Women of GinJill Brown, Avva Scottish Gin.
Published: 8th March 2019
For close to a year now we’ve been highlighting some of the brilliant and talented women working in the world of Scottish Gin and Scottish Spirits in our ‘Women of Gin’ editorial feature series. On International Women’s Day it’s fitting that we publish our latest ‘Women of Gin’ featuring Jill Brown, owner and distiller at Moray Distillery. Producing fantastic drinks products for over ten years and with more than twenty products including her Avva Scottish Gin range and Berry Good drinks range, Jill was amongst the first female owned distilleries in Scotland and she commissioned the UK’s first Scottish made gin still.
What’s your name and what do you do?
Jill Brown, Distiller and Owner at Moray Distillery Ltd, who make Avva Scottish Gin and Berry Good Liqueurs.
When did you realise you wanted to make gin?
2006. It took a long time to be brave enough to do it, but the day job took me to Elgin, Speyside and one of the world’s iconic locations for distilling, which then led to us owning the UK’s first Scottish made gin still, so perhaps the delay was meant to be.
Tell us about your gin journey so far.
Prior to Gin, I was an agricultural officer with the Scottish Government and had watched a lot of brands launch, only to discover their gin wasn’t being made where they were ‘based’ and I saw a lot of boring bottles and labels. This motivated me to take my business to the next level. Berry Good was reaching a bit of a plateau, but it still took 10 years to be brave enough to give up the day job and go forth to distill gin. In 2015, I left the job in the August and started the task of establishing the distillery. On returning from visiting my cousin and family in Australia, I had planned to pay the deposit on the still but fate stepped in. On my return to Elgin I saw a van with ‘Speyside Copper Works’ on the side of it. I saw this vehicle 3 days in a row and met with Derek Brewster from the Speyside Copper Works team the following week. 6 months later, our bespoke fully handmade copper still with vapour basket was being installed. This was the first Scottish made gin still in the UK to go into operation. Our still is quite different, ban-marie heated with a very tall head into the lyne arm, which leads to the vapour basket. Slowly she creates our fantastic gin. I launched Avva Scottish Gin in October 2016 with a 70cl offering and we now have over 20 product lines, including Berry Good.
Do you think more could be done to encourage women to seek a career in spirits and distillation?
Possibly. I think this could be applied to lots of sectors. Generally our customer base is women. However, generally those distilling and in the supply chain are men. So I think it would be good to achieve a better balance, not just in distillation but the whole sector from still to glass, be it a trade buyer or a bartender. I actually feel when dealing with women in sales, we are much more direct and to the point, which I think isn’t always expected.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
I think it is yet to come with the gin sector. The gin consumer is split and some are very knowledgeable but the majority take the marketing message at face value. Some are exploiting ‘Brand Scotland’ and for some, you have to acknowledge, the marketing is powerful but when consumers find out the truth they feel duped or misled.
The Scottish Distillers Association and Scotland Food & Drink are starting to make an effort to assist distillers in protecting Brand Scotland but at times this feels like pushing water up hill. Too many gins and brands have launched with the Scottish tag and have not been clear on where the actual distillation has occurred and product is bottled. Consumers have believed some smart marketing and have been misled by an address or place name to their authenticity.
Avva has always been distilled and bottled in Elgin. We were the 3rd gin in Speyside to launch and I understand by this summer there will 13-14 brands from the region.
A similar sector which saw massive growth then consolidation is craft beer. A significant difference of the brewing sector to the distilling sector is the duty payments. The simplest explanation is the craft beer producers negotiated successfully that they pay a lower rate of duty in comparison to larger brewers. There is a volume that once they achieve a certain production level, they pay the same as the big guys. The majority of brewers have used this to invest in staff, equipment, marketing and route to market. This does not happen in the distilling sector – there is one rate and we all pay the same duty as those producing millions of litres. The volume of new gin brands/distillers which have appeared in the past 4 years has given a massive increase of income to HMRC, so I feel it’s unlikely smaller distillers will receive any reduction in duty rates.
I mentioned previously that our customer base is predominantly women. Back in 2018, I had one of my friends help with an event. He didn’t have much distillation knowledge so he represented my liqueur brand Berry Good. What I found really surprising was that customers assumed he was the distiller/owner and for two days he found himself repeating, ‘No, Jill here owns the company and distils the gin, I just pour the samples and smile’. I mentioned this to another female brand ambassador and she had experienced similar with a male colleague and the assumption he was the distiller. Generally, the customer base assumes male distillers, despite, in my case, my name being on the front of the bottle!… I don’t know very many blokes named Jill! So perhaps women as consumers need to better educate themselves about the sector.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to women who are starting off their career in spirits and distillation?
What does the term Scottish Gin mean to you?
It is quite simple – the gin is distilled/rectified in Scotland, preferably distilled and bottled in the same location, again in Scotland. We have always bottled in-house. Initially, as we were based in the Far North, it just wasn’t feasible to send stock South for bottling. Again our bottle finish with our neck label is all done by hand so we couldn’t get that with external bottling contractors… it just doesn’t sit right with my ethos of family-owned, provenance and authenticity and I can’t ever see us moving away from that set up. Growth plans into the volumes will involve real people and a larger table!
What do you think are the big issues facing Scottish Gin at the moment?
I’ve already mentioned the misuse of Brand Scotland but there are other issues of contract distilling, which has flooded the market with products but no investment into equipment. A price war is also happening with the large brands and to a certain extent some of the smaller gin brands, who perhaps have another spirit as the end goal (i.e. whisky) and aren’t bothered about what price their gin leaves the premises. Here at Avva, we’re in whisky country, but have absolutely no interest in producing that product. I love the skills involved with whisky, from the cask to the new make and the blending, but ultimately I am a gin distiller. We are working on new products but crucially I believe in, and love, our core products.
Which other gin makers do you admire?
Martin and Claire Murray from Dunnet Bay Distillers and although not gin, also Graham and Caroline Bruce-Jarron from Ogilvy Vodka. Both their attention to detail and product portfolio are tremendous and as people they are all very inspiring. I have to say I am ever so jealous of the view from the office that Martin and Claire have!! My distillery doesn’t even have windows let alone a view of one the most spectacular beaches in the North!
Where do you see Avva Scottish Gin and Scottish Gin in 10 years time?
Oh I’ve only done a 5 year plan! Come back to me then and ask. We have some really interesting products, events and exports planned for this year and I guess, like everyone, we need to see what happens when the dust settles on the ‘B’ situation. I would really like a building with windows and a view!
You can learn more about Avva Scottish Gin here.
You can learn more about Speyside Copper Works in our Spirit of Craft feature here.