With a whisky spirit casked on the edge of the Atlantic, a Click and Collect service newly introduced and an investment into the island’s community there is much to talk about with the youthful Harris Distillers.
The Fountain spoke with Managing Director of the organisation, Simon Erlanger, about this notion of ‘the Social Distillery,’ the history of the company and what we can hope to expect from them in the near future.
TF: Can you explain what the Harris Distillers offers, a bit of background and its history?
So in terms of background this was the brainchild of our chairman, called Anderson Bakewell, who’s a musicologist but has been connected with Harris for about half a century. He fell in love with it when he was a young student when they were on holiday and since then has become incredibly involved with the island. And I suppose in that half a century the population has more or less halved from about four thousand then to just under two thousand today. And in that time certain initiatives have been brought to fruition, some of which lasted, some of which haven’t lasted and I think he has pondered quite often, what can you do to address this population decline in a way that would actually be sustainable, that would be sympathetic to the island? That was his first thought. The second thought he had, the romantic in him, was there some way you could bottle the essence of this place.
Harris is an extraordinary place, it is so beautiful and it’s so unspoiled. How could you bottle the essence of Harris and spread the word to a wider world and I suppose it was the compliment of these two thoughts that gave him the idea of the distillery which is strange because he’s not a whisky drinker, he’s not a whisky lover and knew nothing about the industry whatsoever but this was the idea that probably came to him some ten years ago. So he did a lot of research, he’s a very thoughtful gentleman, he talked to people in the industry, ask questions, most people thought it was quite interesting but a silly thing to do. But he’s quite tenacious. In Dec 2007 he formed the company, Harris Distillers Ltd, that’s what it was on paper and searched around the island to find a site to build the distillery, which was not obvious as Harris is mainly rock and peat.
Finding a place flat enough to put in a distillery with a good water source is quite difficult. Actually staring him in the face was an infill site in the village of Tarbert which is the main village on the island, the ferry terminal from the Isle of Skye. It was just the most perfect location because up there on the hills behind the distillery is a water source with two reservoirs which holds some of the softest water of any distillery in Scotland.
So you’ve got the right place and water so the next step was talking to the islanders because he was also very conscious that the last thing they would need is something imposed upon them. They would really need to buy into this. They were quite sceptical about the new initiative. It took several years to warm them up to the idea of the distillery. All of these things came together to make this happen but he needed people from the industry to take him to the next stage so I was recruited as a consultant at the time and another director, who was the CFO from Whyte & Mackay, Ron MacEachran, was also recruited as a consultant. We put the plan together and then spent eighteen months raising the funds. In March 2014 we got everything together and started building and eighteen months later in October 2015 we opened our doors.
TF: What inspired you to get involved with the Isle of Harris Distillers?
I have got thirty years of experience in the whisky industry of building single malt whisky brands around the world. And I left my previous employer which was the Glenmorangie company when we sold to a French organisation. I went solo for a few years helping other niche distillers with their commercial strategy and business development and I was in France actually on business for one small distillery and I got a phone call from a head-hunter in Glasgow. “I have a somewhat eccentric brief for you Simon. There’s a gentleman who would like to build a distillery on the Isle of Harris.” It was just one of those moments where you think “this is ridiculous, I have been in the industry for thirty years and no-one has ever thought of building a distillery in this place.”
I had not been to Harris but it just conjured up so much, like Harris Tweed of course, which it has built its reputation around. You know that it is something very special, that the island is a beautiful place, you know that it is out there on the edge of the Atlantic. As a marketer it was an opportunity to do something different. And the crucial thing was meet Anderson and learning about why he wanted to do this, the social ethos of it, the idea of a once in a lifetime opportunity to create something from scratch, which is going to, if successful, not only create twenty-five to thirty direct jobs on the island but hopefully act as a catalyst for growth in the area. It was a wonderful opportunity. That was what enticed me.
TF: What is ‘The Social Distillery’?
The Social Distillery is just a nickname we gave ourselves because of this idea of being for the Isle of Harris, that is what we are there for, our primary value. As we put the thoughts together as to how we were going to run this business, all the way through we are thinking of ways in which we can involve the islanders, involve the community. So for example, a very basic thing was that we were going to recruit everybody from the island so that means that we won’t have anybody that knows about making whisky or gin. So all of our distillers are completely new to the industry and having a team of eighteen core people, twenty-six in the summer, all of whom are islanders, there’s a passion and commitment there, a sense of family. So we are all on this extraordinary adventure together to help make this distillery a success. What we lack in experience as a team we more than make up for in this extraordinary passion.
The community will help to decide when the whisky is ready in a few years time. There is a consortium of local crofters that take away a trailer full of barley. I think we nearly feed all of the islands cattle so that’s our symbiotic relationship if you like. For me a big priority is helping the youth find ways of staying on the island so not only have we employed two or three school leavers already. I am involved with the school in Stornoway, the school in Tarbert personal studies classes preparing them for the world of work, showing them the distillery. We are offering work placements to potential school leavers. We have set up ourselves up straight away as partners to the education system. Every day we think how can we contribute to Harris life. We have resources that most other local businesses don’t have so we are very sensitive about not competing with local businesses.
TF: It’s not just gin you offer now is it. You do also distill whisky, am I not mistaken?
Well of course it doesn’t exist yet. We only started distilling it in April 2016 so what we have is not whisky, we have a nine month old spirit in oak casks enjoying the Harris climate. So what we have done, we influence as much as we possibly can. The design of our stills to the recipes that we use, and the way we ferment and the way we distil, a recipe to create a whisky carrying what we call character. Once we have done that we put it into a wooden barrel and we make sure that all of our casks are from single source suppliers. They are fresh, they are the best we can buy and that’s how much we can influence. So then we put it into the warehouse and it sits on the Atlantic coast, it gets the full brunt of the weather of this elemental island. We are told that the Harris climate should be very conducive for a fine single malt, because of the weather, the patterns that exist there. The exciting thing about this project really is we don’t know.
If all goes well, we think within about four years we should have a whisky that we are happy with. But we won’t put anything in a bottle until we are convinced that it is perfect.
TF: And moving back to the gin how do we have the fortune of getting our hands on the lovely Isle of Harris gin? I heard through the grapevine that you are going to be using “pick-up-points” as well as stockists…
Well, we have a very unusual approach. Via The Social Distillery idea I thought from the very beginning that it would be a great to connect directly with all of our consumers and engage with them directly. By seeing us at Summerhall then we have made a connection, and we can start talking to them about Harris and about the island, and encourage more tourists to the islands. So you can’t buy Harris gin in any shops, but you can buy it in selected restaurants, bars and hotels. We have an online shop, which is great as it creates more jobs for those on the island. We can send bottles to your home with a nice handwritten note with it but what I realised is that’s fine but some people don’t want to wait three days for a bottle of Harris gin. So I came up with this idea of a ‘click and collect’ service and the idea there is to work with independent retailers, like 181 Deli or Eteaket. There are about twenty that are doing this service and again, it keeps it very personal. From a marketing perspective it is good to be able to stand out from a very crowded gin category now. It just makes us a little bit different.
For more on the distillery and Isle of Harris gin, do click here.