Stuart Nickerson – Shetland Reel
Picture the Northernmost point in the UK, then angle your mind’s eye even further up. We’re talking towards Norway… Scotland may be at the heart of a gin tourism boom, but you’ll just about be excused for skipping a visit to the Saxa Vord Distillery, based on the island of Unst. To get there you’ll need to take a 12 hour boat ride overnight from Aberdeen, then a further two ferries. There’s remote, then there’s Portknockie but for those who make the voyage – you are in for a treat. We spoke to co-founder Stuart Nickerson to find the story behind the UK’s most remote gin.
Saxa Vord Distillery opened in 2014. Who owns the distillery and how did it all begin?
The partnership was formed when Debbie and Frank were looking for someone to create a business plan to build a distillery and I was leaving Glenglassaugh Distillery and looking to start my own distillery. It was really a very unique set of circumstances and a chance meeting. We realised that all four of us shared similar values, namely investing in local communities, using local resources wherever possible. We also had a shared vision of wanting to build the most northerly spirits business in the UK.
What made you want to start distilling? And why did you go for gin?
I have worked in the Scotch Whisky industry since 1979, spending most of my time managing distilleries, or as Distilling Director. I had made single malt whisky, grain whisky, vodka, gin and liqueurs and had always wanted to run my own distillery.
Gin was a natural start from three points of view: 1. There is less capital investment involved in producing gin than in producing vodka and significantly less than in producing whisky; 2. There is no maturation time for gin so there is less of a cash flow issue; 3. I enjoy cooking and creating flavours from different ingredients – I was the Distilling Director when we created Hendrick’s at William Grant and it gave me the urge to create gins myself.
How have you let the Unst landscape shape the flavour of Shetland Reel?
Unst has had a significant effect on our gins. The original Shetland Reel gin uses apple-mint as a key botanical and it has a clean, fresh flavour with a slight herbal finish, which comes from the mint.
Our second gin uses bladderwrack seaweed which gives it a stronger flavour profile with more savoury notes and a slightly salty taste. It really reflects the characters that live on Unst – strong and robust and excellent mixers at any social occasion.
The third gin is Simmer Gin, which we released on World Juniper Day this year and which has lots of citrus after the juniper and finishes with strong caraway notes carried by liquorice. The gin is named after the Simmer Dim, which is the name Shetlanders give to the very long summer days when the sun barely sets. (We are 60 degrees North, closer to Bergen in Norway than to Aberdeen in Scotland.)
There’s such a journey involved in getting to and from Unst – what difficulties has this thrown up? (For example, how do you get your NGS onto the island?).
We have to “import” most things onto Shetland mainland and then up to Unst (which is another two ferry journeys). This includes most of the botanicals and the NGS, as well as all the dry goods for bottling because we bottle everything on the island, so all labels, bottles, corks, capsules, cases etc come up. We also then have to “export” everything back down to the Scottish/UK mainland.
It means that we have to build in extra time from ordering to receiving goods and for shipping the finished bottles off the island. It is not unknown for the Aberdeen to Lerwick ferry to miss an overnight sailing because of poor weather, or perhaps the haulier doesn’t have a full load and so a sailing or two is missed. The result is that we tend to carry more stocks of the dry goods for bottling than most people would.
With the bottled gin it means that we have had to negotiate to store our gins in a commercial warehouse in Glasgow and then re-distribute from there. These all add cost to the business but they are essential factors if we want to expand and grow.
Despite these difficulties, you still managed to take home three silver medals at the IWSC. Do you think the distance between you and the mainland has helped with this – you must have had to be completely sure of your product before launching?
With each of our products we have firstly been very careful in creating the product and then extensively testing them, normally through a number of taste panels which we have and which are spread throughout the UK and Ireland (family and their friends – unsurprisingly there are always lots of volunteers).
Once we have settled on a gin that we believe is going to be successful, we produce it on a larger scale and send it back out to taste panels to ensure that we have it correct. In the case of Simmer Gin we focused on using tasters from Shetland and found their feedback extremely useful.
Once in production, we are rigorous in checking the product quality. Each distillation is checked and each bottling is also checked against standard samples. It is not unknown for us to re-distil a batch because it didn’t meet the standard. The good thing when that happens is that we have managed to track down what was done incorrectly in that instance and so ensured that it didn’t happen again.
Is Shetland Reel building up a following outside of the Shetlands?
I would say that we have a very good following in Edinburgh and Glasgow and that we are spreading the word in other areas of Scotland. We have had lots of interest from retailers and individuals throughout England but we really need to build up a distribution network before we can grow sales. We are working with a Scottish based wholesaler but ideally we need to be working with some key wholesalers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland too.
We started exporting to Germany in late 2014. Though sales were initially low, we are now seeing growth with four different expressions available. I have visited the importer on a number of occasions and there is no doubt that interest is increasing. We have also just started exporting to South Africa and have high hopes for that market in 2017.
Talking of which, what are your plans for 2017?
We will definitely be repeating our cask aged gin, which we released for Up Helly Aa (winter fire festival in Shetland). Last year we had just over 700 bottles of 20cl of this navy strength gin – they sold out in four days and none of them left Shetland.
In 2017 we are planning for a larger quantity of bottles and we will make them available in 700ml bottles too. We are also planning another summer release and are working on more gins too. In terms of export we are in discussions with possible import partners in a number of countries and so we are hopeful of a significant growth in the business.
We now host tours and tastings in the distillery and are planning to offer gin schools in the near future, which have been requested on many occasions. We are also aiming to bring out more limited edition gins during 2017.
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