Meet the DistillerFiona Williamson, Dark Art Distillery.
Published: 29th March 2022
There’s no such thing as a typical Scottish Gin distiller. The people making Scottish Gin are a diverse bunch from all backgrounds with their own ethos and approach to making Scottish Gin and spirits. In ‘Meet the Distiller’, we meet the people who make Scotland’s growing number of amazing Scottish Gins, to learn more about their background, their gin making process and more. From ‘Master’ distillers, who have been working in the world of distillation for years, to new distillers; each one with a story of their own to tell.
In our latest ‘Meet the Distiller’, we caught up with Fiona Williamson, head distiller at one of Scotland’s newest Scottish Gin distilleries, Dark Art Distillery. Located in Kirkcudbright, known as the ‘Artists Town’ in Dumfries and Galloway, the distillery officially opened its doors in 2021 with the launch of its signature Sky Garden Gin. Discover more about Fiona’s journey into the world of Scottish Gin, the best and worst bits about creating a Scottish Gin and who the distillery assistant is.
What’s your name and what do you do?
I’m Fiona Williamson and I am the distiller, and one quarter of the team, for Dark Art Distillery in Kirkcudbright.
What’s your background?
I initially left school and completed a BSc (hons) degree in Nutrition, which I then worked in full-time as a Food Technologist, working with both global and start-up companies, and doing freelance nutrition consulting part-time. After a few years in the food industry, I realised I cared quite deeply about the impact of products (mainly use of non-sustainable ingredients such as palm oil and plastic packaging) on the environment and that I was a very small fish in very large pond when it came to trying to make a difference in that industry! I decided to leave the food world as I wanted a career where I could actively make decisions that will help reduce environmental impact, in any way. With sustainable raw material choices, water availability in Scotland and easy plastic free packaging as standard, a move into the Scottish distilling industry seemed appealing. So I applied for the MSc in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt and graduated in great time for Dark Art Distillery to be looking for a distiller…a few meetings with Andrew, our founder, in 2019 led to where we are now.
What spirits are you involved in making?
At the moment we have one product, Sky Garden Gin, which we produce and sell. But I’m currently working on the next two gins and have various product ideas for the future… currently top secret I’m afraid!
Sky Garden is obviously our first product and will be our core gin – it’s based on the clear skies above the nearby Galloway forest and our recipe and bottle design both reflect this. The newer gins will also have very strong branding around them, so I’m very excited to see how 2022 goes for us.
What kind of research went into making your Scottish Gin?
Our first gin, Sky Garden Gin, takes its inspiration from the nearby Galloway Forest Park – the first dark sky park in the UK. 300 square miles of rugged beauty with limited light pollution mean than over 7,000 stars are visible and night skies have ever-changing ribbons of colour and flickering stars – in essence a sky garden… Both our bottle and recipe design reflect this – our bottles show the silhouette of the forest trees with the constellations that you’d see above you there, and our recipe contains four locally grown botanicals, three of these are flowers that either bloom at night, or release their scent into the evening.
Do you get the opportunity to experiment?
Absolutely. I’m lucky in this job that I’ve been given free-rein over the product development side of things. My phone and notepad are full of future ideas and flavour combinations to experiment with. I get to experiment with product ideas and how we carry out production… most things really!
What’s your number one rule when making spirits?
Write down everything. I probably go a bit overkill with my production note taking, but in a process where accurate repetition is key then I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing to be doing as such.
What’s the best part of the gin making process?
On thing I’m passionate about is regularly reviewing and checking at every part of the gin making process; where things can be made more efficient, more sustainable, questioning “are there more innovate ways to approach this rather than the standard?” It’s nice that the process has a basic method, but pretty much every aspect of how it’s carried out can be reconsidered to some extent.
What’s the worst part of the gin making process?
There aren’t really any bad parts to my job, which is nice to be able to say! Although I do complain in winter because it can be absolutely baltic in the production area if the still isn’t on! Many layers required for those early mornings!
What’s your ultimate drink?
To be honest, most of the time I just chain drink various teas. There’s so much complexity and character depending on the type of leaf so I’d say being a tea drinker has helped me develop my palate. When it comes to alcoholic drinks… anything mulled in winter works for me and in summer gin proseccos featuring our Sky Garden Gin with frozen grapes for ice cubes. No one likes melted ice watering down your drink!
Tell us something we might not know about Dark Art Distillery?
As we’re such a new distillery, there’s a handful of things I could mention. Since we’re based in Kirkcudbright, which is known as ‘the artists town’ we have a few pieces of original art work in the distillery, one being a complete wall covering mural by French Street artist Zabou, and another locally inspired gin piece by Scottish artist Carol del Angel. Definitely worth seeing.
I’m also quite proud we are already winners of a few awards: Best Newcomer at Scottish Gin Awards 2021, and winner of Gold for the Classic G&T category at the People’s Choice Spirit Awards 2022. Also I think my special distillery assistant Humbug needs a mention – she’s the cutest distillery dog out there in my opinion.
Learn more about Dark Art Distillery here.