Rachel Macdonald – Isle of Harris Gin
Gin Foundry: You’ve spent a lot of time over in Australia before moving to your role at Isle of Harris Gin. What were you doing out there?
Rachel Macdonald: I spent almost three years down under travelling all over the vast country spreading the word of Scotch whisky. I was working for Pernod Ricard as their National Whisky Ambassador. I was based in Sydney but spent a huge amount of time travelling and had the opportunity to see every corner of Australia. It was a wonderful time.
After a couple of years of that role I started working for a new team seeding niche spirits brands into the Australian market, including Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey, tequila and Monkey 47 Gin.
What always comes across is that Scotland and Scotch is your natural home and affinity – your family used to distil didn’t they?
Yes indeed! My grandfather managed or worked at some of the best known single malt whisky distilleries for over 30 years. He then became what was the first master distiller. He in fact became a pioneer as what was to become known as a ‘brand ambassador’ – communicating the history, culture and enjoyment of Scotch whisky to people all over the world as a direct link back to production. It was an industry first and changed the landscape of how we communicate with our audiences.
So my mother grew up on distilleries and my uncle is still very much a big part of the industry. I started working at a distillery when I was 18 . In that (relatively!) short time the industry has changed so much. I feel very fortunate to be working now for a small Social Distillery with noble ambitions in what is, in my opinion, the greatest spirits producing nation in the world.
Do you remember your first truly memorable gin experience?
When I realised how easy it was to make a Negroni but how hard it was to get it right!
For those not in the trade, what does it mean to be a brand ambassador – what’s your role in general?
My job is to share the story of the Social Distillery.
Isle of Harris Gin is a way of communicating that story. As the inaugural product from our distillery it gives us a platform to discuss why we exist and what we are doing on Harris – providing sustainable employment for generations of Hearachs (Gaelic for people from Harris) to come, and in doing so stemming the population decline the island has seen in recent years.
We hope that the beauty of the bottle, the experience of sipping the gin and the completely unique way that we connect with every consumer encourages people to come and visit us and encounter this special place for themselves.
Is there a day to day routine or is it constantly new, what’s the most fun part of your job?
There is not so much of a routine considering I am working alone in London meaning there are a few hats to wear on any one day. Typically, it involves introducing the gin to new people, engaging with those on both sides of the bar, and seeking new partners to work with. Whether this is to grow our Click and Collect network or through collaborative events.
Occasionally I get to host some customers from London in Harris, something I hope to do more of this year. This is the most fun part of the job because the breath-taking beauty of the Outer Hebrides just blows people away. Nobody believes it ACTUALLY looks like the pictures. It surprises me how many people say “I can’t believe I am in Scotland” – I just say “This is the real Scotland” because to me it is. 100%.
It looks like an Instagrammer’s dreamscape that’s for sure. Sugar Kelp is a large part of what makes Isle of Harris Gin, well, yours! Where do you get it from and who has the task of foraging for it?
We work with a local diver, Lewis Mackenzie who gathers this fascinating botanical from local seas and sea lochs. It grows underneath the surface of the water in hidden forests so has to be dived for by hand. Lewis harvests the kelp during the spring and summer months and takes it to be dried locally. During the winter months, the sugar kelp is left to recover and grow, ensuring this vital local habitat for sealife is not harmed.
Flavour wise, what does it bring to the gin and how can drinkers augment it in a G&T?
Not only is the use of Sugar Kelp completely unique in gin production, it also means that with a sip of Isle of Harris Gin you can get the feeling of being there, walking on the Machair, a slight saltiness in the air. I love that because the sea characterises much about the culture of the island and there is a little bit of that in every bottle.
Our friend, apothecary Amanda Saurin, from Lewes near Brighton, makes a sugar kelp aromatic water to compliment our gin. She distils the sugar kelp in silver rich mineral water from a local well. A couple of drops added to an Isle of Harris G&T make the maritime notes inherent in the gin really sing.
The social part of the distillery’s mission is integral to the brand too. For those who don’t know it, what is it and what does it mean to be a ‘social distillery’?
The overall vision is to be the source of local social and economic growth, as well as a source of pride, expressed through the making of exemplary spirits.
But being the Social Distillery is apparent in every way we operate. We are a working distillery that welcomes visitors – in fact around 90,000 people per year! The first thing you see when you come inside the door is a peat fire, continually burning, representing Hebridean hospitality. Our distillers eat their lunch on the same bench as the visitors in the canteen. Our whisky nosing panel is made up of members of the community. If people can’t visit us, they can only buy through our website, so we are very social in the online world too. We also donate all our spent malted barley to local crofters to feed the island’s cattle.
These factors above combined with the stunning bottle design has driven so much of the initial response and traction the gin has received but it’s a competitive category. Where’s the big emphasis for the distillery in terms of generating new growth in the UK?
We are a long term business existing to provide sustainable growth for the island. We are first and foremost a whisky distillery so this is where our future growth will come from alongside our gin. Our single malt whisky, ‘The Hearach’ will be ready…. when it’s ready! We are filling casks of new make spirit every day which are lying, maturing in our warehouse in Ardhasaig, a stone’s throw from our distillery.
And for you personally – what are you most looking forward to this year?
Sharing our story with more and more people in creative ways. It will be good to see the International appeal for Isle of Harris Gin grow as well, in fact our first shipment to Australia is about to land so I can’t wait for my Aussie friends to try it at last … and realise the reason I moved home!
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