Running to stand still at far north distillery
Published 27 Jun 2014John O'Groat Journal
A Caithness village distillery looks set to be up, running and selling in just over a month.
With the traditional and all-important copper pot still and boiling equipment to arrive in the next couple of weeks, Dunnet Bay Distillers is gearing up for a busy start after being overwhelmed with interest in their product, Rock Rose Gin.
Martin Murray, from Thurso, and his wife Claire, from Dunnet, recently set the company up and have built a new micro gin distillery using plant produce which will showcase the heritage and provenance of Caithness.
Their gin is named after one of its ingredients, Rhodiola Rosea, a rose the couple were introduced to by Brian Lamb, a Caithness herbalist, while out on a clifftop forage.
With only a few days of work left to go on the building, Mr Murray is excited the couple are close to realising their ambition.
"I worked in Aberdeen for years but now we've got children it makes sense to be at home," he said.
But the most northerly distillery on mainland Britain almost did not happen, explained Mr Murray.
"We looked into distilling different things but you need a lot of space for whisky and, with beer, there's a lot of breweries around Britain already so they just didn't appeal," he said.
"Around three years ago, I was working in France and someone challenged HM Revenue and Customs because they were not letting people build distilleries unless they had a big still which would have cost about £75,000.
"The argument was that they were only letting big companies with lots of money do it and the challenge won so that sparked a lot of little companies to start up."
The decision encouraged the Murrays to move home, build their own house and build the distillery which can be found just north of the Northern Sands hotel.
"We're really lucky with the location because we've got a burn from St John's Pool which we'll use in the cooling process and we've got an old steading building which we plan to turn into a visitor centre or bottling hall in the future," said Mr Murray.
"We've also got a future botanical garden area with rose hips, elderflowers, rowans and sea buckthorn that we can use in the distillery. It's ideal for us to grow things for our gin.
"We've been working with retired Caithness countryside ranger Mary Legg and Mr Lamb and they've been taking us round the county showing us what we can grow in our garden."
The distillation of their gin will take about eight hours and to bottle it will take another two to three days because the couple are doing things by hand.
Mr Murray is keen that they do everything on site using local people.
They plan using as many local botanicals as possible, including some mystery ones, and rock rose, a plant the Vikings used to harvest because they believed it made them live to 200.
They have decided to put their gin in a distinctive ceramic bottle.
"Most gin bottles are glass but we thought a ceramic one would stand out on the shelf and when gin was made many years ago it would have been in a ceramic bottle anyway," he said.
"If you look at any beers, they're in brown bottles and that's because it keeps out the sunlight. Sunlight breaks down the flavours and that's exactly what we don't want."
Future plans include developing their botanical garden which already has blackthorn, crab apple, wild pear and cherry trees in it and then eventually renovating their steading.
"We want to make botanical vodkas and use honey from Caithness in our spirits," said Mr Murray.
"We'd also like to try aged gins, storing them for a long or short time, and trying to make our gin as flexible as possible."
Their gin has already had a lot of interest and orders for it have apparently snowballed.
"The feedback we've had has been phenomenal and we've had contact from Tesco and five countries wanting us to ship to them already, with 15 countries registering an interest," said Mr Murray.
"We just want to experiment now and have a bit of fun with what we're making."
People can follow the distillery's progress on Facebook, Twitter or on their website at www.rockrosegin.co.uk.