A Gin is Born

Lewis Scothern, Distillutions.

Published: 30th March 2019

We take a look at the world of contract distilling in our new editorial series, A Gin is Born. We speak with Scotland’s contract distillers to understand their process, involvement and go behind the gin still to find out the benefits and pitfalls of contract distillation.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your business and background?

My name is Lewis Scothern. I am 30 years old. I own a small “contract” distillery. At the beginning of January 2018 I opened the doors of Distillutions Ltd in my home town of Arbroath. I felt that, (particularly with the resurgence of gin popularity), there were enthusiastic people out there, keen to produce their own spirit, but without necessarily the means and know-how to go about it on their own. Prior to 2018, I had gained 6 years of experience in the drinks industry in both brewing and distilling, having graduated in 2011 from Herriot Watt University, Edinburgh with a science degree specialising in Brewing & Distilling. 

What contract distillation services do you offer?

Distillutions Ltd is equipped to make not only gin and gin liqueurs but also other spirits. We can do batches as small as 10 litres for, say, smaller establishments keen to have a house brand, or individuals planning an event, right up to large productions for gin companies or corporations. We offer a service of bottling and labelling so the finished product leaves us ready for sale or consumption. However, we can equally provide the liquid in containers for transport.  We can also offer recipe development only and consultancy work on many aspects of distilling, from hardware to HMRC guidelines.

What’s your process for creating a contract distilled gin?

The process can be different for every client. However, I tend to have an initial chat over the phone or email to get the scope and concept of what they want.  This would then be followed up with a face to face meeting at Distillutions, which gives a fantastic opportunity for the client to see how the full process would enfold from recipe development to tasting the creation we have made together.  It also gives me the opportunity to show the process in depth so the client has a good grasp on their production options. We will then move on to a 10 litre trial distillation; this would be sampled, reviewed and then a decision will be made to either go for another trial or upscale to the larger stills. The client can be there for all or none of the distilling and bottling.

What are some of the challenges you face when contract distilling a gin?

One of the biggest challenges is the sometimes perceived image of contract made gin. I do not class Distillutions so much as a ‘contract’ distillery but more an open distillery here for collaboration for all. I think the gin industry as a whole could learn from the craft beer sector in terms of collaboration. 

What are the best bits about contract distilling a gin?

I love the chance to be involved from the beginning with a new creation and all of my customers are so passionate about their products and that enthusiasm is infectious and no two days are the same. I feel proud of every product that I have a hand in making, I really feel part of everyone’s journey. And of course I get to try lots of exciting new creations!

How involved are you in the development of the recipe for a contract distilled gin?

I can be as involved or not as my customer wishes.  I am keen and willing to talk over and brainstorm ideas for recipes and create testers for tasting and tweaking. However, if a client comes to me with a ready-made recipe, I am just as content to work to get that recipe recreated perfectly. I would say I tend to be as involved after the distilling and bottling as a sounding board for my clients to offer advice and help develop brands.

Do you think contract distillation work has helped you develop your skills as a distiller?

Without a doubt.  Being so involved in the birth of such a variety of spirits and liqueurs has honed my skills and led me down creative paths and techniques that I would never have explored had I been solely working on the production of one or two repeat products.

How important is contract distillation work to your business?

Contract distillation work is my business.  I chose not to have my own product, meaning I can avoid conflicts of interest and genuinely give my full support to each of my customers’ individual brands.

Why do you think contract distilled gins are sometimes frowned upon?

There is unfortunately a suspicion of contract distilling to be found in a few small quarters and perhaps, as in anything that people are wary of, it is due to concerns over the unknown, or the new.  Scottish distilleries are obviously something for which we, as a nation, should be proud.  It is part of our heritage. But in the past each distillery had its own unique mark, its own brand, its own taste.  Perhaps the movement towards contract distilleries is confusing for some as the consumer now can have a favourite brand, but not necessarily a favourite distillery.  The way I see it, contract distilleries like Distillutions Ltd now provide anyone with a passion and enthusiasm for the drinks industry with the opportunity to enter this field, without the need for massive financial backing or the ‘right’ connections. The playing field has opened up and lots of new exciting players have entered as a result.  It does not have to be only a game for the elite. This way, Scotland’s proud heritage will be kept alive by future generations. This way, it will continue to thrive.

What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to get a contract distilled gin made?

Contact me!? No matter how much of a novice you think you are, if you have the desire I can guide you through the process.

Do you think the consumer cares if a gin is contract distilled?

On the whole, I would have to say no.  The consumer can have a plethora of reasons for choosing one gin over another but, in my experience, whether or not the gin was distilled by a skilled and experienced distiller based in a distillery which produces several different brands or only one brand is generally irrelevant when a gin is made to a high quality.

Do you think all brand owners should make it clear where their gin is distilled and by whom?

I believe this is down to the brand owners’ preference, however I do not see the concern in telling people how, where and why a gin is made as long as the reasons are honest and will be of a benefit to the finished product.

Many of the brand owners who have their gins contract distilled have long term plans to one day establish their own distillery. Would you say this is true of the brand owners you work with?

I would say that it is an ambition of some brand owners to eventually establish their own distillery, certainly.  And, if so, then I am delighted to assist them in striving to realise that dream.  However, for other people, that is not their end goal.  Each client has their own agenda and I like to think that they can all be open and honest with me about their aspirations.  That is why I am here. When I am working with them, then I am working for them.

If a form of protection for Scottish Gin as a category is one day introduced do you think that contract distilled gins should be afforded the same protection as non-contract distilled gins?

As long as a gin is distilled in Scotland to the same strict process, I can see no reason why it should not be the case. I fully support transparency and provenance, and fully agree that a product should not be intimated as Scottish if it is made out with Scotland. If a gin is produced in Scotland and is not deemed Scottish, then what is it?

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