriot-Watt, although this time to ask if they had any standout students on the course. Distiller Kirsty Black came out top of the list. Kirsty had been working as an engineer in the Medical Device Industry, toying with diabetes monitoring and pregnancy testing kits. She loved the work she did, but bright minds are driven by change so after a decade of medicine, she packed up her bags and went home to Scotland to study.
Happenstance brought her to the distilling world. “Originally my interest was in brewing, but – whilst working at the Caledonian Brewery and Barney’s Beer – I crossed paths with the future owners of Summerhall and helped them to set up the distillery and design Pickering’s Gin. My interest in distilling truly piqued.
“I had met the Stirling family and learnt about their plans to build a distillery whilst at Heriot-Watt, doing my Masters project with them, so when they offered me the job of setting up the distillery there was really on one answer – YES!”
Arbikie was opened with whisky in mind, but the team are taking a particularly slow approach to this, and don’t plant to release their first casks until 2029. Gin is an obvious bridge to keep money rolling in until this point for many reasons: the spirit is decidedly in vogue, there’s a global call for Scottish gin at this point in time and the farm to glass approach is still fairly rare for gins made in the UK, thus giving Arbikie the chance to create a point of difference and capitalise on it.
Perhaps most importantly – the spirit gave Kirsty a chance to really experiment with botanicals, something she’d been passionate about for years. “I originally graduated from university with a degree in plant science and, despite never having had a job in it directly, my fascination with being able to walk along a path, munch on seemingly unassuming plants and experience a flavour explosion lived on,” Kirsty explains. “Making gin, therefore, fuses two of my loves: plants and alcohol.”
Whilst at Heriot-Watt Kirsty began researching Scottish gin botanicals, so by the time she headed to Arbikie, she had a library of flavour references to work with. The decision to make use of local botanicals was cemented when she made it to the farm. “When I saw the view from what was to become the front of the distillery, I just knew I had to capture the elements of it in a gin,” she said.
Not content with just using the botanicals from the surrounding areas – the aim was to also make the base spirit too, which means that the process for making Kirsty’s Gin begins a whole lot earlier than you might expect. “Getting the best possible product starts in the field,” Kirsty explains. “If you get things right from the beginning it will continue through to the harvested product and on into the bottle.”
The seeds for the potatoes are planted in late spring and closely monitored throughout the summer. In October they’re harvested, stored and sorted. From here, the majority of the potatoes go off to be sold, but a portion are siphoned off to the washer, where they’re scrubbed clean before they begin their ascension to potato vodka status.
Farm to glass is a huge challenge, especially when potatoes are involved. Kirsty explains: “Starch, and the ease of its breakdown, is key – the more starch the more potential alcohol that can be produced. Unfortunately, potatoes only contain a fraction of the starch contained in cereals and they don’t contain sufficient enzymes to break themselves down naturally so it takes a bit more time and effort. Ultimately, nearly two weeks and three batch distillations later we have the base for our gin.”
Arbikie’s core offering, Kirsty’s Gin, fuses a combination of traditional botanicals (juniper, angelica, coriander, liquorice and orris) with three more unusual ingredients, each plucked from sea, rock or land. There’s kelp (“it brings coastal, salty notes to our gin, capturing the sea which we sit and look out onto everyday across Lunan Bay”), Carline thistle root and blaeberries (bilberries, for those of us that live south of the border).
With luck, the juniper will eventually be harvested locally too. Slow Food Scotland approached Arbikie in 2016 to see if they’d be interested in commercially growing juniper after a pathogen disease wiped out 80% of Scotland’s wild crop. Naturally, they agreed.
To make the transformation from vodka to gin, the spirit is added back into one of Arbikie’s copper stills alongside all of the botanicals and left to soak for a day. The still is heated very slowly, taking a full day to run. The heart’s cut is extracted, then left to rest and “marry” for a few weeks. From here it is diluted down to its bottling strength of 43%.
Kirsty’s Gin to taste…
Kirsty’s Gin has an incredibly transporting smell. Close your eyes, breathe deep and you’ll be transported to the deep countryside. There’s a vanilla softness and fruit sweetness, no doubt led by the blaeberries, but the most notable element – the one that really sets it apart from other gins on the market – is the base alcohol. Creamy, but with a hint of something raw and wild, the potato vodka imparts its own impression on the gin, acting almost as though it is another botanical.
The gin, though gentle on the mouth, is wildly, notably Scottish to taste. This is steered by the thistle root, presumably, which is sweet and milky, yet warm and herbal – quite unlike anything else. Juniper laps at the tongue, receding in and out of dominance like a tide, whilst coriander brings a heat that blossoms across the tongue, filling the mouth with heat. The lasting taste is of fruit and milk, with a hint of juniper pine.
With tonic, the gin opens out. The blaeberries take on a more sour, mouth-watering tang, whilst the thistle brings cooling properties. It’s a savoury gin, though far from herbal; rather the botanicals bloom out like a thought map, rotating around the juniper heart and taking it in turns to assert themselves. It’s a great G&T gin, and while we’d certainly suggest serving it garnish-free to let the flavours really unfold, if you wanted to dress it up a slice of grapefruit wouldn’t go amiss.
It’s no surprise to us to hear that Kirsty’s Gin has been scooping up awards, nor is it a surprise that the distillery is making waves abroad. We discussed the global demand for Scottish products with Iain, who cited Arbikie’s from scratch method as part of its appeal: “Consumers love our field to bottle ethos, highlighting our provenance as one of the key unique selling points of our products. A great market so far for us has been the small Caribbean island called Turks & Caicos.
“The premium nature of our goods and the fact they make awesome cocktails really appeals to the island!” (Incidentally, being great big cynics we spoke to someone who lives on the Island, mentioning an up and coming Scottish distillery who sells well out there. “Arbikie?” she asked, somewhat confirming those claims.)
The branding for Kirsty’s Gin (and the Arbikie range in general) is sturdy and utilitarian. The bottle is tall and broad, with thick clear glass and a label that is more perfunctory than pretty, but which you’d spot at the back of a bar. It’s not beautiful by any means, but that’s part of what Arbikie is about. It’s a brand built around real craft, real ingredients and real people; aesthetics are minutia compared to all of that and those who buy into it do so because of the authenticity of it, not because of a strap line or brand construct.
Arbikie has three gins across the range – Kirsty’s Gin, AK and Abroath (the latter two are made on a wheat base). For now – they’re sticking to that, but Kirsty is the first to say the distillery is open to experimentation. “We have chosen our base spirit for ours gins so far by using which complements our selected botanicals best. We are always exploring new potential raw materials and new botanicals, so if we find a combination that we think works then we may well release it.”
It’s hard not to respect the approach taken here; everything is done in house, and done with a long-term view. Building a distillery on the farm will only diversify it, thus creating a long, rich heritage for future Stirlings to build upon. We’d be amiss to not state that while the slow and steady is great for long term stability, it would be nice to see them grow a little faster domestically… For a brand that has been around for over 18 months, progress within the UK has been slow and there has been little adoption of note south of the border.
That said, hundreds of new distilleries have cropped up in the past year alone, flooding the market and making progress a tough journey. While many are good they’ll eventually give way to time. Arbikie may well transpire to be one of the greats, though. One of the distilleries that’ll be around for decades – perhaps even longer, if it’s looked after. Kirsty’s Gin is the proudest product from the stable so far and take our word for it, it’ll appeal to many gin fans on end flavour alone.
Its point of difference and the reason why it’ll endure and appeal to so many more, is that it carries clear authenticity in a category where unfortunately many brands don’t walk the walk when it comes to delivering on their “craft” messaging. Anyone interested in craft and who places a value on people, provenance and production will treasure that Arbikie is actually made from farm to bottle. We hope they do well as a result and that their ethos will help spread the love for Scottish spirits even further.
For more information about Kirsty’s Gin visit the website: www.arbikie.com
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