Question: What do the Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House, and Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona have in common?
Answer - they’ve all provided a photographic backdrop for the now ‘world-famous’ Isle of Harris Gin.
Since the Harris distillery opened its doors in September of last year, the frenetic pace of supplying a seemingly insatiable demand for this special gin hasn’t abated.
Indeed, Simon Erlanger, Managing Director of Harris Distillers Ltd, admits he is ‘amazed’ by the reaction. “A week before we opened we had never even fired up the gin still.
“We had worked with Herriot Watt University for a year to establish a successful recipe and the stills were fired on the Friday before we opened. I got a text at 6am on Saturday morning after the boys had been up all night making gin.
“We called the Nosing Panel together on Tuesday lunchtime and it was a huge moment of truth. Thankfully they all loved it and it became hugely successful.”
Having anticipated sales of 2,500 bottles by the end of the year, Simon admits to being ‘blown away’ that final pre-Christmas sales are expected to report over 9,000 bottles sold.
It’s an even more impressive statistic considering that the gin is only available via the distillery itself. You can either walk in and buy it, or have it posted out to where you live.
“We also send a handwritten note with the gin so people will feel somehow connected to Harris” said Simon. “We stand apart because we only deal direct with our customers.”
For Simon Erlanger, the Isle of Harris Distillery represented a unique challenge after 25 years in the industry, having previously worked with the likes of Johnnie Walker, Glenmorangie, and Gordon’s.
“I had never before heard of a distillery being created with the prime objective of helping to regenerate the local economy, creating jobs directly and indirectly, acting as a catalyst for other enterprises and bringing more tourists to the island,” he said.
“This for me was a key point of difference. That’s why way back, before we had even got the money together, I wanted to create a set of values for the company that defined how we would operate as a business, how we would deal with people, how we would make products and how we would sell things.
“So we created a set of five values that we still live by and use them every day in deciding how to operate. This number one value is ‘for and with the isle of Harris’ and our third value is ‘nurturing belonging’, connecting with the people of the island but also bringing Harris to people around the world. These values, said Simon, are what make this distillery so special – it really is a ‘social distillery’.
“We are often brainstorming initiatives and ideas to see how we can involve the local community and its people,” he said. “Last year we had Santa Claus visit us, and we held a storytelling evening round our peat fire.
“We have a partnership with the crofters who come to the distillery and take away the spent barley and spread it to land to feed cattle. We are also working with local schools, who have done projects and even a pantomime on the distillery this year!
“We want people to know that they are welcome here and that this distillery is for them. The vast majority of distilleries are owned by large conglomerates.
“We are also here to return a profit for our shareholders but we have this social element which is completely different to anything I have ever come across.”
The distillery will produce the equivalent of 300,000 standard 70cl bottles a year of a single malt, known as ‘The Hearach’.
As we spoke, the distilling team were in the process of commissioning the whisky-making process. “Our gin has been hugely successful, and we are obviously delighted, but we never forget that what we are in business for is to create a single malt whisky and create a superb distinctive product that the island will be proud of and will help us to stand out from the crowd,” he said.
“The team are commissioning the plant with two consultants, along with suppliers and engineers who are working flat out, day and night, commissioning every aspect of the process. It will take several weeks of experimentation, but we laid down our first five casks just before Christmas.
“We’re now getting involved in the whole process - mashing and distilling. It is an unknown quantity because firstly you have to get the equipment working mechanically, and the second part is what we call optimization.
“That’s where we need a spirit that has a flavour and a certain aroma, because that is what will create the essence of the end-character of the whisky.”
In many respects, said Simon, making whisky is a leap of faith, where the end result can never be accurately predicted. To give ‘The Hearach’ the best fighting chance, the team have drafted in Gordon Steele, who previously ran the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh, to lend a hand.
“He is our ‘spirit guru’ and also acts as the chairman of our nosing panel, training them to use their sense of smell to know what to look for,” said Simon. “What comes off the still is not called whisky, it is called ‘new-make spirit’. It only becomes whisky after three years.
“We might want fruity notes, floral notes, even pear drop notes. The mature spirit may not taste of these things, but you want them there at the beginning as you know it is going to contribute to the end result. Only then do you put it into a cask and wait.
“We believe that the water we collect from above the hill here is the softest water in use by any distillery in Scotland. That is unique. “
The staff – all locally recruited – have increased from the original ‘Tarbert Ten’ to a team of 14. “We need to think of another name for them,” laughed Simon.
He added: “From the very first day the feedback has been amazing, and that is so rewarding. “It’s lovely to see the people of Harris adopt this distillery as their own, as that was always our vision."