A New Chapter in Scottish Gin

As told by Michael Morrison, Co-Founder and Distiller at Isle of Barra Distillers.

Published: 28th August 2020

For many, creating a great Scottish Gin recipe means seeking the guidance of a trusted distiller to help with distillation while they build a brilliant Scottish Gin brand. For most, the last piece of the puzzle is to one day establish and open their own distillery. In ‘A New Chapter in Scottish Gin’, we meet Scotland’s gin brands who have recently opened their own distillery or are in the process of moving so we can learn more about what it means to them and their business.

The island of Barra sits on the west coast of Scotland and forms part of a chain of islands called the Outer Hebrides. The island takes its name from Saint Finbar, the Patron Saint of Cork, who was said to have visited and lived for a time on the island on his many travels. 

And talking of travels, there’s very few places in the world that can make claim to owning an airport where the runway is made from gold, but the runway at the Eoligarry Airport Terminal on the Isle of Barra is just that. Arriving by plane means landing on the golden sands next to aqua green waters of the bay overlooking the ocean.

Just a short drive from the beach is the main village of Castlebay and home to the Isle of Barra Distillery. Like other island gin and spirit producers, the importance of the distillery to the island, its reputation, the economy and more, can be difficult to measure. And for co-founders Michael and Katie Morrison, the journey to establish their own distillery on Barra has been a rollercoaster ride to a dream come true. We recently caught up with Michael to learn more about this new chapter in Scottish Gin.

How did your gin journey begin?

In late 2016, myself and my wife Katie began to look at the possibility of opening a distillery on the Isle of Barra. At that point, we had spent nearly 9 years living in Glasgow after moving there when we were 16 and 17. At first, we were really cautious about our approach to this as a distillery on the island as it had never been attempted and with good reason. With that said, we never felt this was out-with our reach or our capabilities. We released news about our plans through social media in December of 2016 and from there, our story and brand began to grow. Throughout 2017 we listened and learned a lot about the current market and trend for gin. We found out quickly that what we learned was only the tip of an iceberg that the titanic would be proud of. We launched our first product, Barra Atlantic Gin, on the 14th of August 2017, and that’s truly where the journey of the Isle of Barra Distillers begins. 

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

We are now fully set-up here on the Isle of Barra; distilling, bottling and shipping every bottle of our award-winning gin right here from Scotland’s most westerly distillery. From late 2017, we have grown year on year; be that through our sales, through employment or through our social media following. It really has been incredible, but at the same time it has taken a huge amount of work and sacrifice to reach where we are today. As each year goes by, we set new goals and targets; this is how we continue to push ourselves on. In 2018/19, we secured two international distribution contracts, which was a real highlight. And growing our sales to both on trade and off in the UK has also been a particular positive as we chose not to go down the conventional route of using a distributor, instead opting to deal directly with the sole hope of creating new roles in our company and on our island and this is exactly what has happened. On a personal note, a particular moment that has been one that stands out to me is when we ordered our new 300 litre gin still from the world renewed Forsyths. Delivery of this will be later this year but for the distillery to achieve this goal, one we set out when we first launched and to achieve this so soon, we are all very proud of this. 

Has everything gone according to plan?

Nothing ever goes exactly how you want it to, that is how we look at things. You need a plan A,B,C and sometimes D. We feel the reason we are where we are today is because of our resilience and our will to go that extra mile at any opportunity. If we were asked today if this is where you would like to be three years ago, we would have definitely jumped at that. So, that tells you all you need to know; that the distillery and our story has grown more than we had ‘planned’. 

What does this new chapter represent for your business?

The next move, on paper, is simple: to build our own single malt whisky distillery and of course continue to distil our Barra Atlantic Gin. We have grown to the point that this is the most logical move for the distillery. Our current home is now at its maximum and we can’t do much more here so certainly the next chapter would be to build. We cant forget though that there is still a few pages to write on our current chapter, we have plenty to aim for and goals to hit before we pack our bags…

What was the motivation for this move?

It was a simple mix of the desire to move back home to the Isle of Barra but to also start something that, if we put the work in and if we make the sacrifices now, that will be part of the Isle of Barra for not just our generation but for generations to come. Yes, we started the Isle of Barra Distillers and we produced the first spirit to be distilled on the Island, but the story will never end there. We started the journey, but it is one that would not end with us, it will continue to grow, to evolve. We’re blessed to have the Isle of Barra as our home, to have this for the home of our distillery, so we owe it to the island, to its people and to ourselves to make the story of the Isle of Barra Distillers one to be proud of. 

Has the move effected your gin?

The move to Barra and setting up the distillery has changed our gin; this was always going to happen and something that we embraced. After several test runs, we settled on a spirit that we are really happy with. The flavours are ones that, we feel, really connect to the island and more in line with its maritime history. We have also now laid the foundations on the island for the future. Although we were always based on the Isle of Barra throughout our journey, the gin, for a short time, wasn’t. Now we have a real sense of provenance and pride in the spirit that we distil and showcase to the world, a spirit that holds the words ‘Product of Scotland’ and ‘Isle of Barra’ is something we’re really proud of.

What does the short and long term future look like for Isle of Barra Distillers?

That’s a great question, one really important factor we learned early on is to not look to far into the future, don’t get carried away with wanting to do too much as you can lose focus on what is really important to you. The short term is far more important than the long term as if you’re not doing everything you can now in the present, then the future goals will be harder to achieve. With that said, we want to continue the journey we are on, growing the business and sharing the story of the Isle of Barra Distillers with more people each day is key to us. This is our way to introduce people to the island; through our distillery, so this is important to us. Long term, if we were to answer that, we would say two things: (1) to have our own purpose built distillery and (2) to employ more people and to inspire the younger generations coming though the island that you can do great things if you’re willing to work for it. 

What does the term Scottish Gin mean to you?

Instantly we think of home and the amazing produce that comes from Scotland. Personally, we would like to see something like the whisky industry in Scotland and break down the gins found in Scotland to regions such as Islands, Highlands etc. Scottish Gin is something we should all be immensely proud of.

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