MEET THE TEAM SERIES
This is the first instalment of our ‘Meet the Team’ Series where we catch up with the people behind the brand. This week we feature the ‘genius behind the gin’ our Master Distiller Kirsty Black
What was your background before joining Arbikie?
It has been a somewhat long, twisted and convoluted road to get to Arbikie! After dismissing my high school guidance teacher’s assessment of becoming a brewer I headed to Edinburgh University from where, I graduated and fell into an entirely unrelated career in the medical device industry.
Eventually, nearly fifteen years later – it was time to go to Heriot-Watt University and study brewing and distilling. Working at the Caledonian Brewery and Barney’s Beer I crossed paths with the future owners of Summerhall Distillery and helped them set up the distillery and design Pickering’s Gin; my interest in distilling had truly piqued and it was time to move brewing to the garden shed. Which all leads us to today, at Arbikie, a true farm to bottle distillery that I’ve helped build from scratch. From bolting together the stills to figuring out how to get alcohol out of a potato I have ultimately combined my love of plants, distilling and a nerdy desire to simply figure out how things work!
What is the best part of your job?
With only two of us working full time in the actual distillery we have to manage every single aspect of keeping the place operating. This isn’t just the routine milling, mashing, distilling, packaging, and cask filling but also everything that goes on in the background. One day this might see me stuck in front of a computer doing the record keeping but the next could see us out in the fields planting botanicals, rebuilding a pump or unloading a lorry of casks. You’ve got to be on your toes: it’s the variation that I love.
What is the best way to enjoy an Arbikie drink?
I’m a big fan of classic cocktails that focus on the spirit itself: a bone dry martini or a gimlet are right up my street.
What’s your favourite tipple asides from Arbikie?
That’s a very hard question. For me it always about exploring and trying something new. The type of drink would depend on the occasion – a newly released gin sitting in the sun with friends or a good pint of ale by the fire in my local pub – both sound like bliss to me!
When you are not distilling, what do you like to do for fun?
I am also completing a PhD into the use of legumes in brewing & distilling and the potential for intercropping with existing Scottish arable crops. Although “fun” might not spring to mind, it is honestly interesting and takes up a lot of my spare time! But, when I am genuinely, free I spend my time trying to make things (maybe a new dress or a round of cheese) and exploring with my husband and friends (anything from a new restaurant to a new country).
What’s it like working for a new distillery?
It’s an amazing opportunity but a never-ending learning experience. I find myself constantly planning, solving problems, getting things organised and trying to figure out how things work!
We’ve been very fortunate that the estate already has such a wealth of experience and knowledge; not only for growing the fantastic crops that we use in the distillery but also a host of other useful skills – from welding to woodwork there isn’t much these guys can’t do. The few times we need external help there is nearly always a local company ready and eager to face the new challenges of the distillery.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to become a distiller?
I’d obtain a good technical base in distilling either through Heriot-Watt University or the IBD and then it’s all about getting out there – visit distilleries, volunteer at them, attend conferences, industry events etc to make sure you really understand what you are getting in to. It is a pretty special career to have but it isn’t quite the romantic, serene image some people might have!
What makes Arbikie different?
The farm (and the people), hands down. The rich red brown of the soil after ploughing so quickly becomes enveloped in green, it may sound corny, but seeing the fields change with the seasons never gets tiring. We are such a small team but each of us brings our own unique talents; we work super hard to make sure everything is done by us and the way would like.
How do you approach developing new products?
Every product is different but for me it is going right back to the basics and asking questions like “What is the structure of a potato?” or “What are the flavour compounds in that plant? Are they good, bad, stable?” Once you’ve developed a theoretical idea on how to make something then the trials can begin.
What’s it like having a gin named after you?
Making gin fuses two of my loves; plants and alcohol. This gin began during the summer I spent researching gin botanicals at Heriot-Watt where I got to pander to my passion for exploring the seemingly unassuming leaves, barks and roots that grow wild all over Scotland. For all of this work to end up in a gin that we sell on the market is a great honour.