Unexpected success for Harris gin as distillery starts work on first whisky

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."

Adam Kelliher: from broch building to burns treatment

Adam Kelliher's latest foray into business - a revolutionary treatment for burn victims - is attracting international headlines.

After a two-year sabbatical from the world of commerce, following the sale of Equateq in Breasclete on the Isle of Lewis to BASF, the chemicals multinational, Adam is now heading up a company that is commercialising a new burns treatment that is fast, easy and can be used successfully across the globe by medics in the field with minimal training in its use.

With his wife Cathra, Adam also owns Borve Lodge in West Harris, as well as the Isle of Taransay, and earlier made headlines in the area with the development of the Broch and Stone Cottage visitor accommodation across the road from Borve Lodge. 

His new venture is on a different scale.  First developed in Australia, the ReCell® device kick starts the healing process by taking a postage stamp-sized sample of healthy skin and converting it into a suspension of skin cells.  Essentially, ReCell is a mini-laboratory in a box that uses skin cells and enzymes to produce a cellular suspension in just 30 minutes.  Requiring no refrigeration, the ReCell technology can be used almost anywhere either in clinical settings or more widely in the field, drastically reducing the current time frame counted in weeks for other skin culturing techniques.

As well as being an almost immediate treatment for burns, the other advantage of Avita Medical's breakthrough is that one postage stamp-sized skin sample can produce enough skin suspension to cover an area equivalent to an A4 size sheet of paper, a ratio of 1:80 of wound coverage, greatly reducing the need for skin grafting or skin graft sites.

“It is far less interventionist than other methods,” says Kelliher, “And anything that seals off the wound quickly will reduce infection.  It is not an anti-infection treatment but anything that triggers healing, reduces shock and seals off the wound is good for the patient.”
Another key point is the ease of use.  Doctors and surgeons can be trained in its use in an hour. Together with the lack of refrigeration, its two-year shelf life and being battery-powered, there are obvious applications for ReCell in Third World countries, military field hospitals and in disaster situations.

Explaining what tempted him back into enterprise, Kelliher says: “I was drawn to the company because it has a very exciting breakthrough technology for restoring the skin layer of wounds such as burns, product wounds and some cosmetic applications. 

“It is a very exciting technology, the company has been around for about twelve years and they have done a lot of work in that time.  They have more than 60 published trials, the device itself has been used more than 6,000 times and we are approved in 32 countries, so it has got some very strong assets.”

Unlike many other biotech companies which are in the growth start up phase, Cambridge-based Avita Medical is in the commercialisation phase.  Kelliher's mandate and rationale for joining the company as CEO is to roll out ReCell across the globe and generate sales.
But it is more than just a business opportunity. “It is always good to be involved with something that can transform people's lives and can be of real benefit because when you start hearing the case studies and when people start reporting back to you that they have had terrible wounds that they haven't been able to heal and that ReCell has triggered the healing process, you feel you have made a real difference to people's lives.”

Recently ReCell received endorsement from an arm of the US Government.  After two years of intensive talks, Avita Medical landed a contract valued at up to $54 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a US federal agency, tasked with disaster preparedness in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The five-year contract is a comprehensive offering that will support Avita Medical in its drive to launch in the USA.
Winning the contract was in itself a major achievement. Due diligence was intense so the award of the contract signals that BARDA believes in the product. “They don't do things lightly. You are talking about a big federal contract that is spending taxpayers' dollars which they, quite understandably, don't do in a flippant way.  They have got to know this product works and can be of real value to the American population.  Beyond the cash value of the contract is the validation of being supported by a US federal agency which carries a definite cachet.”

The milestone contract will also be viewed positively by the influential Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is in charge of medical licensing in the USA and are currently overseeing a separate approval trial with Avita Medical.

Kelliher was at his own admission not ready for early retirement at the age of 53 and needed “something to get his teeth into”.  His two-year sabbatical “was good for a little while but I do think you need to be out there in the world doing something worthwhile, and from this perspective, Avita really fits the bill.”
But he underlines that getting back into business is not an undertaking to be taken on a whim: “I know from my previous businesses you have to live, think, breath the business.  This is a full contact sport.  You can't do it halfway, you really have to believe in  the venture to make it succeed.”

Looking to the future, Kelliher expects Avita Medical to have in the next 12 months a very good idea of the efficacy of their FDA approval trial, be well into fulfilling many of the aspects of the prestigious BARDA contract, operating in more markets and selling more ReCell units than at present.

But though a serial entrepreneur in the past, his new job at Avita Medical has not been without its challenges, he admits. “I saw things that needed to be done, but there has been a whole learning curve that has come with the new job.  For a start, my first two companies were wholly owned by my wife and I, and those were private companies. This is a public company listed on the ASX [Australian Securities Exchange] so there is a whole range of disciplines involved in that and ultimately I am beholden to shareholders as well.  It is a different approach and more regulated by its nature.  But I have been fortunate that these disciplines were already in place in the company, and so I have not had to set anything up on the compliance front.”

The main focus is to achieve the value that recognises the hard work to date and the potential of the technology.  Currently the company is operating on a low capitalisation and low share price basis, so much of Kelliher's attention is on improving those fundamentals.

His outlook is upbeat: “Who knows where it will lead? Once you show proof of concept and recurrent sales in various markets, and show that kind of traction, all sorts of doors will open.”

Interview by Taylor Edgar

Still spinning around after 30 years…it's Donnie Dòtaman

His trademark hats became familiar to millions of schoolchildren in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and now Donnie Macleod is getting ready to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking Gaelic TV programme ‘Dòtaman’.
Donnie Dòtaman is arguably the most famous star that Gaelic TV has ever produced.
Brought up in Edinburgh, his mother hailed from Aird in Point, while his father was from Tolsta Chaolais.
Having left Gaeldom’s supergroup ‘Na H-Oganaich’ in the early 1980s, he busied himself as Norman Maclean’s sidekick in the hugely popular ‘Tormod air Telly’ comedy series.
But it was when Neil Fraser, the-then head of Gaelic at the BBC, decided to focus specifically on pre- school children that Donnie Dòtaman was born.
Donnie explains: “Neil realised that if the Gaelic language was going to survive, we had to target children before they even went to school.
“The plan was to do a dozen pre-school programmes in a similar format to Blue Peter.
“Little did we know at the time what impact it would have in years to come." ‘Dòtaman’ or spinning top in Gaelic, was chosen as a title for the show, so given Gaeldom’s propensity for nicknames, it didn’t take long for its presenter to become known as ‘Donnie Dòtaman’.
“I’ve been known by it ever since,” Donnie laughs. “No matter what I do, I can’t get away from that name.”
The show was an immediate hit with young viewers, with its colourful, vibrant and fun themes. Spellbound kids would eagerly tune in every week to see specifically what hat Donnie was wearing for that particular episode.
“The hat thing came about almost by accident,” Donnie revealed. “I came in one day with a seagull on my hat and after that, I would wear a hat based on whatever theme the programme was following.
“For instance, if we were doing a show on a farm, I’d have animals on the hat, or if we were doing a circus theme I’d have big top on it.”
Peter Falk, who played legendary detective ‘Columbo’ was famed for using his own trenchcoat during all the years the show aired. Similarly, Donnie’s hats were all his own, and he has them still to this day.
“I’ve probably got about 300,” he laughed. “I store them all in the loft, along with the sets and the puppets we used.
“Recently I took everything down for filming and set it up in the conservatory, which I’ve now renamed as my ‘Dota-den’.”
As part of the 30th anniversary, some of Donnie’s hats are now on display at reception in BBC HQ in Glasgow, and he says the response has been ‘unbelievable’. “Everyone stops and comments on them,” he said. “There’s a big kid inside all of us.”
As part of the celebration anniversary show, celebrities including comedian Des Clarke, and singer Michelle McManus, share their reminiscences growing up with ‘Dòtaman’ on the telly. “They were unaware it wasn’t in English!” said Donnie.
“That’s what was brilliant about the show – the kids could absorb the meaning through vision.
“Producers made a conscious decision not to subtitle the programme, as they thought that Gaelic speaking children would use that as an easy option. It was very much a Gaelic show.”
Now a successful TV producer himself and based in Glasgow where he works with the BBC, Donnie is more familiar to viewers these days as the presenter of his own DIY show on BBC Alba – ‘DIY le Donnie’.
But he will always be Donnie Dòtaman – and is more than happy to accept that identity. “I’m extremely proud of Dòtaman, as it’s been my life,” he said.
“At its height, I couldn’t even go to the shops without kids running up, asking for my autograph and a photo, and of course that was all due to the popularity of the programme.
“’Dòtaman’ was simple, it didn’t try to be too clever, and that’s why it was such a successful series and loved by all for so long.”

A special anniversary show has been recorded by MacTV, and will be transmitted on October 5 on BBC Alba.

Trusadh - Dòtaman at 30 / Dòtaman aig 30 BBC ALBA – Monday 5 October 9.30 – 10.30pm
This month marks 30 years since BBC Scotland broadcast the first episode of a new Gaelic children’s tv show, Dòtaman.
Little did anyone know of the success the show and its iconic presenter, Donnie ‘Dòtaman’ MacLeod, would enjoy as it became one of the most famous Gaelic brands on TV!
Famed for its trademark hats, wonderful storytelling, colourful outfits, and catchy songs which Donnie made his own with his trusty guitar, more than 400 episodes were made of the series over 16 years.
In a nostalgic and warm hour long anniversary programme, we hear from Donnie and the team behind the show, as we explore what made it the success it was and why it was so appealing for generations of Scots, both Gaelic and non-Gaelic speakers alike. With new renditions of Dòtaman classics, and contributions from celebrity fans Michelle MacManus and Des Clarke amongst others, we discover how Dòtaman appealed to all, and enjoyed a true cult status in Scottish culture – even making it to the Edinburgh Fringe this year!
 Dòtaman aig 30 – a colourful celebration of the iconic Gaelic children’s programme as it marks its 30th year. 

Spectacular and special…Oran na Mara

Interview and photographs by Iain A MacSween

‘Spectacular’ is a word all too easily thrown around.  But having been given a guided tour of the new ‘Oran na Mara’ luxury beach cottage in Scarista, on Harris, I make no excuses.   Because this is a building which is quite simply, spectacular.

Located directly opposite Scarista beach, the sprawling building features views that are so vivid, they are difficult to describe.  From the golden sands to the machair, the oystercatchers and Arctic terns, the harebells and the Chaipaval hill, it’s almost as if there is too much to take in at once.
And this stunning building has been built incorporating each of these scenes.  ‘Oran na Mara’ is no mere luxury cottage – it’s much more than that.  It has been created to become an extension of the stunning landscape on which it stands.
With its distinctive thatched roof, the cottage was designed by Stuart Bagshaw, and features three bedrooms – ‘Machair’, ‘Shoreline’ and ‘Chaipaval’.  Each is colour co-ordinated to resemble the area of Scarista after which it is named.
And how to describe ‘The Boat’ bathroom? Put simply, I’ve never seen anything like it. The bath is a boat, and the shower door is a sail.  It’s unique, it’s quirky, and yes, it’s spectacular.
Adding to the determination to keep things rustic and true to the surrounding environment, the sea shells which form the bathroom border have been carefully picked from Scarista beach.

The cavernous living area is a wall of windows, ensuring only the very best vista.  A huge kitchen area leads into a small nest-like seating area complete with open fire.
And outwith the nest is a more spacious seating area, again with a tantalising view of the surrounding scenery outside.
Cottage owner, Paul Honeywell, tells me that given the visual feast on offer surrounding the cottage, he was unsure where – if anywhere - to put a television.
“I was on a work trip in Chicago and we were at breakfast, wanting to watch the news on TV,” he explained.  “All of a sudden these screens popped up out of nowhere in front of us.”
As he speaks, he pushes a button, and from a seemingly innocuous sideboard rises a gargantuan television which had previously been hidden.   If guests don’t want TV, no problem – don’t push the button.  The cottage boasts satellite wifi and has a top-of-the-range SONOS sound system wired throughout the building. 
The Gaelic for ‘Song of the Sea’, ‘Oran na Mara’ is the realisation of a dream for owners Paul and Helen Honeywell.
They first visited in Harris in 1977, when they stayed in Scarista on their honeymoon, lodging with the then Postmistress Mary Macdonald.  “She is 95 now and lives in Leverburgh Home of Rest,” said Paul.  “We still go and visit her.”
With an ever-expanding family (Paul and Helen have seven kids, now all adults), they started renting a chalet in Scarista from Donald John and Mary Ann MacSween every summer, having truly fallen in love with the small hamlet.
For Paul, who is CEO of technology powerhouse ‘Zedsen’, Scarista was now like a second home.  “I got talking to Donald John and he said if we wanted to buy a bit of land he could organise it,” said Paul.

“So in 2000, after a lengthy process with the Crofters Commission, we finally took ownership of the land.”
Having initially envisioned a ‘traditional square house’, Paul became aware of the work of architect Stuart Bagshaw on the islands, and revised his plans. “The first designs were pretty square, a slightly contemporary take on an old Scottish building theme,” he said. “But we didn’t feel comfortable with it.
“After we saw the houses Stuart was designing, we met with him and he came up with the concept of ‘Oran na Mara’.  We examined the practicalities of it, and there were there a lot of issues in how to build a place like this.  But we persevered with it, and after 15 years we’ve got it!”
All work carried out on the house was undertaken by local contractors, and Paul says he cannot praise highly enough their skill and craftsmanship.  Costing around £2,500 per week, a stay at Oran na Mara is not cheap.  But Paul insists that the premises will appeal to an international market.
“It’s such an unusual place, and obviously it’s in such a fantastic position,” he said.  “Yes, it is quite expensive to rent, but it has to be because it cost so much to build.
“We’ve already had a family from Germany stay here, and we have a family from Alabama booked for next year.  The signs are that it will attract people from all over the world.”
He added: “I have travelled all over the world and you just don’t get beaches like this anywhere else.
“Letting out the house is not my main objective – but being practical, since we don’t live here all the time we have to strike a balance.  It’s nice to be able to share the cottage with people who will appreciate it, and who will care for it and enjoy it.”

MSP pledges fairness on ferry pensions deal

Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan has rejected claims that the tendering process for the Hebridean and Clyde ferry services will be unfair because of unequal provision of pension liabilities between contenders CalMac and Serco.
Speaking just before a day-long strike for ferry workers, he said:  “It is the Scottish Ministers’ intention that the winning tenderer will be obligated to take on a reformed CalMac pension scheme for the duration of the next contract. 
“Whoever wins the tender will have to abide by that requirement.  This means that no advantage will be conferred to either company because of pensions.
“I would also like to welcome the Transport Minister’s announcement of the setting up of an independent procurement reference panel with the aim of ensuring fairness, openness and transparency during this process.”
The panel will be invited to review and offer comment to Transport Scotland on:
• the Initial Invitation to Tender, due to issue on 10 July 2015. 
• the Interim Invitation to Tender, due to issue in autumn 2015.
• the Final Invitation to Tender, due to issue in December 2015.
Transport Scotland will take the views of the panel into account and provide an undertaking to consider all relevant points made by the panel.  Any necessary changes arising from the panel’s assessment would be incorporated in the subsequent or final version of the Invitation to Tender.
The panel will be made up of some six to ten members representing local communities, various sectors or interest groups including the trade unions.
Minister for Transport and Islands Derek Mackay said:  “This is an entirely new initiative in the procurement of ferry services in Scotland – the establishment of an independent Procurement Reference Panel to further reinforce our commitment to fairness, openness and transparency in the procurement process.
“We have already engaged with key stakeholders who have a direct interest in the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services, but this panel will give them additional assurances around the procurement process.  It will also allow further important input from local communities and interest groups.
“As Minister for Transport and Islands, I am well aware of the crucial role these lifeline links play for families and businesses on the West Coast and the Western Isles and there is no doubt the award of the next CHFS contract is an incredibly important moment for Scotland’s island communities.
“I am convinced this new approach will be welcomed by all of those who live, work and visit communities served by these services.”
Mr Mackay also addressed issues around the tender process:
“The Scottish Government would rather we did not have to tender these services.  My party opposed the initial tender of these services in 2004.  However, it has been demonstrated that EU law requires the Scottish Government to do so.” 
He said the present government inherited this situation from the previous Labour-Lib Dem Administration and it was that coalition which initiated the first tendering of the contract. 
“Some opposition members who supported the tender then appear to be suggesting that we break EU law, the consequences of which would surely result in challenge.
“If we were not to tender this contract we put the services themselves, the subsidy we provide them with, the routes, the vessels and the investment at risk.  That is not a risk this Government will take.
“I also want to re-emphasise that the current tender process does not involve the Scottish Government selling any assets or controlling interests to the private sector. 
“No matter the outcome, Scottish Ministers will retain ownership and control of all the vessels and ports currently under public ownership.
“We will set routes, timetables and fares – as we do just now – and we will retain full control of the services provided by the operator through the public service contract.”