For decades A.K. Stirling farmed the land of the Arbikie Estate, instilling in his three sons respect for hard work and a deep love of the land. So when it came time for these farm-boys-turned-craft-distillers to christen their latest single estate Scottish gin, they knew just who the namesake would be.
There’s something special about the Arbikie Estate. To the east, the Lunan Bay stretches into the waters of the North Sea. To the west, farmlands roll gently to the foothills of the highlands. Under the verdant earth of the estate bubbles a lagoon of the purest Highland water.
As David Stirling, who grew up on this land, says, “It’s the perfect place. We’re shaped by the natural power of the salt and sea, and have a mild climate with long summer hours. If you looked all around the world for the perfect place to make spirits, it would have to be here.”
Tucked away on the road between Dundee and Aberdeen, Arbikie is home to the line of incredible craft spirits that shares its name. From chilli vodka to the beautiful bottle of AK’s Gin in December's Gin of the Month box, the origins of each ingredient in every bottle can be traced back to this land – to the green fields of Arbikie, where David and his three brothers spent their childhood milking cows.
“This really does start in the fields,” David says. “It’s not something that was dreamed up in a marketing department. Making our own base spirit, which not many distillers do, and being able to trace everything back to the fields is so important to us. There are very few distilleries in the world that can do it.”
Under the watchful gaze of Kirsty Black and Christian Perez, Arbikie’s dynamic distilling duo, this farmland has been turning out incredible craft spirits since 2013. In fact, Arbikie is home to Scotland’s first single estate gin – Kirsty’s Gin, which can trace every single one of its botanicals back to a patch of this fair and fertile land.
It’s a business that has helped the Stirling brothers promote the causes of sustainability and integrity, but it’s also one that has brought three brothers – once separated by oceans – back to the place they call home.
The Arbikie Boys
Like many farm children, John, Iain and David Stirling grew up working the land that had been in their family for decades.
Their family has been farming wheat, potatoes and barley at the Arbikie Estate for four generations now, and for the Stirling brothers it was an education like no other.
As David explains: “We had to learn all 500 varieties of potatoes, and it was very much hands-on. Where the distillery is now used to be a cowshed, where we milked the cows twice a day. It was very much a lifestyle.”
A lifestyle that the brothers didn’t have much interest in continuing into adulthood – at least at first. John became an accountant, following his job to the Caribbean island of Turks and Caicos, while David and Iain were drawn to the bright lights of the big city, and even overseas.
Through spending time in America, the Stirling brothers became familiar with the craft beer scene. They saw how upstarts from places like Vermont – a little corner of the Northeastern US where the landscape’s beauty is rivalled only by the bounty of its natural resources – were beating massive corporate brewers at their own game.
Vermont had always reminded them of home. But it was in New York City that it all came together. Having invested in an NYC bar – Highlands NYC – the brothers were taking inventory when the idea clicked.
David says, “We were looking at all of the different bottles behind the bar and noticing that Scotland was producing so many top-quality spirits. And we thought, why not do it ourselves?”
At around the same time, they discovered an old map of the Arbikie Estate with a little corner marked ‘distillery’, indicating that spirits had been distilled on the property since the 18th century. It was a sign that they couldn’t ignore.
With a rich heritage of distilling right on their property, a whole farm at their disposal to grow beautiful botanicals and a foothold in a world-class spirts-producing region, their dream of creating sustainable spirits with clearly traceable provenance was looking entirely possible.
So the brothers packed up, moved back to Scotland and started looking for a master distiller to help them craft spirits like no other.
Christian Perez and Kirsty Black – the distilling geniuses that would go on to craft the fine spirits of Arbikie – met after a long day in class. A former winemaker with a decade of international experience, Christian had come to Scotland to attend a world-renowned distilling course. But when he met his future partner in crime, she was drinking something altogether more quotidian: a humble pint.
He says, “I met her drinking beer – she was having a pint in the pub after a long day in class. It was right at the beginning of the year, when nobody knows each other. We never thought that we would end up working together.”
But when the Arbikie boys tapped Kirsty to help them out at their new farm-to-bottle distillery, she knew just who she wanted on her team.
In winemaking, it’s much more common to work with ingredients grown on your property than it is in spirits distilling; Christian’s experience in that world translated perfectly to the Stirling’s vision of a single estate distillery, and his yen for experimentation chimed perfectly with Kirsty’s adventurous spirit.
These days, the master distillers at Arbikie are constantly experimenting and creating. Their current range incudes a potato vodka, a chilli vodka, Kirsty’s Gin (which has a potato spirit base) and the newly introduced AK’s Gin in December's Gin of the Month box. Everything – from the potatoes that make the vodka to the juniper berries distilled for the gins – is grown on Arbikie’s land.
And, rarely for the spirits world, Kirsty and Christian make the base spirit for their gins.
“Kirsty and Christian have total control,” David says. “There are no shortcuts. It’s their fine art.”
“I think it’s super important to have the upper hand and make your own base spirit,” Christian says. “Not only because it feels good, but because it gives you the freedom to determine the flavour of your base spirit, which is a dominant characteristic in your gin.”
For Kirsty’s Gin, the first single-estate gin in Scotland, Arbikie’s distillers decided to go for a potato base. Made from the farm’s potatoes – good potatoes that have been rejected by produce buyers for their odd sizes and shapes – the potato vodka that becomes Kirsty’s Gin is a remarkable expression of this very special place.
Christian says, “Potato vodka is an interesting process. We don’t add water to it, so you’re relying entirely on acquiring the full expression of the land’s terroir. With the potatoes, the flavour comes from the soil and what happens during the season, and each variety has a very particular flavour profile. We’re still discovering.”
All of Arbikie’s spirits are distilled in their two copper pot stills, which the Stirling brothers have named after their mother and father. Their parents, David explains, have always been a huge inspiration. The bottle of gin in this month's box is yet another tribute to a man who means so much to his three sons.
The bottle of gin in December's box is named after A.K. Stirling, the father of David, Iain and John. When it came time to make their second gin, they knew that they wanted to pay tribute to the man who had taught them to work hard and follow their dreams.
David says, “It’s all about the character of my father, what he likes and enjoys. He’s been a massive inspiration. It’s his passion – whether it’s farming, distilling, mixology, it’s all about passion.”
Unlike Kirsty’s Gin, which uses a base spirit distilled from the farm’s potatoes, AK’s Gin is built on a wheat spirit base. It’s quite a departure, but one that Christian maintains was carefully thought through.
He explains, “We had trials with wheat and rye spirits, but we went with wheat because it gave us a beautiful, buttery character, which is introduced as an element of its own.”
Building on this beautiful, buttery base, Christian and Kirsty took inspiration from A.K.’s favourite things. His favourite food, honey, was a natural starting point. Sourced from a nearby beekeeper for this first batch, the Arbikie boys have since set up hives of their own on the farm.
The honey is joined by mace, black pepper, thistle and calamus root, which are bound together into a cohesive whole by more traditional gin botancials like juniper and orris root. All in all, it’s a wonderful expression of A.K.’s personality – and a delicious gin, to boot.
David says, “It’s super smooth. If you’re a traditionalist you would probably drink it neat or in a Martini. Even in a Negroni it will shine through in terms of how simple yet complex the flavour profile is. It goes back to the raw materials – it’s all home grown, and you can trace the flavours right back to the field.”
As for Christian, he prefers to enjoy this spectacular spirit stripped back and on the rocks.
“I’m a purist,” he says. “Grab your bottle of gin, put it in the freezer, have a dram and tell me what you taste. You can feel the weight of it in your mouth – all of those beautiful essential oils come alive as your mouth becomes warm. The spirit never lies.”