Edinburgh Gin has established its place at the forefront of the vibrant Scottish craft gin scene with their award-winning, innovative range of spirits.
We caught up with Alex Nicol, Edinburgh Gin’s founder, to learn more about the various love stories that have come together to create your special edition Valentine’s Gin – from a love of fine spirits and experimentation, to the love that fuels this family business.
In Scotland, land of whisky, the gin business is booming. In fact, 70% per cent of gin currently produced in the UK can lay claim to Scottish roots. While much of that may be attributable to the fact that spirits giant Diageo now produces Gordon’s and Tanqueray in Fife, there has undoubtedly been a huge increase in the numbers of smaller, craft Scottish gins over the past few years.
While this of course reflects a wider growth in the craft gin market across the UK and beyond, it is also something that is emerging from a deeply rooted history and culture of distilling in Scotland. Many of these new gins have come from whisky producers who, attracted by gin’s growing popularity and the relative simplicity of gin distilling, have found new ways to make use of their equipment and their expertise.
Whether they have entered the gin world via the whisky route, or made their distilling debut with gin, the new breed of Scottish gin distillers is making use of the spirit’s flexibility to showcase indigenous botanicals and create distinctively Scottish gins that are taking the world by storm.
None more so, perhaps, than the distillers of our February Gin of the Month, Edinburgh Gin, who were recently named the fastest growing gin brand by market research giants Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS). The last year especially has been huge for the now five-year-old family business. But Edinburgh Gin’s roots go further back than that, and are entwined around whisky, the spirits business and family.
A FINE SPIRITS HERITAGE
At the heart of the brand are husband and wife team Alex and Jane Nicol.
Alex is something of a drinks industry veteran, starting off in the business in 1985 as marketing manager working on both Plymouth Gin and Beefeater. It was at this point, while based in London, that he met Jane, who was working in market research for companies including BT.
“We met in Maida Vale, in a bar,” Alex remembers. “She said ‘do you want to come to a party?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m going back to watch Match of the Day, QPR are playing I can’t miss it!’.” Luckily though, fate intervened, and the pair bumped into each other again at another party the following day – “and well…we’ve been married 31 years!”
In the course of those years, Alex continued to grow his spirits knowledge, going on to work at Glenmorangie whisky for 10 years, before holding various executive directorships at firms including Beefeater Gin and Laphroaig, before ending up in what he calls his “last proper job” at Whyte & Mackay in 2003.
It was couple of years later, as he turned 50, that Alex decided to make the jump and set up his own distilling business, with the purchase of two existing whisky brands from Whyte & Mackay.
And so The Spencerfield Spirit Company was born in June 2005, with Alex as MD and Jane as company secretary. The name was taken from the farmhouse 17 miles outside Edinburgh, where the Nicol family have lived for the past 25 years.
The two brands that Spencerfield took on, Sheep Dip and Pigs’ Nose, “had a history, but no one was looking after them,” Alex explains. Sheep Dip, which has been going since the 1970s, was the best-selling malt whisky in Harrod’s in 1980. “It was a cult-y sort of brand then, everyone in the business knew it – but it just wasn’t doing anything.”
In the Nicol’s capable hands, both brands have been revived and are once again selling well, “enough to keep the lights on at home” Alex says, “or rather, used to keep the lights on at home – now it’s gin that does that!”.
The Spencerfield foray into gin was fated from the start, say Alex. “Because I worked so long for Beefeater and Plymouth Gin and I enjoyed gin anyway. I had a clear idea what gin is.”
Indeed, Alex recalls that in the company’s first ever real press coverage – two double-page spreads in Jamie Oliver’s inaugural magazine no less – “we were saying ‘we want to do a gin – we’ve got two whiskies but we want to do a gin.”
QUEST FOR GINTELLIGENCE
In establishing Edinburgh Gin, the mission was clear for Alex. “Two things: the first aim was to make a gin that I recognised as gin, that was juniper-forward, London Dry and something that I’d like to drink with tonic. Basically, a good gin that I would drink. And then I wanted to experiment because I think it’s such a malleable spirit.”
From the beginning, Alex also knew he wanted this experimentation to be based on real expertise. While he is well-versed in the business of spirits, he’s the first to admit that he’s not, by trade, a distiller.
“A lot of people say ‘oh it’s easy to distil – all you do is x, y and z’. It’s not. It’s really important that you know what you’re doing.”
“It’s just like I’m not a joiner and so I wouldn’t charge anyone to – well I couldn’t make you a set of stairs or something. So I don’t expect people to buy quality products, premium products, from somebody who isn’t a qualified distiller.”
Luckily, there was a prime source of distilling expertise right on Alex’s doorstep. Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt university is the only UK institution to offer both Honours and Master’s degrees in Brewing and Distilling. It’s been offering classes in these crafts for more than 100 years and is the home to the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, which not only supplies the industry with graduates (who compete fiercely to get on the course), but also with research expertise and facilities.
Alex established a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with the university, through which Edinburgh Gin continues to explore new products, also giving students the chance to pick up real-world industry experience.
Heriot-Watt was also where they would later find their Head Distiller, David Wilkinson, who was pursuing a distilling PhD at the university when he was recommended to Alex by his professors.
With this weight of distilling expertise behind him, Alex set about looking for a location for his new gin distillery. Aware of Edinburgh’s history as a location for making gin (of which more in the following pages) he knew he wanted to be in the heart of the city.
“I was looking to open a place up by The Royal Mile, next to the castle,” Alex explains, “but it was taking forever. Then somebody told me about a basement that was empty. I went to see the landlord and said ‘I want it’ – and within a week we’d agreed it and had moved in within a month. It was great!”
This basement, a former nightclub beneath the Rutland Hotel in Princes Street, is an unusual location for a gin distillery, but it’s one that’s worked out well for Alex – not least because it’s also home to a cocktail bar, Heads & Tales (our February Gin Joint of the Month, see p22). The two businesses feed into each other, swapping knowledge and creating new recipes together.
It was in this underground ‘wonderland’ that Edinburgh Gin’s two custom-built copper stills, Flora and Caledonia, began producing the distillery’s signature gin five years ago.
With this gin, Alex says, “we tried to give a classic London Dry gin a twist with milk thistle, pine and heather,” he explains. The gin is made using a wheat base spirit, which Alex says he prefers for its lightness “If you use barley, it gives you a creamier mouth feel, but I prefer it to be light and dry for gin.”
With a combination of 13 botanicals in total, the gin has a distinctively soft, Scottish flavour: clean fresh and spicy on the nose, with pine, heathery scented notes and soft spice with laid back citrus on the palate.
SPIRIT OF GINNOVATION
This signature gin has proved a huge success and is now sold around the world, including the US, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Belgium and Scandinavia. But Edinburgh Gin didn’t stop there. Drawing on their relationship with Heriot-Watt, they have continued to develop new products and flavours. “Our innovation is driving our business and the company,” says Alex.
These innovations include Cannonball, a Navy strength gin at 57.3% ABV, which won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) last year, and also a Seaside Gin, developed with the distillery by four Heriot-Watt graduate students. This unusual gin uses ground ivy, scurvygrass and bladder wrack seaweed. “[The students] did a great job,” Alex says, “it’s really very good.”
The distillery has also had great success with their Christmas Gin, developed by Head Distiller David as a PhD project and made with Frankincense and Myrrh. “No gold,” jokes Alex, “because we’re Scottish.”
Pushing the possibilities of gin even further are the team’s extremely popular range of fruit gin liqueurs. “I didn’t want to do a sloe gin – everyone does a sloe gin. Your mum used to do sloe gin,” explains Alex. Instead, they used local produce to create Scottish fruit gins. Available in raspberry, rhubarb and ginger, and elderflower varieties, they’re fantastic added to sparkling wine or Champagne and have proved a real hit in bars around Edinburgh – and beyond.
Then, of course, there’s the Valentine’s Gin in your box this month. This very limited edition is made using all natural products including chamomile, lemon balm and lemongrass. The gin’s pink hue comes from the gentles infusion of macerated rose petals and hibiscus flowers.
“As every gin should have, it’s got juniper forward,” Alex tells us, “then there’s some citrus in there, coriander and so on – and the key new ingredients are hibiscus and rose petals, which make it really special.”
The innovation demonstrated by the Edinburgh Gin team is really important to Alex. “I like experimenting with flavours,” he says “as long as it’s controlled and replicable, it’s interesting.”
He also believes the appetite for innovation is a key reason that craft gin in general is growing in popularity so quickly, but that this pioneering spirit is absent from the larger distillers. “They should be leading in innovation, but there’s no real interest, there’s no real stories there. Their focus is: ‘what’s the shelf yield in Sainsbury’s?’.”
And Alex, of course, speaks from experience on this matter. “I’ve done it, I’ve been a marketing director for a big company and that’s what we were asking.”
He continues: “Craft distillers, I can tell you, don’t think about that. They think about – they get really excited about – ‘Can we put twice the amount of juniper in this? If we put in more coriander what would happen?’. And that’s more interesting for people who are better educated, who want to know what they’re drinking.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
While Spencerfield Spirits has grown quickly – “we started with just three of us and now there are 20 of us!” – it’s still a long way from being one of those ‘big distillers’. At heart, it is very much still a family business, with Alex and Jane joined by their son, Finlay, who manages the distillery (“he used to be a chef in Paris, so he has a very good palate”), and their daughter Hattie, who handles the distillery’s events. Their other daughter, Hannah, also helps out part-time when she has a moment free from studying law – she is due to qualify next year.
So what’s it like working so closely with family? “It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s good fun as well,” says Alex. “The problem is shutting up when you get home. You can’t, you’re still thinking about it. So we have to make a rule that after a certain hour you can’t talk about it anymore, because it’s driving me crazy!”
It looks like there’s going to be much more for the Edinburgh Gin team to be talking about in 2016, with a second distillery, complete with a new 1000 litre pot still, due to open soon in Leith. There is also a big US launch planned, along with further expansion across Europe and the UK. Even the distillery tours – which include the chance to make, bottle and take home your own gin – are sold out until March.
As they go on to conquer new frontiers at the vanguard of the Scottish gin renaissance, we’re sure Edinburgh Gin will remain true to Alex’s original twin aims of making great gin while staying innovative. We certainly can’t wait to see what marvels emerge from their subterranean gin wonderland next…