The Wonderful World of Scottish Gin

James Sutherland, 56 North.

Published: 27th March 2019

There is no doubting the world of Scottish Gin is truly wonderful and there are some fantastic individuals and organisations playing their part in telling it’s story. Our editorial series ‘The Wonderful World of Scottish Gin’ shines a light on some of these individuals and organisations who share our passion for all things Scottish Gin.

James Sutherland has been supporting and working with gin makers and brand owners for just shy of 11 years, since he got the keys to the establishment that would become 56 North. 56 North was the first dedicated gin bar in Edinburgh and over the last decade has grown to be a must visit on every gin drinker’s list of great gin joints. With a number of their own gins currently under development and soon to be launched, we caught up with James to discover more about his own gin journey and what the future holds for both the gin category Scottish Gin and 56 North.

Tell us about yourself?

I am Edinburgh born and bred. I did 4 years at Aberdeen University qualifying as a property surveyor and was lucky enough to fall into the hospitality scene. As with most people off to the bright lights of a new city and university, I wanted to make some extra spending money so landed on my feet getting a job in Beluga on Chamber Street in Edinburgh. At the time back in 2000 I was a naive drinker who had grown up with wine and gin and this job was an almost instant spirits and cocktail education. I was very lucky to work with some of the UK’s best bartenders, most of whom are still in the industry. I was taken under their wing as a ‘wet behind the ears’ 18 year old and taught by some of the very best. I learnt more in those first few months and years that I could have imagined and this is what led to my love of service, hospitality, but also spirits and cocktails. Gin has always been a passion for me as my Mum and Dad are very much wine and gin drinkers so I grew up with an affinity to it so I guess it’s my natural go to spirit since the very start.

What inspired you to set up 56 North?

I had worked for a variety of Edinburgh operators and I was very much still learning but I have always got a restless streak and always want to develop personally, which has never changed. The opportunity came to take the site and everyone thought I was mad at only 25 years old going whole hog into it with a substantial investment. My brother Richard helped support this set up and is still a joint director with me, even though he’s not day to day in any of our business interests. The concept was simple really – I love gin as well as outdoor hospitality space, so the venue was a natural fit for me. It was, in my eyes, a massively under utilised site in its pre-56 North days and although it frankly can be an awkward part of town, it was central with good footfall and a nice size.  Between Richard and I, we had the vision of what we wanted to do with the space and we went with it. I can’t stress how having a good team around you is so key. I put massive weight behind the people who form my core team. I count their support and work in years not months or days. Most of the core team at 56 North are well known and have been involved with all elements of the bar, gin, food and development. They are crucial in creating a positive work environment and fantastic customer experience.

How do you think gin has changed over the last decade?

One word – massively.  One word doesn’t make for a good read, so I’ll elaborate for our readers. I got the keys to 56 North on 1st April 2008 and ‘small batch’ gin wasn’t even legally possible back then. Since then, we’ve watched the landscape shift, leading to exceptional growth. We watched it firstly start down south with Sipsmith & Chase, then others followed. The tipping point in Scotland was around 2010-11 with some many amazing people up here getting involved. Referencing back to 56 North for context, we had 36 gins on our first menu in 2008 and this was a total mission for me to source. We were using a specialist in London to help and paying for the privilege. At time of writing this 56 North has 400+ gins with a huge portion of this number being Scottish made! The last decade has brought us amazing people, new brands, new stories and double digit growth in gin sales, almost annually. The category has changed from almost exclusively London Dry styles of Juniper led sprits in 2008 to the more wild flavours and ideas we all see today. Personally I love the growth but like a lot of people who have been in the industry from its inception as ‘craft / small batch’ gin I’m becoming increasingly frustrated at gimmick products. I adore invention and thought from the good producers who slave away often for months or years developing new ideas. In my eyes value should be derived from the care, attention and people behind a product who have often taken a risk of investing to develop something. The rewards and profits should rightly go to these people. The gimmick producers who make ‘bubblegum gin’ or simply add glitter, just don’t care about the consumer or gin category. This may sound harsh but they are lazy and are simply a cash grab by less reputable producers looking to disrespect the end consumers with a highly priced, badly made product. I would encourage your readers to support their local brands, who in turn support local jobs, local economy and each other. All this sounds very serious and anyone who knows me knows I love a lot of fun in my life and am the eternal optimist. If this sounds like you too, I’d encourage you to go support some of the best bars in the world we have in Scotland too, with inventive bartenders who can tick these boxes for you! 

Do you think Scottish Gin needs some form of protection?

The million dollar question. Again some context here is myself and Blair Bowman (Whisky & spirits writer and consultant) have been the driving force for every single ‘Great Scottish Gin Debate’ about the provenance of gin in Scotland. I am a passionate Scotsman (anyone who’s seen me at the rugby knows this!) but when all is said and done, I struggle with this question. I do feel the smaller producers of which I am now one, need help and protection from less reputable producers or contract distillers mentioned in the previous question who aren’t playing fair with the consumers and customers. The root of my issues is how do we deliver this? Gin has always been the wild west where historically you distilled anything and added botanicals to mask the poor alcohol quality. Obviously over centuries this has developed into the high quality products we enjoy today. So where and how do we draw the line in protecting Scotland? I originally drew up a series of classifications of styles of production before the first ever debate we did at Juniper Festival 3 years ago. These were split into four sections 1. Field to bottle making their own base sprits, 2. Scottish Distilled gin but not making base spirits, 3. Scottish Botanicals but contract distiller and lastly 4. Scottish name or branding but no tangible Scottish links. I still believe these broadly outline what’s in front of the consumer most of the time when they purchase. Even then they aren’t faultless but I am still proud that I was a small part of this with Blair and I feel the debate has matured massively in the last few years.

So to answer that million dollar question – yes, I do believe we need protection but I am very scared of how it would work. I worry it may be badly worded or exclude people who it shouldn’t. I don’t have any solution to how to word any legislation correctly. All I can do is hold my hand up with other good people in the industry to help try and lead this discussion in a fruitful and inclusive direction for the good of Scottish gin. I do feel that the Craft Distillers Association as well as Food & Drink Scotland are starting to get traction with this. While gin is young and fun it has more growing pains for it to prosper and develop, protection is possibly the missing part of this.

What excites you about Scottish Gin?

The people and talent we have. I meet so many amazing people who are so passionate about what they do. It reminds me of the quote “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. If you catch me running around mid-Edinburgh Fringe I may disagree with this but I’d say I am always blown away by the customers, brands and people I get to work with. There is a community feel to it and it’s a truly inspiring space and industry to be involved in.

What gins do you think are pushing the innovation boundaries?

I love some of the new wave of takes on classic gin styles. The idea of taking an old tom but rather than using sugar, sweetening it with fruits or taking a dutch style Genever and twisting it (the old tom idea may be a little hint to one of the gins Lindsay Blair has designed for our own gin launch in the next few months). These products are so clever. They are innovative while also respecting the basics of the ‘juniper-led’ approach to gin and its history. I also love the fact that brands are also making bolder flavours. Be it spicy, fruity, herbaceous or something else entirely. It opens up gin to new drinkers, allows experimentation with garnish and mixers and is key to the continuation of the growth. We really are in an incredible space just now with so much talent driving it.

What does the term Scottish Gin mean to you?

For me, it’s a liquid with the major flavour change being done in Scotland, by a Scottish company with Scottish jobs linked to it. If you’re going to brand as Scottish, you need to provide something back… it’s really as simple as that for me.

What do you think is the ‘next big thing’ in the world of Gin?

That’s a tough one. Provenance and transparency of production is becoming key but I’d like to try and champion the idea of collaborations. The craft beer space does this superbly where you get some amazing brewers working together. I’d be excited to do this with our distillery side and I know Lindsay is on board with the idea too.

Which gins and cocktails continue to prove popular?

We’re such an anomaly of a bar at 56 North as we have so much choice with 400+ gins! For me, gins with flavours people can relate to seem to be the ones thriving just now. If the customer can understand what to expect, we find they love it more. Sounds so simple but it’s harder to do than you’d think. The cocktail space is an incredible thing and is a true love of mine. The classic gin drinks are on almost every bar menu but I’d love to see some of the more obscure ones make a come back. We’ve only scratched the surface and I’m expecting big things from the big name cocktails bars with gin in 2019.

What’s next for 56 North and James Sutherland?

I’ve got some major plans this year. I never stand still, I always believe unless you’re taking three steps forwards everyone else will make at least one or two steps to catch up to you so a business needs to be running not walking!

We’ve already added a new tasting room to 56 North over January. Our amazing masterclass program can develop even more than ever. The gin experience side of 56 North is 8 years old, which is mad now I think about it! At last count we’ve had 37k people enjoy some sort of gin experience masterclass, tasting or gin tour with us. I guess we are therefore partly responsible for Scotland’s love of gin…

The biggest news is the launch of our own gin and spirits brand from the distillery at 56 North. We fitted our two stills to the bar in January 2018. Lindsay Blair, formally of Daffy’s Gin, joined our team in October 2018 having done a masters in brewing and distilling at Heriot Watt. Her remit was very simple and I guess semi ‘dragons den’ from Richard and I, we simply told her – “we have the stills, so go and do something amazing with them and we will support it all the way”. She’s been very busy and we’re almost at the point of having it ready to share with the wider public. I’m delighted with everything relating to the new brand and liquids (yes there are two launch gins) , which are simply brilliant, so I’m beyond excited for everyone to try it.

Richard and I decided it was right to give the gin it’s own brand identity and name, so it won’t be called 56 North Gin. This is a very conscious decision to give it space to grow outside our walls and for Lindsay and the team. Equally, I’m always very aware of doing the right thing and being respectful to the brands I do so much with in 56 North as well as personally. They are all great people and so good to us. They deserve the respect that 56 North stays what it is, which is, in my eyes, the home of gin in Scotland and this would be muddied if we called a gin after it. As you can imagine, the whole team are super excited with the project. We’ve had everyone from the chefs to front of house involved, helping with input and ideas, which I’ve loved watching.

On the personal side, I want to continue the work in 56 North and keep pushing people to buy from Scottish producers, enjoy gin and continue to help do my bit as a small cog in the gin machine. The Talk Gin Podcast I do with Sean Murphy from the Scotsman is always superb fun to do. We both want to keep plugging away with this as we both enjoy it massively.

Before I sign off, I’d just like to add a wee personal thanks to all our loyal customers, brilliant brands, tireless wholesalers and suppliers. Without each and every one of you, none of what is above works. It’s you as good customers who supports these people and their jobs.  I hold this dear and you have my respect and endless thanks for it.

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