Me and my team

Distilling island life: Isle of Harris Distillers

By Simon Erlanger

- Last updated on GMT

Operating in the Outer Hebrides is both challenging and rewarding for the Isle of Harris Distillers
Operating in the Outer Hebrides is both challenging and rewarding for the Isle of Harris Distillers

Related tags: Drinks

Running a spirits business in the Outer Hebrides brings challenges, but it also offers an opportunity to tell a unique story, says Isle of Harris Distillers managing director Simon Erlanger.

The Isle of Harris Distillers’ story is one of love for the island and its people, and the business aims to give back much more than it takes.

Located in Tarbert, we are one of the UK’s most remote spirits makers. Our Isle of Harris Gin is infused with sugar kelp gathered from the island’s shores, capturing the location’s elemental nature.

The distillery was opened in 2015 by Anderson Bakewell, an American-born musicologist who has had links with the island for more than 50 years. He was anxious to do something about the fragile local economy and declining population.

Funding and construction of the distillery was led by chairman Ron MacEachran, who has strong local links, living on the nearby Isle of Scalpay. A senior management consultant with architects KPMB, MacEachran has more than 30 years’ business experience.

I’ve been in the spirits business all my career. Latterly, I ran the commercial team at whisky maker Glenmorangie before going freelance after it was sold. While consulting for a number of small spirits brands, I was headhunted for the role of managing director (MD) designate for the Isle of Harris distillery project, which was conceived in 2007. After a few years as a consultant, I eventually became full-time.

Building craft spirits brands

I have many years’ experience of building craft spirits brands, so have ensured that our brands are positioned to stand out in an intensely crowded market. With no manufacturing background, it has also been a steep learning curve. However, I relish learning and we have worked with expert consultants from the beginning.

As MD, I guess I am responsible for everything. Above all, my role is to develop the team, so they are motivated and equipped to run the business when I am not on the island. Every employee has a Personal Development Plan (PDP) based on our company values, as well as individual objectives. I find that using the values in all of our conversations as well as the PDPs ensures a common culture. I enjoy chatting to the team, finding out how they are feeling and listening to ideas.

We are first and foremost a whisky distillery, but while we wait for The Hearach single malt to mature, the gin remains our main focus. It is supported by a specially-distilled Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water, a tincture made from our key seaweed botanical that can be added to gin and tonic serves, cocktails, and even seafood, to enhance maritime flavours. We also have a range of hand-crafted glassware. All of these products are presented in our bespoke gift sets, which continue to show sales growth.

Gin distillation takes place in a small, Italian-made copper still. Our key botanical, sugar kelp, is harvested sustainably from nearby sea-lochs by a diver, and its gold-green fronds contain a sweet substance called mannitol. We macerate the dried kelp along with eight other botanicals, infusing our spirit prior to distillation to bring a subtle maritime note and depth of flavour.

‘Superior gin’

We discard the heads and tails of the spirit run, leaving only the smooth heart for bottling. Most gin-makers recycle these parts as it’s expensive not to, but we think it’s worth it to create a superior gin.

Our location brings many challenges. Barley and botanicals are far more expensive due to the distance and logistics required for delivery. With just 2,000 people now living on the Isle of Harris, access to highly technical skills can be challenging, meaning we often have to bring people to us to get work done.

We deal with all our customers directly, every order is taken and fulfilled here, so deliveries can take a little longer than many may be used to – but we strive to reach them in three working days.

But, all in all, our location makes us who we are and our spirit what it is. The people, the landscape, the natural environment, tradition, culture, language, history – the island provides us with endless opportunities to share our story with the world.

The Social Distillery

We are known as ‘The Social Distillery’, as it’s a place to bring people together. The distillery doors are open to the public all year-round, with regular guided tours, a communal canteen and shop. In the evenings, we host gatherings and performances.

The Social Distillery’s main goal is to create jobs, support the fragile local economy and address issues surrounding population decline in the Outer Hebrides, which has more than halved since the 1950s.

Last year, we invited schoolchildren to get involved in designing an Isle of Harris Distillery tweed pattern. After receiving more than 150 designs, we chose a final pattern to be made for us by a local weaver later this year.

When it comes to the spirits production, everything is made by five local distillers, trained from scratch. An apprentice distiller joined us recently, and we plan to hire a second soon. We are about to expand our bottling and logistics operations to accommodate growing demand – that includes taking on a new logistics manager and a bottling hall team member.

With the recent addition of three new washback vessels, our whisky production capacity has grown by 60%, so more warehousing space will soon be required. There are currently no plans for new gin products, but we’re always learning and interested in exploring ideas, so you never know.

We export to Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and are working hard to reach the US. We also hope to make further inroads into London and the rest of the UK.

The single malt, when ready, will bring a huge step-change to our work as we bring it to an eagerly awaiting world of whisky lovers. Exciting times lie ahead on all fronts.

Isle of Harris Distillers

Location:​ Tarbert, Lewis and Harris. HS3 3DJ

Factory size:​ 500m2​ (over two levels) plus 150m2​ bottling hall.

Staff:​ 30

Main products:​ Isle of Harris Gin, The Hearach Single Malt Whisky.

Distilling capacity​: 376,000 litres (whisky), 240,000 litres (gin).

Simon Erlanger:​ My proudest career achievement was at Glenmorangie, when we purchased the mothballed Ardbeg distillery on the Isle of Islay, making it once again a sought-after malt whisky.

Related topics: People & Skills, Drinks

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