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The Wonderful World of Scottish Gin

Emma O'Bryen, Scottish Distillers Association.

Published: 15th November 2018

There is no doubting the world of Scottish Gin is truly wonderful and there are some fantastic individuals and organisations playing their part in telling it’s story. Our editorial series ‘The Wonderful World of Scottish Gin’ shines a light on some of these individuals and organisations who share our passion for all things Scottish Gin.

The second in the series is Emma O’Bryen, newly appointed Business Development Manager for Scotland Food & Drink East and Scottish Distillers Association (SDA). The aim of the recently relaunched SDA is to promote the craft of distilling and protect Scotland’s reputation as a worldwide centre of excellence in the production of distilled spirits. We caught up with Emma to learn more about her role, the Scottish Distillers Association and Scotland Food & Drink.

What’s your name and what do you do?

I’m Emma and I am the newly appointed Business Development Manager for the East of Scotland at Scotland Food & Drink. I will also be looking after all members of the recently relaunched Scottish Distillers Association

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Perthshire, and laterally in Fife, before going to University in Glasgow to study Sociology. My parents met whilst working in the wine trade together, so the drinks industry was often discussed and consequently my early work experience was within food and drink events. When people ask how I got in to the industry, I usually explain that it began as soon as I was strong enough to carry a case of wine – at that point I was allowed to come and help keep things organised at wine fairs with my dad. My baptism of fire was a consumer wine and spirits event held at Murrayfield. I say baptism of fire because it was a mixture of great fun, buzzing atmosphere and total madness! I was in my final year of school at the time, and trying to earn a few pennies before the summer holidays started. On the Monday morning following the 2 day event, I dragged myself to the school nurse feeling pretty exhausted, to ask for an ice pack for my hand, as by this point it was pretty bruised. She asked what had happened to it, and I explained that I’d opened over 200 bottles of champagne over the weekend – safe to say she definitely thought I was making up stories!

I’ve always been a bit of a ‘foodie’ and love to eat fresh produce and support small businesses and visiting local ventures. My boyfriend owns a small café (Baba Budan), on East Market Street in Edinburgh so I have seen first-hand some of the challenges that small food and drink businesses face in their early days. The café is only in its third year so at weekends I’m usually up first thing to help with delivering doughnuts to wholesale customers. Hard life I know! It is pretty fun because it keeps me in touch with some of Edinburgh’s best cafes and restaurants.

Tell us about Scotland Food & Drink and the Scottish Distillers Association.

Scotland Food & Drink (SF&D) is a membership organisation and the only food and drink body in the world which facilitates and enables government and industry to work side by side. Our commitment to strengthening reputations, developing growth strategies and broadening networks means we can deliver competitive edge for our members and continued success for Scotland’s food and drink industry.

The Scottish Distillers Association (SDA) is the representative body for distillers in Scotland and is supported by Scotland Food & Drink. The objective of the SDA is to promote the craft of distilling and protect Scotland’s reputation as a worldwide centre of excellence in the production of distilled spirits. We decided to relaunch as the Scottish Distillers Association (from the Scottish Craft Distillers Association) in September 2018, to widen our role and remit and place us as an authoritative voice of the Scottish distilling industry. We represent 23 distillery businesses at the moment and are recruiting for new members.

What’s your role in Scotland Food & Drink and the Scottish Distillers Association?

I’m a Business Development Manager so my role is to support members, large and small, and advise, connect and highlight opportunities that will help grow their business. We’re lucky to have many fantastic resources and opportunities available to our members, from ‘Meet the Buyer’ events to free market insight reports and I’m looking forward to seeing how they can help both distillers and food and drink businesses grow.

How does the Scottish Distillers Association support Scottish Gin makers?

The SDA represent the best interests of Scottish distillers, not just those making gin, with an aim of helping to grow the value of the Scottish distilling industry and promote the high quality and diverse range of premium Scottish spirits.

There has been a lot of discussion about the authenticity and provenance of Scottish spirits and a demand to provide consumers with confidence that the spirit that they are buying is made where the bottle says it is. We will soon be launching our accreditation scheme for members who are creating authentic spirits and in order to be accredited, distillers will have to meet five criteria.

When you become a member of the Scottish Distillers Association, you become a member of Scotland Food & Drink and have access to all development opportunities, events and training that they provide – so that’s an added bonus!

Tell us about Ambition 2030 and the Food Tourism Scotland Action Plan.

In March last year, Scotland Food & Drink and the industry partnership, made a renewed commitment to work as one and grow the value and reputation of Scottish farming, fishing, food and drink. The Ambition 2030 strategy gives us, our partners and those operating in the food and drink landscape a clear vision to cement food and drink as Scotland’s most valuable industry, with the opportunity to more than double turnover in the sector to reach £30 billion by 2030.

In order to reach our ambitions, we’ve developed action plans to help us achieve this. The Food Tourism Scotland Action Plan represents two of the country’s most successful and ambitious industries and we are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. Visitors, from near and far, want to get under the skin of a place and there is no better way to do that than through its food and drink.

What excites you about Scottish Gin?

Simply put – the people, the product and the passion. Having previously worked with Isle of Harris Distillery, I have a huge appreciation for people who turn their hand to something new and give distilling a try. The market at the moment is so fast moving that you have to have a quality product to survive. The passion from the people behind Scottish Distilleries is utterly inspiring, these are people who work relentlessly and manage not to lose the passion that got them started in the first place.

Another exciting aspect of Scottish Gin is export opportunities and growth within the sector. Scottish Gin is a wonderful way to connect with other countries and further develop our reputation for being a country of great food and drink.

Any special mentions or shout outs for people who have helped you in your career?

Hmm there are lots.. my dad would be the first. He taught me early on how to articulate what I taste and how to connect taste to memories and emotion. Probably my most valuable skill. I can still remember a little of being driven around Europe ‘on holiday’ with my family as an infant. We would visit as many vineyards as possible as my dad was studying for his Master of Wine qualification. He studied tirelessly for that exam, whilst working a full time job and raising a family, so he also taught me to work hard and that if you love what you do, then work/study doesn’t feel quite so taxing.

Secondly, I’d probably say, my first boss in an off-license in Glasgow – Alan Vose. Alan taught me how to be unpretentious and respectful of alcohol. He taught me about hundreds of beer, wine and spirits producers, about history, and a surprising amount about engineering. Discussions often involved a free-hand sketch of a distillation process, or a vineyard tractor. I would often ask Alan ‘how’ something was made and he would give me a long and detailed answer in this way. We had lots of big laughs in that cold wee shop so I’m pleased to see it’s now the West end branch of The Good Spirits Company (and probably much warmer 10 years on!)

The team at Isle of Harris Distillery are of course worthy of a big shout out. This is where I learned the true value and importance of community spirit in making a product (no pun intended!) The story of the distillery is one I will always admire and hold close to my heart. Isle of Harris Gin quickly won my heart too, as before I tried it I swore I didn’t like gin! I now stand corrected.

What’s your favourite tipple?

Tough one. There are many factors that determine that decision. I tend not to have a favourite, but rather a few go-to choices for when I’m feeling indecisive or when selection is limited. Often it will be dependent on the people I’m with, whether there’s food or not, the season etc. I’d say I probably drink wine, beer and spirits all fairly regularly but always try new things to keep learning. If it’s wine, I tend to choose a big ballsy red from California, South Africa or Australia. Spirits wise, it’s either a premium gin or golden rum. Beer, I’m a fan of a reliable IPA, pale ale or a red ale.

What’s next for Scotland Food & Drink and the Scottish Distillers Association?

It’s an exciting time for us as we’ve just launched a new SF&D website, which acts as a hub for all the information you need about the food and drink industry. Our new UK Market Development Team have been working on a UK Market Development strategy, which will launch at our conference in November. For the SDA, we’ll be unveiling our new accreditation marque at our influencer event at the end of November, which you’ll hopefully start seeing on our member’s bottles soon. We’re also in the midst of planning the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards 2019 and Showcasing Scotland 2019 too. Lots to come – so watch this space!

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