Debbie Strang – Shetland Reel
If you are ever in doubt about just how far the craft distilling boom has spread, it’s worth casting a thought to the team at Shetland Reel. The shetland’s are an archipelago that lies northeast of Scotland (some 168 km from the Scottish mainland to be exact). It’s as remote as you can get in the UK.
And yet, even on this proud island, there is a craft distillery creating exceptional spirits. Feeling inspired by what can be achieved even at what can at first seem some distance away, we caught up with Debbie Strang to see how the team and their gin – Shetland Reel – were growing in 2019.
Gin Foundry: If there was one thing about you want everyone to know about your distillery, what would it be?
Debbie Strang: We are the most northerly gin distillery in the UK, we are actually the most easterly in the UK as well – but that never quite sounds the same!! We are part of the former RAF Saxa Vord on the most northerly inhabited island of Unst and our distillery is housed in what was the Supply Depot -a massive building, that once housed everything from radar parts to duvets and wardrobes.
How long did it take to create the Original Gin and when did you first launch?
One of the Co-founders, Stuart Nickerson is a master distiller and so perhaps it did not take as long as you might imagine, we took our time finding a locally grown botanical, not an easy task in Shetland but it was suggested by the local Market Garden owner who thought applemint would work particularly well, and it did! It gives the gin a delicate freshness, and this combined with the cinnamon, coriander and citrus peels creates a well-balanced London Dry Gin at 43% abv. It was first distilled in 2014 and has become one third of our core range of gins.
You mentioned applemint – what flavours or which botanicals do you think define your gin?
Seeking out a botanical that grows or can be harvested in Shetland is a priority for us for example, Shetland Reel Ocean Sent is our ode to the rich maritime history of Shetlanders and the Shetland Islands. We forage for Bladderwrack seaweed around the coastline of Unst which gives it a very smooth and warming mouthfeel that has a savouriness from the seaweed which doesn’t over power the citrus and pine flavour of the juniper. However, we want to draw people to the islands through our gins and use each one to focus on an aspect of Shetland and just how special it is. Our Simmer Gin is a refreshing aromatic gin created in celebration of Shetland’s long summer twilight known as the Simmer Dim.
There are three dry gins in the Shetland Reel range, did you always know you wanted to have more than one gin, or was the growth into what it is today just organically happened over the years?
Our focus was to produce an exceptional first gin in the early days, and it was our German market that asked for a second gin, and one with a stronger abv. We responded with our Shetland Reel Ocean Sent Gin at 49% and it has been particularly successful in Germany and at home, and most recently when it was exported to Japan! The third gin, Simmer Gin was originally launched as a special edition in the summer of 2016, and but the long summer days and lasting amber skies at sunset which influenced the eight botanicals in our recipe including orange peel and liquorice root proved so popular it became another core gin.
If you had to describe the personality of your range, what would be like. Is there something for everyone or do you deliberately focus on a style or kind of flavour direction over another?
We absolutely have a gin for everyone, from our original which every one likes, to our Ocean Sent which is a little bit quirky and different, Simmer Gin is our citrussy summer favourite and our special editions that we bring out from time to time also seek to be different.
In terms of those special editions, what made you want to do the ‘Up Helly Aa’ limited edition and what was the idea behind the 2019 release?
Up Helly Aa is the annual winter fire festival held in the capital of Shetland, Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. Over a thousand Vikings parade the streets with burning torches which culminates in the burning of a Viking boat. It is a spectacular event and people visit from all over the world. We had taken some single malt whisky casks to Shetland in summer 2016 to bottle, and it seemed like a good idea to put the original gin in the casks, leave for 3 months and see what would happen. Because the weather is usually wet, wild and freezing in January we decided to bottle our Up Helly Aa gin at navy strength, to keep everyone warm!
Up Helly Aa 2019 is the fourth expression and the juniper and citrus from the gin is followed by a rich sweetness from the sherry casks on the nose, I think it’s the best yet.
What’s life like up on the Shetlands for you as a distillery team – are there any particular challenges with being so far north?
As we are the first and only distillery in Shetland, there was no tradition of distilling, and so our master distiller, Stuart has trained local people to take on the role, and they do a fantastic job. Everything for our distillations (other than local botanicals) is brought in by overnight ferry from Aberdeen, transported by two inter-island ferries, and then once distilled, returned on the same route before sale.
We have to work harder to make sure our logistics work and to make sure we have gin in the right place for our customers, but it is just part of our commitment to producing top quality products in one of the most inspiring, unique and remote places in the UK.
It certainly puts things into consideration that’s for sure. That can’t be easy. On a separate note – Is the rise of gin liqueurs a positive or negative thing for the category?
I think it is positive as long as we encourage people to understand the distinction between the different gins. We launched our Rhubarb and Bramble Gin Liqueur last autumn, and it has sold extremely well, not just to gin liqueur enthusiast but to those who would normally take a London Dry Gin. We have packed our liqueur with locally picked rhubarb and produced it at 26% abv which makes sure the flavour and colour stay vibrant.
Where do you see the Gin category going in the next?
I am as excited as anyone to see what might be next, the possibilities are endless and we know that bringing out special and limited editions is what keeps the excitement and interest in a distillery. We are always working on something, and people are always looking to see what we are up to, whether it is on social media, or by actually taking the great trek north to the distillery. We love welcoming people to our guided tasting, so anytime you are passing……………………
And finally, what’s the big aim for the distillery in 2019 and are you working towards a particular milestone?
Our long-term vision is to install Shetland’s first and what will be the UK’s most northerly malt whisky distillery. We are actively raising finance, and hope to see the first drops of Shetland’s First Single Malt in 2022!
Copyright © Gin Foundry