Growing with Gin

Iain Black, Ice & Fire Distillery.

Published: 2nd May 2019

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 Iain Black, gamekeeper, crofter, distiller and one fifth of Ice & Fire Distillery, makers of Caithness Highland Gin and Crofter’s Tears Highland Gin.

What’s your name?

Iain Black, but Ice & Fire distillery is made up of my sister Jacquie Black, her partner Stephen Wright, myself and my wife Eilidh Black and our ever faithful collie, Sam.

How has crofting influenced your Scottish Gin?

Ice & Fire craft gin is as much about the people behind the product as it is the finished spirit. Who we are shines through from the design of the bottle, the design of the labels and the ingredients in the bottle. A little bit of our soul is captured in the process. Our heritage in being Highland Crofters is apparent in the design of the bottle with purple heather entwined around the bottle and topped off with a highland stag embossed into the glass and also in the stopper, which has a crossed design around the top signifying the thistle and a stag on the top of the lid. This is very much in keeping with our background of being a crofting and game keeping family. This real and local story is the reason consumers can relate to Caithness Highland Gin and Crofters Tears. It’s what gives our gin that extra dimension. The pure natural waters of the Highlands combined with handpicked botanicals, hand distilled, bottled and labelled all within a genuine crofting community signifies the provenance and romance of a truly Highland product.

What made you want to start up a distillery and make Scottish Gin?

Well, the unofficial story is that late one night after helping Iain calf one of the cows, Stevie was rummaging through the cupboards for a celebratory dram and all he could find was a bottle of cheap gin that was so rough it should have been used to degrease the tractor engine. Spluttering whilst trying to drink it he said ‘we could make better than that ourselves’ and the idea to open a distillery was born.

The official story isn’t as straightforward. Iain was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and felt he would need to give up his gamekeeping job due to the physically demanding nature of the job. It was at this point that the idea of a distillery became a reality and we decided to give it a go and see where it took us. We started out on a journey with no knowledge, no experience and essentially a wing and a prayer. Within 2 months of launching we had been chosen as the Caithness Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year so the morale of this story is, take a chance. Sometimes, hard work and determination are all that you need, and a good gin in our case!

To be clear, we like the unofficial story better!

How has crofting influenced your gin?

When researching other gin companies, we felt some websites and blogs were very posh and upmarket with photos of tweed clad ladies striking poses with their signature serves and we thought there’s no point trying to brand ourselves like that because we’re neither posh nor upmarket, we’re crofters and proud of the fact, so that’s the way we decided to market our gin. Thankfully, most folk seem to like our unique approach.

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

The red tape involved in opening the distillery was bewildering, time consuming and frankly off-putting. The amount of paperwork is not warranted given the small scale craft nature of what we are doing. However, we have now overcome the hurdle of planning permission, building warrants, environmental health, licensing board, weights and measures, SEPA, etc… It has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows; experimenting with recipes, testing on friends and hilarious feedback have evened out the drudgery of red tape, bureaucracy and paperwork involved. 

Do you think diversification for crofters is important?

Crofting is a traditional form of land tenure, unique to predominantly the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which continues to be a vital component of this regional economy in the 21st century. Earning a living this way has always required the ability to innovate and hold down a number of jobs in addition to tending to crops and livestock. In this respect, not much has changed in the past 200 years. Crofters still need to undertake a number of jobs to maintain an income and to make a croft viable. Crofters have always worked with the landscape, developing innovations and turning difficulties to their advantage, sometimes in ways that were not strictly legal i.e. illicit distilling!

They knew they had to respect the land so that it would continue to provide for future generations. This distillery is going to secure the future of three families and has the potential to be an employer in a rural area which has low employability opportunities.

We are using products in the gin which are free and can be collected from the local area. The turnover and potential for the business far outstrips what we can ever make from breeding cows and sheep. However, we will still continue with the more traditional crofting methods. Many crofters in Caithness supplemented the croft income by not so legal means and distilled illicit whisky. The hills and moors of Caithness were alive with illicit distilling as there was a ready supply of water from the burns, peat from the hills and grain from the land. This was all they needed to make moonshine (and a bit of luck to evade the excise men). The distillers used traditional pot stills heated by naked flames and used the water from the burns.

We have preserved this traditional method by using handmade solid copper pot stills, which are heated by a naked flame (nowadays we are using gas) and only make small batches as this maintains the quality of the product. There is no mechanisation of the process whatsoever and the end product relies on me as the distiller to cut the spirit at the best point to differentiate the heads from the hearts and then the tails.

How else have you diversified?

We installed a 50KW wind turbine about 8 years ago to provide additional income to the croft. 

Do you think more could be done to help crofters diversify?

The farming financial support for diversification is geared more towards larger businesses rather than small crofting enterprises. Seed funding, which is more readily accessible is required, which enables smaller businesses to apply. Making the application process more streamlined and tailored to the small scale nature of applicants would also be helpful.

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

The gin boom or gin renaissance has thrust smaller scale producers to the forefront of Scottish food and drink. It has finally enabled small scale businesses to be part of the food and drink offering. In terms of spirits, it was only ever the larger whisky distilleries and breweries that were able to compete at this level but the easier entry level of gin has enabled husband and wife teams to open small scale businesses in the spirits industry.

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

People are looking past major multinational brands and seeking products with provenance that can connect with local people. Consumers are looking to shift away from mass-produced brands towards products made with craftsmanship. The Ice & Fire Distillery ethos is to distinguish our truly artisan products from multinational competitors. As craft distillers, we can prove our craftsmanship and authenticity to restore the craft definition and consumer trust. It is this attention to detail, quality products and a truly artisan approach which makes Scotland’s Food and Drink special. 

What do you think makes Scottish Gin ‘Scottish’?

It has to be produced and bottled in Scotland to be truly Scottish. We have to get away from brands being produced in England and being branded as Scottish Regional products.

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

Although not Scottish, I have to mention Sipsmith, who took on the giant of HMRC and after a 2 year battle won the fight to allow small scale stills to be used. This paved the way for the gin boom, not only in Scotland, but the whole of the UK.

I think the Whisky Distilleries in our local area, Highland Park, Wolfburn, Old Pulteney, Clynelish and Glenmorangie are fantastic examples of International Brands that come from a remote location and play an integral role in the Scotland Food and Drink scheme and branding.

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

I would like to think that in 10 years we will have a thriving family business with a strong domestic market and international sales. I think our product range will expand to include special editions in our gin and rum offerings and also to develop an Ice & Fire Vodka. Our ultimate goal would to develop a craft Whisky in the illicit distilling style.

You can learn more about Ice & Fire Distillery here.

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