Growing with Gin

Craig Innes, Pixel Spirits.

Published: 26th January 2020

Our Growing with Gin editorial feature series looks at the growing number of Scottish Gin makers who have diversified their business or changed their career path to seek new opportunities in the world of Scottish Gin. Next in the series we meet Craig Innes, who along with his wife Noru Innes, established Pixel Spirits in 2016. With a background in hospitality as owners of the Loch Leven Hotel in the picturesque setting of North Ballachulish in the Scottish Highlands, the couple established their own gin distillery, range of award-winning gins and one of Scotland’s first gin schools. We caught up with Craig, co-founder and distiller to learn more the couple’s gin journey and how they’ve incorporated the world of Scottish Gin into their business.

What’s your name and what’s your background?

Pixel Spirits was setup by myself and my wife Noru Innes. We have mostly spent our lives in the hospitality industry. Originally we met when we were both living and working in Rome though I am originally from Edinburgh and she is from Helsinki, Finland. Noru hired me when I first moved to Italy in 2006, to work as a receptionist / handyman, neither of which roles I had the experience for but I picked up quickly. It was an interesting and exiting job where we met some truly amazing people, many of whom we still keep in contact with today all around the world, and the stories I could tell would make an incredible read. I was paid six hundred euros a month, which in a European capital does not even pay the rent so after about 6 months, if I wanted to continue la dolce vita I had to get work that paid a bit more. I kept on the hotel work at weekends and began teaching Business English Monday to Friday. After a while, we took a trip back to see my family and friends in Edinburgh and arriving on a glorious spring day into Waverley Station we alighted and dragged our cases up the ramps to Princes Street Gardens whereupon we decided to move back to my home town of Edinburgh, sunshine over Scotland is truly amazing.

Months later in 2008 we were back, and whilst Noru found a job instantly in hospitality in reservations and revenue management, it was the start of the financial crisis and jobs were scarce, so I took a coupe of years working in the licensing department of a law firm. It is funny how these small career decisions have influenced and helped our paths. It was a temporary 2 year role, during which time we saved and were married. After this, I moved back into hospitality work and steadily grew through the ranks and managed to save up enough for our first flat. By 2013, we were looking for a new challenge. We had always wanted to be self-employed and loved spending time planning business ideas so we took a far fetched idea to my parents. They were coming up to retirement age and looking for a retirement income and we were looking for our first big entrepreneurial experience. We convinced them it was a wonderful idea to sell their house, while we sell our flat then we would take out a big bank loan and buy a small hotel in the West Highlands!

The hotel had been on and off the market for many years and so initially all income went to necessary repairs. One thing that cost little but had a great outcome for our guests was focusing on the restaurant and bar. At this time, the first of the Scottish craft distilleries were emerging on the market and following on from the success of our own branded 10 year old Highland Whisky that we bought in from a local whisky distillery, we started to look for our own unique gin.

There were very few Scottish gin distilleries at the time and most were too busy or the price too high for us to consider a bespoke product for our bar, so we decided to do it for ourselves. We were fortunate that we had a couple of former farm byres behind the hotel which were derelict and ripe for conversion. We hoped that the conversion would take in the region of a year, all in all it took almost two, mostly because the entire conversion was done by ourselves, a few great hotel staff, friends and family, before bringing in a qualified electrician to make sure we didn’t explode!

Tell us about Pixel Spirits.

We finally opened the distillery doors in October 2017, meaning we launched our first gins mid November 2017. We launched with the now multi-award winning Devil’s Staircase Highland Spiced Gin, named after a local part of the West Highland Way, and a limited edition called Neptune’s Staircase, named after the local stretch of the Caledonian Canal in Fort William. A month later we held our first gin school, originally we planned to launch this months later but demand was so high for the first distillery in Scotland to house distillation experiences that we opened it 5 months ahead of schedule. When people visit us we have had amazing reviews and comments. We believe this is due to our openness and honesty; there are no smoke and mirrors here. People meet us, see and learn about how how we actually make our small batch gins before distilling their own uber small batch gin!

Originally we planned just to make gin for our own bar and other small companies such as our own, who wanted their own bespoke gin for their business, but things have grown considerably since then. We now sell our own brands of gin to many outstanding hotels, bars, restaurants, shops and wholesalers across Scotland as well as currently making 9 other small batch gins for other tremendous businesses with recipes we have developed, completely unique to them.

How do you run a successful hotel and gin brand?

Running two businesses that are very much also intertwined by their people, history, geographical location and love of gin is not easy, perhaps even less so when you live about 10 metres from each. When we decided to open the distillery, we decided to bring onboard a general manager (GM) at the hotel, this helps us massively but we are still at the hotel and distillery everyday. Our hotel GM leads the team of between 15 and 20 people in our absence and is tasked with insuring that things run to the standards we expect. Both businesses are our children but one is a young developing child in its infancy and one a very mature and established adult and so both need a very different technique to manage and build moving forward. We are passionate about both and love the work we do, it would definitely not be a lifestyle that many people would wish for, managing both companies, in the world of hospitality and spirits. You give up almost every weekend, Christmas, new year etc, which most take for granted but I have always believed that ‘the best never rest’ and that one day we will have achieved what we desire of both companies if we just continue to wok hard and make our ambitions come true.

What inspired you to create Scotland’s first ‘distil your own’ gin school?

We created the first distillery in Scotland to house a gin school for a few reasons. On a business perspective it was great for many reasons, the first is that we live and work in Lochaber, The Outdoor Capital of The UK, yet it rains every day so we need more indoor activities! In this area we have a huge number of tourists who are looking for experiences for themselves, their friends and families, whether Scottish, UK based or International.

At the time there were no other distillation experiences, where the students, would get to try award winning gins, tour around the distillery and most importantly distil their own unique gin to their own bespoke recipe. Obviously it helps enormously that we can utilise the small stills for our own recipe development process and that of our clients before launch.

What are some of the challenges you encountered whilst establishing your distillery and gin school?

Starting up any business is hard, you suddenly have to learn a lot of new skills in a short space of time, especially if you take on board the construction of the building yourself. One of the largest challenges however, is deciding how to grow your brand. There are so many opportunities out there but knowing which ones to focus on that will ultimately lead to more people learning about your gin can be tough, you just have to test the waters and see what works for your business, which can be time consuming and costly.

What are some of highlights of your Pixel Spirits journey so far?

We have only been open now for just over two years but it has been a whirlwind of a time. We have had some amazing moments such as picking up awards for our gin, which is always very flattering, but I guess some of our most personal highlights included the first time we distilled a batch of gin. What a rush to see all of that time, effort, trialling and testing finally come to fruition. There is nothing quite like launching a product that you have been a part of at every step of the way!

How important do you think Scottish Gin is as part of Scotland’s bigger food and drink offering?

As sales across the Scottish Gin sector continue to rise, it is without doubt a massive asset to Scotland’s Food & Drink offering financially. The rise in popularity has also lead to an increased support of the craft and local producers of food and drink across the whole food and drink market. The consumer may look to pair their locally sourced gin with some terrific local cheese or artisan chocolates.

What do you think makes Scotland’s food and drink special?

As a nation, Scotland’s Food & Drink is special and it has an unparalleled reputation due to provenance and quality. When you look across the nation, from the small artisan cheese maker to the massive multi-national exporting distillery operations, there is a spirit of support and collaboration. In Scotland, we promote our own business but also those around us to create outstanding local produce.

What do you think makes Scottish Gin ‘Scottish’?

For me the term Scottish Gin refers to the place it was distilled. Scotland has an unparalleled history for distilling spirits, gin being one. There are tremendous Scottish Gins being produced, some using typically very Scottish botanicals, others using a wide variety of interesting botanicals from around the world. The key thing for me is that a Scottish Gin should be distilled in Scotland and not simply branded as such to buy into our pedigree in the field.

What other food and drink producers in Scotland do you admire?

Scotland has a wealth of amazing people producing truly unique and amazing things. To list them specifically would do a disservice to the rest. When I get a chance I love to visit markets and meet the makers, there is seldom anything more inspiring than seeing someone’s hopes, dreams and ambitions and tasting it in their produce. Here is to the underdogs, the artisans and people of great craft!

Where would you like to see your hotel and distillery in 10 years time?

A lot can happen in 10 years but the strides that we have made with the hotel in the last 6 years and the distillery over the past 2 since we opened our doors have been amazing. We have learnt huge amounts about the businesses and also about ourselves. We want to embrace both businesses and grow. We have already taken small steps in both to embrace a more sustainable ethos, when you are surrounded by our natural environment then it is only right that we play our part to keep it.

You can learn more about Pixel Spirits here.

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