Women of Gin

Debbie Strang, Shetland Reel.

Published: 18th April 2020

The UK’s most northerly distillery, based at the very northern tip of the small Shetland island of Unst, is the Saxa Vord Distillery, home to the Shetland Reel Scottish Gin expressions and range of Scottish Spirits. The Shetland Reel core range of Scottish Gins was created to reflect and capture life on the Shetland Islands and includes Shetland Reel Original, Shetland Reel Ocean Sent and Shetland Reel Simmer Gin.

Shetland Reel Original uses a variety of locally foraged botanicals in the distillation including apple mint along with classic gin botanicals to create a classic London Dry gin profile. Shetland Reel Ocean Sent was influenced by the vast oceans surrounding the island and includes native bladderwrack seaweed, while Simmer Gin was created as homage to Shetland’s summer twilight, know locally as the Simmer Dim. With bright, refreshing, warming botanicals including orange peel and cumin, Simmer Gin in name and flavour captures a summer evening on Shetland in a glass.

In our latest Women of Gin series, we caught up with Debbie Strang, co-founder of the Saxa Vord Distillery to discover more about Debbie’s own journey into the world of Scottish Gin and Scottish Spirits.

What’s your name and what do you do?

Debbie Strang and I am one of the co-founders and Directors of Shetland Distillery Company.

When did you realise you wanted to make spirits?

When we decided to set up the Shetland Distillery Company, it was in connection with the regeneration of the former RAF Saxa Vord base in Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in Shetland (and so the UK!)  There was a very large building on site (the former supplies depot) that was almost waiting to be converted to Shetland’s first distillery.

Tell us about your gin journey so far.

When we started out, we had the experience of doing business in Shetland and the additional logistical challenges, we had the unique selling point of being the most northerly, and we had a building, but no experience in the drinks sector so there have been challenges and learning curves along the way. I am ex-Air Force and worked for the Cairngorms National Park Authority for several years in economic development before becoming involved in Shetland businesses.

How did you get into the spirits industry?

I sought out one of the most renowned whisky distillers in the UK, Stuart Nickerson, to see if he might be interested in partnering with us to set up a distillery, and whilst creating Shetland’s Single Malt was the original aim, we decided to distil gin first, and went into full-time production in October 2014.

Do you think more could be done to encourage women to seek a career in distillation and spirits?

I think there are some really inspirational women in Scottish distilling and it is fantastic to see, but we can all do more to encourage yet more to get involved and I certainly try to do this.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?

Our location, which sets us apart from other craft distilleries and is the inspiration for our gins, (whether it is by using local botanicals, or naming a gin in the local Shetland dialect), is our biggest challenge.  Ensuring bottles, labels and everything else arrives on time for scheduled distillations is key and once we’ve distilled, making sure we can get product to market (within the UK and overseas) is equally important. Five years on, we have had some near misses, but have just about ironed out all the glitches!

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to women who are starting off their career in spirits and distillation?

Working in a craft distillery is the best foundation for a career in spirits and distillation. In a small business, everyone has to be involved in every aspect of the business at times, and that understanding of how different functions relate to each other is absolutely invaluable.

What does the term Scottish Gin mean to you?

Scottish Gin covers the complete range of gin from the heavy hitters who have been around forever to the one and two person businesses who started with an idea and had the passion to create something very special.  There are some fantastic Scottish Craft Distilleries creating some wonderful products, and we are proud to be part of that movement.

What do you think are the big issues facing Scottish Gin at the moment?

Fortunately we now have a decision on Brexit – whether we like it or not, but we still don’t know exactly what that means for day to day operations. And of course, the current lockdown will have a massive impact on small businesses (including many of the Scottish craft gin makers), the drinks industry and supply chain. Most crucially all our on and off trade partners will be hit hard by the current situation. No one yet knows what the drinks industry, and the world, will look like post-lockdown but I suspect it will look very different and it will certainly be challenging.

What other distilleries do you admire?

There are lots of other distilleries to admire for lots of different reasons, some are doing very new innovative things, some have focussed on green credentials, some want to offer the best visitor experience and some are trying to do everything!  As someone reasonably new to the industry, I have really enjoyed the camaraderie that exists between craft distillers, whilst of course we are in competition with each other, there is a huge amount to be gained by supporting each other and working together.

Where do you see Shetland Reel and Scottish Gin in 10 years time?

In 10 years time, Shetland Reel Gin will still be sitting on the shelf alongside other excellent craft gin distillers, although I suspect the total number is likely to be less than it is now. We will have grown our exports to over 25 countries, building on our success to date of Germany, Belgium, Canada, Japan, to name but a few.  Further down the shelf, there will be a 7 year old Shetland Single Malt and perhaps a few other quality spirits. We are excited about the future of Shetland Reel and Scottish Gin and Spirits!

You can learn more about Shetland Reel here.

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