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A New Chapter in Scottish Gin

As told by Hannah MacAllister at Colonsay Beverages.

Published: 5th November 2020

A good story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s often filled with adventure and challenges set against a backdrop of stunning landscapes and characters determined to overcome. When it comes to establishing an island based distillery you’ll find all these elements either through choice, chance or fate are weaved into many of Scotland’s island gin makers, their brands and deeply rooted in them as people. Let’s be honest, you have to have a lot of drive, commitment and be good at what you do in any business. Throw in the fact that living and working on a Scottish Island is a merry go round of rewards and challenges.

Colonsay Beverages, the business behind the range of Wild Island Botanic Gins, started life as a brewery on the Isle of Colonsay back in 2007 established by brewer Chris Nisbet, entrepreneur David Johnston and islanders Bob Pocklington and Keith Johnston, making Colonsay the smallest island in the world with its own legal brewery. After taking on two new investors, Keith Bonnington and Allan Erskine, it wasn’t until 2017 that the team looked to diversify their drinks offering with a new range of gins. With a two-and-a-half hour boat journey from Oban to Colonsay, the team knew that starting a distillery from the offset on the island was fraught with a number of hurdles, least of all making it commercially viable.

Like many other gin brands, the team opted to work with the world renowned Langley Distillery in England. But unlike a number of businesses who opt to hide where their gins are being made, Colonsay Beverages and their initial range of Wild Island Botanic Gins wore their birthplace with pride, even dedicating part of their website to their working relationship with Langley Distillery. No smoke and mirrors. No marketing spin. Just good old ‘here’s us, here’s what we’re about and here’s what we’d like to do’. That last part ‘here’s what we’d like to do’ included creating a range of Scottish Gin expressions on Colonsay. It was early 2018 when the island’s first legal gin still was installed and commissioned, providing the opportunity to get creative with locally foraged botanicals and create a new range of Scottish Gin expressions that capture the magic of Colonsay.

We recently caught up with Hannah MacAllister to discover more about Colonsay Beverages as they continue on the path of producing island spirits with truth, heart and flavour.

How did your gin journey begin?

Having produced beer on Colonsay for some time, we decided to enter the gin market in 2017. Setting up a distillery from scratch on a remote island was a risk we were not prepared to take, not least because of the huge costs involved in getting stuff to the island. So we started off harvesting botanicals from land owned by members of our team on the island and using them to distil Wild Island Botanic Gin with Rob Dorset at Langley Distillery, who helped us develop a recipe we could be proud of.

At what stage of your Scottish Gin journey are you now?

Having satisfied ourselves that were was a market for Wild Island Botanic Gin, we recently decided to begin distilling on the island. At first, we made a limited investment in a small still to allow us to experiment with what the island flora could produce. We created a honey gin, a gorse gin and a redcurrant one. We were delighted with the feedback we got from all these new products but decided to focus on the one that had proved the most popular. So a proper still was needed. After considerable research and speaking to the many friendly people in the industry in Scotland and further afield, we decided to go down the G-Still route. It took some considerable time to get the still up and running on Colonsay and longer still to get duty suspension permissions, which we saw as vital to having a credible business.

Has everything gone according to plan?

Of course – not! As every single person who has set up a business knows only too well, nothing ever goes to plan. Add the complication of being on a small rock out in the Atlantic with connections liable to frequent disruption, it is easy to see how the challenges can get much bigger very quickly.

What does this new chapter represent for your business?

Producing Wild Island Botanic Gin ‘Distiller’s Cut’ on the island is a real milestone for us. We love the satisfaction of harvesting our wild botanicals and creating a unique spirit that really showcases the beauty of the island in a glass. Our gin is wired into the landscape.

What was the motivation for this change?

Colonsay is an island with many challenges and we want to do all we can to help overcome these by creating employment, interest for tourists and island awareness through our bottles across Scotland, the UK and the rest of the world.

How does this move effect your range?

It has simply added to it. We continue to make our first gin at Langley using botanicals from the island. The Distiller’s Cut is growing all the time and at some point we will have to look at the capacity of our distillery and demand for products and take a decision on what the future will look like but now is not the time for making long term decisions.

What does the short and long-term future look like for Wild Island?

Short term, like everyone else, things are challenging. Roughly ten percent of our business is on the island, which is currently empty of tourists. We have been fortunate in being able to maintain healthy sales supplying lockdown drinkers through our online partners and have been able to avoid the price cutting rush to the bottom forced onto others.

What does the term Scottish Gin mean to you?

An emotive question and of course technically there is no legal definition of what ‘Scottish Gin’ is. We like to think of ourselves as honest gin. Transparent and honest with consumers, which we have discovered from day one, reaps rewards.

Learn more about Colonsay Beverages here.

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