G is for Gin (and Good)

Isle of Harris Distillers, makers of Harris Gin.

Published: 14th April 2019

Our G is for Gin (and Good) editorial series looks at the Scottish Gin makers and brands who use their Scottish Gin for Good. Some of these brands use profits from their sales to help causes that they’re close to, which vary from supporting local charities and causes to special gins that have been created specifically for good causes.

We spoke with Mike Donald, storyteller at the Isle of Harris Distillery. And yes, that is his job title, which ties in with time honoured traditions of the island communities, where there were a few people trusted with the tales of old so future generations could understand the people and folklore that helped shape their community. Known as the ‘The Social Distillery’, we wanted to learn more about how the distillery is helping the local community and creating new traditions of its own.

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Mike Donald and I am the Harris Distillery’s storyteller. It’s a nice fuzzy job title but basically I’m tasked with sharing our island spirit and story through great words, images and film, both on and offline.

How did Isle of Harris Distillers come to be?

It’s a long story but it really begins with a man called Anderson Bakewell who has been deeply connected to the island for many decades. He was acutely aware of the population decline experienced here since the 1950’s, our community numbers having halved since then and were showing little sign of stopping. So, he decided to build a distillery to create beautiful spirits and by doing so, create jobs too, not just for a few years but for generations. A living, working distillery would provide not only opportunities but inspiration, showing that businesses can survive and thrive here despite our remote location. He brought together a great team and they went on to make what you see today, the social distillery, happen…

What is unique about Harris Gin?

Many things! It’s the only gin to be made here in the Outer Hebrides for a start. We use a key botanical no-one else uses, Sugar Kelp seaweed, which is harvested sustainably from local sea-lochs. The attention to detail in the bottle design is second-to-none, we wanted to create something which really captured the spirit of Harris and we think we managed to make something rather special. The contents are also beautiful, which is what matters most really. Our local distillers discard the head and tails of the spirit run leaving only the highest quality heart. It’s an expensive process, most gin-makers will recycle these, but it’s worth it to create a smoother, more complex finish.

Tell us how your distillery does ‘good’?

At the heart of our work is connection, so, we don’t sell our gin through any 3rd party or outside distributor. Every part of our operation happens here in Harris, from distilling and bottling, to packing and shipping. Every order comes directly to us and we handle every enquiry and sale right here at the distillery in Tarbert. This means we create more local jobs in all sorts of different areas. We started with 10 full-time staff just three short years ago and now we have 30 full-time, 6 part-time and 2 seasonal staff today. It may not sound like a lot, but to a community of less than 2000 people, it’s significant. There are lots of other little ways too…our whisky draff goes to feed local cattle, we actively support the wider local economy and tourist industry, we give school talks and arrange placements and visits, our staff get paid time off to volunteer in community projects, we donate a lot of bottles of Isle of Harris Gin to help local fund-raising…the list goes on.

Why was it important to build a ‘social’ distillery on the island?

We try to embody the best of Harris, particularly the sense of warmth and hospitality. So, our doors are open to all, six days a week, with a public Canteen, shop and regular tours. All this is centred around a burning peat fire, which is lit each day in the main entrance space. 

We want the open spirit of the distillery and this drive for real connection to be a catalyst for change, inspiring others to stay here in the islands and build their own businesses. By working with others in our community, we hope that together we’ll be able to address the issues surrounding population decline and create something which will encourage the next generation of young people to remain here in Harris, build a life and future with access to good jobs, training, skills and opportunities.

What’s the biggest highlight of the Harris Gin adventure so far?

There have been so many great things but perhaps witnessing the way the gin-lovers of the world have embraced our work. We don’t do any marketing other than share our story in an open and honest way, and people seem to connect with this. The messages and photographs we receive from customers across the world through social media is just amazing. From birthdays and engagements, to weddings and weekend celebrations, we find ourselves at the heart of people’s happiest times. Our spirit has been tasted and toasted from Australia and Antarctica, Nova Scotia to New Zealand…which is pretty amazing to witness from our little island here on the far edge of Scotland. A well-known whisky and gin author wrote recently that our success is down to an incredibly effective marketing department, which made me laugh. There’s only really me, an ex-crofter and former Harris Tweed weaver, and I just tell stories…

What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?

Ha! Well, I’d have to say the Great Harris Gin Drought Of 2016. It was the perfect storm really. Demand for our gin had been growing far faster than we’d anticipated and our supplies of glass bottles were diminishing rapidly. But when we realised our predicament and asked the manufacturer for more we were told that their glass furnace was under repair and it would be weeks until we could get more made. So, we had to ration our supplies to a single bottle per customer, which then sparked ‘panic buying’, and when those ran out we could only take pre-orders. It could have been a real disaster, creating a lot of unhappy customers but we were open and honest about what had gone wrong and people got behind us instead. It ended up being a fun story and when supplies were restored, orders soared again. Some cynical sorts suggested we’d contrived the whole thing as a marketing ploy but that could not have been further from the truth. Lesson learned, and we haven’t run out of bottles since…

What support would you like to see available for the Scottish Distillery and Drinks sector?

Great gins are built on unique stories, provenance of ingredients and the place names distillers are proud to put on their bottle. I think most of us in the industry would like to see formal legislation to better define and protect Scottish gin. The category needs protection from misleading products if it is to be able to continue to thrive.

What are the long term plans for the distillery and business?

The aim is always to keep growing, create more jobs, and build on the successes so far. We’ll be expanding our distillery site to accommodate the growth in staff and the logistics around bottling, shipping and storage especially as the international markets grow. We also have our first single malt on the horizon, which will open up a whole new chapter in our story. We hope we can convert our gin lovers to the joys of a different dram and welcome a whole host of new whisky drinkers to our delicious gin too. As for the Isle of Harris Gin, who knows? We’re always learning so it might be interesting to explore new local botanicals and expressions of our gin-making in the future too…

What’s your ‘perfect serve’?

Personally, I’m a Martini guy when it comes to enjoying our gin. Very cold, very dry, and with a twist. It’s an amazing cocktail where the spirit is the star but there are always lots of possible permutations to suit every taste. Otherwise, a classic Harris G&T is the way to go, frosted low-ball glass, lots of ice, just a splash of good Scottish tonic (Walter Gregor’s or Cushiedoos are ideal) and a juicy slice of red grapefruit to garnish. Perfect.

You can learn more about Isle of Harris Distillers here.

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