Business of the Month: Dunnet Bay Distillers
Famous for their multi-award winning Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka, Dunnet Bay Distillers strive to create spirits that reflect the Caithness way.
We caught up with Martin Murray, who along with his wife Claire and their team of production wizards, run the successful distillery. Find out what they’ve been up to since we last spoke and what the future holds for the mainland’s most northerly distillery.
Congratulations on your recent successes at the Scottish Gin Awards, and for winning Scottish Gin Distillery of the Year! So, what makes Rock Rose Gin stand out from the others?
Rock Rose Gin is like other gins in some respects because it does have a predominant juniper flavour and it has all the traditional ingredients you would expect. However, what makes Rock Rose Gin so special is the carefully selected collection of local and traditional botanicals that we use. In fact, its name comes from one of these botanicals, Rhodiola rosea, commonly known as the rose root, which we discovered on our first botanical forage along the Caithness cliffs. Rhodiola rosea is a real earthy rose which adds a delicate floral note to the gin – we think it’s really really nice!
Rock Rose Gin is also made with other really interesting ingredients like rowan berries, which grow across the road from the distillery in Dunnet Forest and blaeberries which bring a really nice jam taste to the middle of the drink, then you’ve got lemon verbena and Bulgarian juniper that add a nice lemon sherbet finish to the drink. Each year we create a new vintage as our local botanicals may vary slightly in taste due to the year’s weather conditions.
You’ve added some delicious new flavours to your collections since we spoke last year, what inspires you to choose these particular botanicals?
Typically, the flavour the botanicals will add to our spirits but where possible we also like to use botanicals such as rowan berries that have nice stories attached to them. For instance, did you know that the rowan tree is associated with the Norse god of thunder Thor? According to one of the Old Norse myths preserved in the 13th century Icelandic literary work known as The Prose Edda; a rowan tree was Thor’s salvation. According to Norse mythology, one day when Thor was being chased by giants, the giants chased the god of thunder into a river. The giants straddled the river causing it to rise, which meant that Thor nearly drowned. That is until he saw a rowan tree growing on the banks of the river. Thor grabbled hold of the rowan tree and pulled himself to safety. Therefore, as the saviour of Thor rowan trees are considered in old Viking areas of the world to be holy trees and trees of protection. Since Caithness was settled by Vikings from Norway from the mid-9th century AD onwards we like stories like this one as it showcases both the natural and cultural heritage of Caithness which is what makes a drink of Rock Rose Gin or Holy Grass Vodka a little bit of history, myth and magic in a glass!
As well as your famous Rock Rose Gin, you’re also known for the unusual Holy Grass Vodka, what makes Holy Grass so unique?
Holy Grass Vodka is a celebration of local produce and ingredients, the spirit is infused with a carefully crafted vapour of Highland apples and apple juice, to complement the sweetness of the Holy Grass. The result is a delicate and fresh vodka with a creamy smooth finish. The hero botanical Holy Grass (scientific name: Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum nitens) used to make the vodka has very strong Caithness connections.
Holy Grass gets its name from the fact that hundreds of years ago before churches had stone or wooden floors, they used to have floors made from compacted earth. In a climate like that of the United Kingdom where it rains a lot this meant mud floors. Holy Grass was picked and placed on the floors of churches to soak up the mud. The grass gets its name from the fact when you stand on it, it gives off a vanilla incense fragrance. Because it was picked so often by 1750, Holy Grass was believed to be extinct in the UK. This was until Holy Grass was found growing on the banks of the nearby Thurso River by Thurso based baker and amateur natural historian Robert Dick (1811 – 1866). Robert Dick published a scientific paper on his discovery of Holy Grass found growing on the banks of the River Thurso in 1854, and it won him fame in the botanical world and he succeeded in getting Holy Grass added back into the native list of British flora and fauna.
What would NC500 visitors expect to see on a tour around the Dunnet Bay Distillery?
Visitors start their tour with a Rock Rose Gin and Tonic on a comfy couch by a wood-burning stove in the Tasting Room of Dunnet Bay Distillery’s 5-star VisitScotland Visitor Centre, which is located in a refurbished early 20th century cattle-shed with a retro vibe designed by Claire. Here they learn about the history of the distillery and the stories behind the hero botanicals used to make Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka.
Visitors are then taken on a tour of the Still House where they learn about Dunnet Bay Distillery’s two traditional copper pot stills Elizabeth and Margaret, the distilling and bottling process and the research and development work undertaken by the distillery. Back in the Tasting Room the visitor experience concludes with an interactive tasting of three of the distillery’s award-winning spirits.
The tour lasts 1 hour 30 minutes and is interactive allowing visitors to smell botanicals and engage with both the distillery’s spirits, the staff who make and bottle them and the processes used by the distillery. Children are catered for and involved in the tour using a Family Pack, which guides them through the stories associated with the distillery and features our family Miniature Schnauzer dog Mr Mackintosh who is the distillery’s apprentice.
The Visitor Centre at Dunnet Bay Distillery which opened to the public in April 2018 welcomed 18,000 people in 2018 with predictions for 2019 thought to exceed 20,000 visitors. Within 6-months of opening, the Visitor Centre secured a highly sought-after 5-star rating from VisitScotland, recognising it as one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions. Dunnet Bay Distillery is currently 1 of only 3 VisitScotland 5-star attractions in Caithness. It is highly unusual for a visitor attraction to be awarded a 5-star rating by VisitScotland in its first 6-months of operation highlighting not only the quality of the distillery visitor facilities but also the exceptional level of customer service delivered by our staff.
Claire and I are both passionate about the heritage of Caithness and the interior of the Visitor Centre uses Caithness stone and local wood to create a stunning venue for the visitor experience showcasing local vernacular architecture and artisan materials. The goal of the Visitor Centre, which we delivered 7-years ahead of our business plan, takes advantage of Dunnet’s strategic position on the North Coast 500 and John O’ Groats to Lands’ End tourist routes. The distillery, the 3rd most visited attraction in Caithness in 2018 promotes the county’s unique heritage and encourages exploration through its guided tours and special events programme. These activities all bring the tourist pound into a fragile rural economy, creating employment for local people and of course giving tourists the opportunity to enjoy a delicious G&T! We are delighted by the fact that Dunnet Bay Distillery is a TripAdvisor 5-star attraction, holding a Certificate of Excellence for consistently great visitor reviews!
You also celebrated your 5th birthday this year. How has the NC500 impacted your business since its launch in 2015?
The North Coast 500 has been unbelievable for us – it’s such a success story – and we have seen visitor numbers to our shop and tours increase year on year. Along the way we have had a lot of luck with our timing and our location. We built the distillery in Dunnet for other reasons, but it just so happens that we’re right on the North Coast 500. We really did strike it lucky with that!
Have you any exciting plans for 2020 that you can share with us?
We have lots of new products planned for 2020 and aim to focus on our environmental impact so that we become a market leader in sustainable craft gin production. We are also continually striving to put Caithness on the tourist map and provide high-class cultural facilities for a population lacking in venues but with a keen and active interest in culture the distillery is working with other attractions, food producers, artists and groups such as the Caithness Disabled Access Panel and the Caithness Broch Project to provide memorable experiences and opportunities for destination marketing. This includes the development of an Access Plan to encourage more disabled visitors to Caithness, the creation of a Family Activity Pack for children who participate on guided tours and the marketing and delivery of special events and limited-edition Caithness themed spirits!
Our staff take visitor feedback seriously and through continuous professional development constantly evolve and enhance the visitor experience. Our tour offer also keeps growing and developing year on year to meet visitor expectations. These activities are all delivered by the proud and passionate local ambassadors who work for us and feed into the 2018 Scottish Government’s ‘Food Tourism Scotland’ plan and The Highland Council’s ‘Caithness and Sutherland Local Development Plan’. But were aren’t content to rest on our laurels! We are constantly planning future developments to enhance tourism and cultural provision such as hosting the Visitor Centre’s first art exhibition in winter 2019/2020 entitled ‘Inspired By Gin’ which will promote local artists and create sustainable out of season cultural experiences for tourists and local people.
And finally, do you have a favourite Rock Rose Gin or Holy Grass Vodka cocktail?
I love both! My favourite gin cocktail is a Negroni made with equal parts of Rock Rose Gin – Navy Strength, Campari and red vermouth served on the rocks with a curl of grapefruit. In terms of vodka it must be the Dunnet Donkey our version of the Moscow Mule! To make the Dunnet Donkey pour Holy Grass Vodka over ice, add a sprig of mint and top with ginger ale.