A New Chapter in Scottish Gin

As told by Rhona Madigan-Wheatley, Managing Director at Isle of Bute Gin.

Published: 28th November 2019

For many, creating a great Scottish Gin recipe means seeking guidance from 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 meets 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.

Isle of Bute Gin literally made a splash earlier this year when they launched their two signature gin expressions, one of which included the use of Oyster shells as a key botanical. Although the initial batch was distilled on Bute, the team had to upscale and produce subsequent batches at their Merchant City Brewing Co. premises in Glasgow, but their long-awaited return to Bute has made for very interesting twists, turns and most importantly, community collaboration. We caught up with Rhona Madigan-Wheatley, Managing Director at Merchant City Brewing Co. and Isle of Bute Gin to learn more about their Scottish Gin journey and their plans for opening their own community-focussed distillery and food & drink hub on the Isle of Bute.

How did your gin journey begin?

After selling my restaurant in Melbourne, I returned home to find that the family business had expanded into gin. I came home with the ambitions of roasting coffee, but the opportunity to grow a gin business was too good to pass-up!! 

Narrating this journey into the gin before this industry isn’t easy… In 2016, our Glasgow family property business launched Merchant City Brewing Co., which marked our first Scottish Food & Drink venture. Being in the craft beverage industry sparked a natural interest in gin, the rest was a game of chance, networking and sheer luck that we landed on Bute and met our fantastic distiller Simon.

Simon is the mad-hatter of distilling, he will try anything in a still at least once. Hence, our Oyster Gin, inspired by Bute’s picturesque waters. It was a fine-tuning process, over many batches, but we have now launched what we believe to be a world first and my personal favourite. 

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

We have just signed a temporary lease on Bute, which will be our short-term home. This is a huge hurdle overcome, from the beginning, we have struggled to find premises on Bute, which has consumed most of my time this year. 

However, this is just temporary to get our feet on the island. We are developing a larger brewing and distilling facility to be opened in 2020. This is part of a wider project called “Bute Yard”, a space where craft producers can showcase their products and come together. As anchor tenants, we are developing our production and visitor centre within.

It will also include my first passion – hospitality. I can’t wait to start welcoming guests and pairing our drinks with other local produce. My old restaurant had taken a lot of inspiration from Lebanese & middle eastern flavours, and Bute has a fantastic Syrian community so hopefully they can help me replicate this. Our distillery will be a place to sample Bute’s amazing larder of gins, beers, meats, cheese, fish… and the list goes on and on!

Has everything gone according to plan?

The hardest issue we have had to face is working out our route back to distilling on the Isle. However, it’s fair to say that everything does happen for a reason and we are thrilled to be involved in developing our home in the heart of the Bute community. Our initial batch of gin was distilled in Bute but in order to meet the demands of a larger scale production we had to make a temporary move to Glasgow and share Merchant City Brewing Co.’s premises. 

Our plan has always been to produce on Bute and in order to do so effectively, we had to take the time to plan and research the very best way of doing this. It has been a process of elimination and dedication to finding what not only works best for us but the community established on the Isle as well. When our initial plans fell through for the distillery, we had fantastic support from The Mount Stuart Trust to help us collaborate with Bute Kitchen and the development of Bute Yard, an idea for a central food and drink hub in Rothesay. The project is at very early stages, but comes from a drive to support local producers. We will play an integral role in telling the story of Bute through this development and increasing tourism and visitor-ship to the Isle, which has been one of our major goals all along.

Originally, we set out to put a simple copper still on Bute but now we are adding beer, tours, tastings and most importantly, working with the local community. So while there have been hiccups along the way, which is bound to happen with any new business venture, we have a clear vision of where we want to be and how to get there.

What does this new chapter represent for your business?

This chapter represents us being Back on Bute!! We never wanted to distil in Glasgow, so there will be a huge sense of relief when we send our gorgeous copper still off to Bute to live out the rest of its days in the heart of Rothesay. It also marks the growth of our IoBG family, as we introduce more people to our business, take on more consultancy, expand our staff and see the fruits of our labour grow. As anchor tenants, our distillery will be neighbouring with like-minded people who realise the opportunity for Scottish craft produce to make its mark in the food and beverage industry. It represents a collaborative attitude and ambition to showcase the best of Bute. The spirit of collaboration represents the heart of our distillery model and has already commenced. Local fish smoker Richie’s of Rothesay is producing an Isle of Bute Oyster Gin cured Salmon and we plan to garnish our signature pours with Bute produce in the hub. 

What was the motivation for this move?

We were always motivated to create an authentic Island gin, so not being on Bute was never a question. However, at the beginning of the year I was asked to join the VisitBute tourism board, this marked a real turning point for me. My motivation for our business is equally about the Island and the people of Bute themselves. 

I first fell in love with Bute when Simon & I broke down on a back-country road 10 miles from Rothesay. Every person who passed stopped to ask if we needed help and the local garage sent us on our way free of charge. The country welcome of the Bute community is incomparable. As a community, Bute welcomed 25 Syrian Refugee families, they run ButeFest every year with profits going back into local projects. Callum’s Cabin is an island charity that provides holiday accommodation for children with cancer and their families on Bute. The list goes on….

When we look at the success of neighbouring islands and Scotland’s island tourism as a whole, Bute does not have the same traffic and it is just crazy to me. Having spent some time in Australia and seeing how small batch gin production in local areas has grown in popularity due to the human element of their creation and the economic benefit it had to the areas, I can see the same potential in Bute. Part of our Back to Bute motivation comes from wanting to keep that personal element alive throughout our own local process of production. We want people to taste, smell or even just see our bottle design and be reminded of Bute and the inherent Scottish-ness of the Isle and the natural beauty that can be found in the small but genuinely beautiful parts of Scotland. At the same time, figures show that 20% of children on Bute live below the poverty line. Rural economies struggle to provide jobs and opportunities for local people, yet it’s my experience that these people are the most welcoming and caring in Scotland. Craft production and tourism is playing a fantastic role in tackling these issues and between my role at VisitBute & Isle of Bute Gin, I hope to have a positive influence. 

Will this move effect your gins?

Having a settled home will definitely impact our gin, it will free-up more time to experiment with flavour profiles and take inspiration from local botanicals. Already we’ve been experimenting with a new gin although I cannot say too much at this stage, but a local artist has designed the label and it will include new flavours that we haven’t produced before. Like I said earlier, there is nothing Simon won’t try and it was his inventiveness that gave us the Oyster Gin and I have no doubt there will be more surprising offerings to come once he gets the chance to forage the Bute botanicals from a home base. 

With that in mind though our vintage style 200L copper still is an example of how our production is rooted in the history of gin making and the appreciation both Simon and the team have for not only being innovative in our production but staying true to the classic simplicity of good gin. We will continue to distil our gins with the attitude that the unique botanicals of Bute speak for themselves and they represent both the Isle and singular flavours.  

What does the short and long-term future look like for Isle of Bute Gin?

In the short term, we are really excited for the Christmas period that we are heading into. It’s a time for celebration and we are about to celebrate our first year of business so it coincides nicely with the silly season. Building on from our steady growth over the last year, this period will be a time that we can capitalise on the festivities and really expand our gin through both the Bute and greater Scotland markets. Following on from the next few months, opening our distillery next year and setting up our permanent premises on Bute is the big move that we have been working towards all year. Isle of Bute Gins are designed to be loved by locals and we are focussed on being an integral part of the economic community of Bute. Our distillery opening to the public will be the driving force behind our community engagement and we are confident it will become a hub of fun, festivities and functions on Bute that will showcase the characteristics of the Isle and the people who live and visit there. Long term we want to expand our investment in creating an authentic Bute visitor experience by exporting our gins across the UK and internationally. However our focus will always remain the celebration of Bute produce and people and welcoming guests to the island.

What does the term Scottish Gin mean to you?

As you can tell from this interview Scottish Gin means a whole lot more than delicious juniper. But don’t get me wrong, when you visit our distillery I will talk about our Gorse, Heather & Oyster Gin all day long. But most importantly Scottish Gin is part of a much bigger picture. Scottish gin and craft production is a community of people who are making a big difference in creating jobs and opportunities for rural economies and improving the Scottish tourism offering.

It’s a way for small businesses to have a say in presenting the Scotland that natives love but outsiders may not truly understand. And I’m not just talking about our accents! Scottish gin is not only a physical product but an example of how we can showcase our land and produce to the world, invite others to experience Scottish hospitality, strengthen relationships with countries across the world and show them the generosity and authenticity of true Scots.

It is about distillers, brewers, artists, and producers bringing our history and ancestry into our modern-day cultures and creating something nostalgic and magical that Scotland can be proud of.

You can learn more about Isle of Bute Gin here.

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