How did two lawyers, with no background in the drinks industry, end up producing what has been named the best London Dry Gin in the world – as well as winning the custom of some exciting VVIPs? The answer lies in a commitment to classic flavours and high quality ingredients. Oh, and a quite bit of hard work as well.
When husband and wife, Steve and Vivienne Muir began distilling botanicals in an old pressure cooker on their kitchen stove, it’s fair to say they weren’t expecting the resulting spirit to end up in the hands of royalty and rock stars. Yet, just a few years down the line, that’s exactly where their gin journey has led them.
The NB Gin story starts in North Berwick – the Scottish town that gives the distillery its name – in 2010. Steve and Vivienne were both working as lawyers but had decided that wanted to try starting their own business and knew that the drink industry was something they were interested in. Steve had been dabbling with home brewing and thought that beer might be the way he wanted to go, but Vivienne had other ideas.
“My response to that was ‘well if I have to sell it then it would be the equivalent of you selling a handbag because I just don’t feel passionate about it!’ I need to feel passionate about what I’m selling.”
The couple’s shared passion, as our luck would have it, lay in gin. “There’s nothing we loved more than sitting and having a gin and tonic – so we thought ‘let’s try gin’,” Vivienne remembers.
The intrepid pair started a process of research and experimentation in their kitchen with a contraption made up of what Vivienne describes as “my mother’s old pressure cooker and some central heating pipes.”
With Steve leading the practical side of experiments, they tested a range of botanicals – at that point simply pressure steaming them with water – to begin learning about how different flavour elements worked together.
Having successfully obtained a rectifier’s licence, the pair were able to begin using alcohol for their trials, purchasing a glass laboratory still to further refine their research. “We set up our kitchen as a ginnery,” Vivienne explains, “Steve would put the gin glass still on in the kitchen at night, and it was timed to go off. So I used to wake up in the morning not to the smell of coffee but to the smell of gin, for a long time!”
THE PATH TO PERFECTION
Throughout this process, both Vivienne and Steve had a very clear idea of what they were aiming for – something that was very definitely a classic London Dry gin, but with its own unique flavour profile.
“We like London Dry as a product. You get a fantastic longevity of flavour with a London Dry. Only when we researched it did we realise it’s actually the most complicated of gins to actually make! But the results are phenomenal,” Vivienne explains.
“We wanted to create a classic, gin-lovers gin,” she continues, “so when you open the bottle, there is no doubt that you’re going to have a gin and tonic.”
Rather than worrying about unusual or particularly local ingredients, the focus from the outset when it came to botanicals was on quality, wherever in the world they might be sourced from.
“We have a no-gimmick approach,” Vivienne elaborates. “We didn’t want to go and collect some seaweed off the beach or something similar just to say that it’s a bit different. We wanted a classic, highest quality gin that had a very distinct flavour profile.”
With the firm belief that “less is better with botanicals”, Steve’s experiments finally led to a combination of just eight, classic ingredients that encapsulated the taste he had been striving for: juniper; coriander seed; angelica root; grains of paradise; cassia bark; ground cardamom; lemon peel and orris root powder.
With the perfect blend achieved, the couple held a series of blind tastings, serving a panel of gin aficionados their own homemade batch alongside all the major brands. Vivienne remembers, “when we came first, we kind of looked at each other and knew it was now maybe worth going for it and getting some proper premises!”
This next step also, of course, involved investing in a proper still. “For us it was about getting the recipe right and then we had to get the still aligned to that,” says Vivienne.
So the Muirs commissioned John Dore & Co., the oldest still makers in the world, to create a still tailor-made for their special recipe. Their copper pot still – named Gloria after the motto on the North Berwick coat of arms – was installed in the new NB premises in August 2013.
Despite limited resources and a labour-intensive process (“We started with just a tiny room, a still, a table, a glass jug and a hand-labeller we bought from eBay!”), the couple worked quickly and the first batch of NB Gin was ready to launch just two months later, in October 2013.
While the pair had prepared meticulously when it came to perfecting their gin, their business plan wasn’t quite so advanced. “At that stage we had no real ambitions other than to make a gin that we loved and that we could potentially sell locally,” Vivienne tells us. If there was a bigger ambition, it was a vague idea of perhaps reaching as far as Edinburgh by 2014.
“So we were really not prepared for what did happen when we launched locally,” Vivienne says, “because there was really quite an overwhelming demand for our product!” Rather than just reaching Edinburgh, by May 2014 NB Gin was being distributed UK-wide, as well as exporting to Germany and Spain. Since then the team has constantly been in a position which, as Vivienne says “is a really positive position!” of trying to catch up with the growth of the company.
Today, while Steve retains the role of Master Distiller – and also ‘Senior Perfectionist’ – he remains a full-time lawyer, a job he loves. Vivienne’s brother Steve, who began helping out at weekends early on in the distillery’s development, now works for NB full time, managing all the day-to-day production in the distillery.
Vivienne also joined the business full-time last year, having previously juggled not only her full-time job as a lawyer but also looking after two young children. She tells us, “I was working during the night and going to the day job – it was horrendous!”.
FROM STRENGTH TO NAVY STRENGTH
The team’s hard work has been rewarded with widespread critical acclaim, beginning with a silver medal in the Micro Distillery category in the 2014 Gin Masters (just nine months after launch), then followed by a silver at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. In March 2015, NB Gin was named the World’s Best London Dry Gin at the World Drinks Awards, after being selected by an international panel of experts over three rounds of judging – an achievement Vivienne describes as “overwhelming and emotional”.
Overwhelming perhaps, but Vivienne’s firm belief in the quality of her gin is clear – as she said when she and Steve started out, she needed a product she could be passionate about and she has found it. “It’s just a classic high quality gin,” she enthuses.
“Even from the minute that you open that bottle, the smell is phenomenal. And the flavour is so well-balanced. You get a hit of juniper, a beautiful natural citrus flavour, some warm spice and then a final flourish of juniper at the end – and you get that beautiful longevity of flavour in your mouth.”
The Navy Strength Gin in your box this month has all of these qualities but, as Steve describes it, is like “NB Gin on steroids!”. This gin is made in exactly the same way as the original NB Gin, but with a higher ABV – 57% compared to 42%. Navy Strength gins are always bottled at 57 % ABV, based on the requirement that the Royal British Navy had for gins in the early 1800s.
The extra alcohol increases the concentration of the gin’s flavours. As Vivienne explains: “It is essentially just a stronger NB Gin, but all the botanicals are so much more intense.” Intense, yes, but despite the high alcohol content, it’s still an incredibly smooth gin.
While the Navy Strength version of the gin was first produced in mid-2014, NB only produced a very limited amount, just for local distribution, which sold out very quickly. “We were so busy with our main product that we almost kept it tucked away.,” Vivienne explains. “We didn’t actually market it or anything. So with you guys, this is the first time that it’s really gone out significantly in the marketplace.”
The team are excited about getting wider appreciation of what they’re sure is a great product, and can’t wait to hear what Craft Gin Club Members think of it.
The distillery’s latest product is NB London Dry Citrus Vodka, which was born of an accident while Steve was experimenting with gin. At one point he thought “what happens to a gin when it has no juniper in?”. He tried a distillation with just a few botanicals, tasted it and realised it was in fact a fantastic vodka, so he “parked it in his brain” until he had time to revisit it and launch it properly last year.
The vodka is a unique product because, whereas most commercial vodkas create a base spirit and add flavouring at the end, NB uses naturally distilled botanicals using the London Dry process. This creates a natural citrus flavour that is really subtle and, as Vivienne says, “pairs beautifully with tonic and ice in the summer”.
FAME COMES CALLING
As NB Gin’s reach and reputation has grown, some exciting and unexpected opportunities have come their way – all materialising in the form of surprise phone calls.
The first of these came in 2014 from Johnny Roxburgh, celebrated ‘party architect’ to the Queen and the royal family. He had tasted the gin in a farm shop in St Andrew’s and had loved it. He called Vivienne and said “you don’t who I am, but I want to start serving your gin on my menus. Can I buy it from you?”. Suffice to say, the answer was yes!
While Vivienne can’t comment on whether the Queen definitely drinks their gin, we think that given Mr Roxburgh’s regal connections, it’s a pretty safe bet (and her majesty’s fondness for gin is, after all, well-documented). What is for sure is that NB was the only gin to be included in the official commemorative publication for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations. As well as celebrating the Queen’s life, the publication showcases a selection of different UK and Commonwealth organisations and businesses, with NB being included in the area of ‘luxury lifestyle’.
The second surprise phone call came in early 2015, after Vivienne had sent a bottle of gin to a bar owner in London to thank him for recommending a London distributor for her. “Unknown to me,” she explains, “he was very good friends with the chap who organises the BRITS and he came along and drank our gin with him one night. He then called me up saying ‘you don’t know who I am, but you do know my friend and we drank your gin together and loved it’.”
To cut a long story short, he asked to feature the gin at the official BRIT awards after-party and Vivienne happily accepted. “It was really quite phenomenal going up the red carpet and seeing on the brand board next to the Sony sign, NB Gin,” she remembers.
The gin was such a big hit that they were asked to return to the BRITs in 2016 and the team had another great evening partying with the stars – including Mark Ronson, who was lucky enough to receive a G&T from Vivienne herself while he played a DJ set!
The final surprise phone call came from Rolls Royce, who got in touch after a member had tasted and loved their gin, to say they wanted to include them in their annual selection of the top 100 brands in the world. The resulting publication was showcased in an exhibition at the Saatchi gallery in London and launched with yet another VIP-studded event.
While it’s certainly nice to have celebrities and royalty beating a path to their door, Vivienne insists that their focus is not on building a ‘luxury’ brand.
“The luxury angle has really come from other partners seeking us out,” she explains. “We wouldn’t pigeonhole ourselves into saying we only supply the luxury market. That’s not what we’re about. We’re just a very high quality gin that many enjoy, of which the luxury market is one aspect.”
We can’t help but agree on the matter of this fabulous gin’s quality – and we’re sure after you taste your June Gin of the Month, you will too.