Jamie Baxter, Craft Distilling ServicesThe Gin Cooperative's Spirit of Craft editorial feature series.
Published: 9th May 2019
Our editorial series Spirit of Craft takes a look at the diverse range of skilled artisan makers working across the Scottish spirits industry. Through our exclusive editorial features, we want to highlight the fantastic people and Scottish businesses operating in the gin and spirits world that don’t necessarily make gin or spirits, but have the same passion and dedication to their craft as the gin and spirit makers. We’ve seen first hand how these highly-skilled makers, designers and producers play a vital role in supporting and contributing to the spirits industry and all play a part in helping further Scotland’s reputation for quality and craft.
Jamie Baxter, Craft Distilling Services
The name Jamie Baxter is well known within the world of distilling and gin. Jamie has built a career in distillation, designing and building distilleries, establishing distilleries and building brands, supporting and guiding distillery owners along with everything else in between. With numerous roles as master distiller for some of the UK’s most well known craft gin brands, we caught up with Jamie to discover more about his ties to gin, what’s involved with building a distillery and more.
Can you tell us about yourself and Craft Distilling Services?
I’ve been working as a consultant helping people start distilleries for almost a decade now. In that time I’ve built over 25, some of which I can talk about, others I can’t. That’s over 5% of all the distilleries in UK, which really blew my mind when someone pointed it out to me. A couple of years ago I formalised this work by setting up Craft Distilling Services Ltd with my colleague Graham Veitch. This has enabled us to offer a complete turnkey solution for our clients in addition to consultancy services and this is how we now deliver most of our projects.
What inspired you to set-up the business and what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Back in 2006 I found myself planning to build a potato vodka distillery. That hadn’t been the intention, it was to be a muesli factory but somehow the spirits industry seemed more glamorous. The Chase Distillery was one of the first wave of so-called craft distilleries along with Sipsmith and Sacred. It was a real step into the unknown. We didn’t know anything about the industry, established distillers said that we were mad and smaller scale distilling just couldn’t be financially viable and HMRC seemed to be winging it in just the same way we were.
It was extraordinarily exciting and ignorance was bliss. People forget, or don’t realise, how groundbreaking it was at the time. As a director and Master Distiller I had a free hand just as long as I could persuade Will Chase that what I proposed was a good idea. Thankfully Chase Vodka was very well received and we grew quickly. I had the bug and when I left at the end of 2011 I realised that there was no-one in the UK that had the experience of building smaller distilleries that I’d just been lucky enough to pick up so I set myself up as a consultant to help other people get started. It was slow at first and I nearly had to give up, but eventually the enquiries that I was getting started to turn into paying projects.
What’s the average process for designing distillation equipment, installation and completion?
Every project is different. Before we are even able to quote for the equipment we have to understand what the client wants, what makes them different, how big they want to be in a few years time, what feedstock they will be using, what their surroundings are, what products they want to make now and in the future, what style and what their character is. Only then do we design the still configuration and place the order. There’s usually a six month lead time and that time is used to do any building work, order the rest of the equipment for blending and bottling etc, apply for the appropriate licences and, if it’s gin, recipe development using our R&D facility.
Someone once said to me that developing a gin recipe is like painting a portrait in that you don’t just paint what you see, but try to also capture something of the subject’s character, experience, surroundings and experiences. These are the parts that make a gin recipe unique to that client. It should also taste good!
It’s then a theoretically simple process of installing all the equipment, commissioning it, scaling up the recipe, training staff and launching. We’ve built distilleries in some unusual and difficult spaces and so no two projects are the same. We never really finish with a client as we are always on the end of a phone line for help or advice and most of them have become good friends. I’ve got so many keys to so many different distilleries it’s embarrassing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to open their own distillery?
What I would say is that anything is possible, but be sensible about it. A distillery is a big investment and potentially dangerous. Remember that you don’t need to become knowledgable about just distilling, but also Health and Safety Regulations, Food Safety, Weights and Measures, how to run a business, sales and marketing, employment law, employee welfare, environmental protections etc. Recognise your weaknesses or knowledge and experience gaps and get help to cover those areas.
Go and visit as many distilleries as you can and talk to as many distillers as you can buy a drink for. Visit bars and find out what bartenders are doing with your intended product category. Ask what they think of your rivals’ products.
Think very carefully about the scale of your operation. If you are planning to be very small scale, can you do it without giving up your paid work for a while. If it’s going to be a bigger project, can you make and sell enough product to make it pay. Find a way to maximise your margins if you can’t do big volumes.
Make sure that you can have fun.
More and more gin makers see their distillery as a key aspect of helping build their brand and reputation. Do you think creating a visitor experience is an important aspect of building a distillery?
Absolutely. Not just in gin. Consumers of all types are looking for engagement with the companies that they buy goods or services from and businesses are responding with more experiential offerings. For a gin business this can be as simple as conducting tours of their site or whole extra income streams such as bars, gin schools, visitor centres, gin events etc. Visitors can become important brand advocates to their friends and help spread the word.
Craft Distilling Services have worked on a number of exciting projects including the distillation equipment at the likes of East London Liquor Company, Greensand Ridge Distillery, Manchester Three Rivers Distillery and others.
Have you got any projects in Scotland?
I’m a proud Scotsman and I’m very happy to be able to say that I have now built distilleries in all four nations of the UK. One current project is at the Peebles Hydro Hotel where we are building a real gin destination. Guests will be able to stay at the hotel of course, tour the distillery, wander around the gin botanical garden, visit the gin school and distill their own bottle of gin, drink in the gin bar and perhaps eat a gin themed menu in the restaurant.
It feels like the gin category has grown at whirlwind pace over the last 10 years, where do think the gin category will be in another 10 years time?
To be honest, I’ve absolutely no idea. I hope that we will get back to more traditional flavour profiles and suspect that some of the more outrageously flavoured gins will become properly labelled as flavoured vodka or liqueur. Market fragmentation will continue with more and more tiny brands springing up, selling directly to consumers rather than through the traditional route to market. Experiential marketing will grow.
Do you think geographical protection for gins would add value to the gins being produced here in the UK?
No. I don’t believe that geographical protection adds value, although it might protect existing value from cheaper competition. Plymouth Gin obviously did not believe that the advantage was sufficient and let their protected status lapse, presumably to strengthen the trademark. Besides, what would we protect? There is a huge variety of styles of gin being made in the UK and this is without any distinctive terroir effect for any particular area. It would be great if all London Dry Gin had to be made in UK, but that horse bolted many years ago.
We’ve seen some recent ‘gins’ come to market that in no way should be promoted or marketed as gin with very little or no resemblance of how gin is legally defined, what do you think could be done to help protect gin makers?
I understand the argument that these sweeter, “flavoured” and/or coloured gins can act as a gateway introducing new people to the world of gin, but I don’t like the fact that they are marketed as gin when they clearly do not meet the legal definition e.g. gin liqueurs at less than 37.5% abv or gins that do not taste predominantly of juniper. I think that it is now so prevalent that it is damaging the gin category. I don’t like to see them being written about as gins. Perhaps as an industry we should do more to educate bloggers and to call out these misleading products on an informal basis. I’d like to see the Gin Guild take a more aggressive approach and initially contact the manufacturer to cajole them into changing their labelling, and if unsuccessful, to report them to Trading Standards. That will take time and therefore money, so it would be dependent on funding from the big distilling companies. I guess that ultimately we should report more offenders ourselves, although Trading Standards Officers don’t tend to look kindly on complaints from competitors in the same market.
Which distillers do you admire and think produce really great gins?
I’ve spent all my distilling life in the so-called craft distilling sector so it might surprise you when I name people like Tom Nichol of Tanqueray, Desmond Payne of Beefeater and Joanne Moore of Greenalls. However, these are the titans of our industry and all of us should be looking up to them. Other than them, I admire anyone who has the gumption to build themselves a distillery, pour their heart and soul into developing a gin recipe and then being bold enough to bring it to market.
Besides gin what other spirits and drinks do you enjoy?
I’m really not fussy. I’ve been drinking a lot of botanical spirits recently like Chartreuse, Amaro, Genepi, Kräuterlikör, Akvavit, Kümmel and Absinthe. I’m a huge fan of proper, traditional Schnapps. I love whisky and had a great trip to Kentucky last year to learn more about American Whiskies. I’m learning to appreciate rum more and love the fact that it’s no longer compulsory to dress as a pirate when drinking it. It’s great that the UK beer industry continues to become more diverse, at least in the style of beers produced if not in terms of sex or colour, and I can’t not mention the incredible ciders and perries produced by Tom Oliver in Herefordshire.
What do you think makes a Scottish Gin ‘Scottish’?
Only a handful of Scottish gins distill their own base alcohol. The rest buy it in, very often from England. That doesn’t bother me – making neutral spirit is an expensive business and one of the great things about gin at the moment is that it is being made on relatively cheap equipment, so the barriers to entry for new players are not too high. Similarly, gin has always been a cosmopolitan product with botanicals being imported from all around the world thanks to the great trading companies of the Dutch and British Empires. So for me a Scottish gin should be rectified and bottled entirely in Scotland.
What Scottish Gins are on your list to try next?
I’ve heard good things about Verdant Gin from Dundee so that’s next on the list. I also need to taste what my friend James Sutherland is up to with his gins being distilled at his bar 56 North in Edinburgh.
What other gin brands do you think people should be checking out?
There are too many to mention. Three Rivers Gin from the City of Manchester Distillery, Humber Street Gin from Hull, 58 Gin in London and Salcombe Gin from Devon are all fantastic London Dry Gins. East London Liquor Co and Bimber Distillery are doing interesting things with all their spirits, not just gin. Will Edge at Greensand Ridge Distillery has some fantastic products and is doing great things from an environmental point of view. Merywen Gin from North Wales is harder to find but worth seeking out and the Belfast Artisan Distillery has just launched a fantastic new gin over the water.