An entrepreneurial spirit
Written by 4 April 2017
Niall is the fifth generation of his family to live at Torrisdale Castle on the picturesque Kintyre Peninsula, overlooking the Isle of Arran. Along with his wife, Emma, and his younger brother, Kenny, he has recently set up Beinn an Tuirc Distillers Limited (meaning hill of the wild boar), Kintyre’s first small-batch distillery.
Niall admits that the idea of putting some of the estate’s redundant outbuildings to use as either a small-batch brewery or distillery has been with him for some time:
“I did a degree in rural resource management in the early 90s and was thinking about the possibility of diversification, even back then. We have a traditional courtyard of buildings and for a long time I wanted to start up a brewery, producing local beer. The beer idea morphed into gin more recently, partly due to its enormous popularity at the moment. Thinking practically, it is also a lot easier to produce compared to both beer and whisky.
“With whisky, you’ve got to lay it down for three years before you can actually sell it as whisky, but with gin you can produce it in a couple of months. It’s ready to bottle pretty quickly and, crucially, you can get your product out of the door and get it sold. The fact that I like gin more than whisky may have also played a part in the decision.”
It is certainly a market that is booming. In 2016, gin sales in the UK were up by 16% and, for the first time ever, broke the £1 billion sales mark. According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, 40 new distilleries opened in 2016 and three out of every four bottles of gin imported around the world originate in the UK.
Since taking over the estate in 2010, Niall has embraced renewable energy. A 170 kW biomass boiler now serves several properties on the estate and a 99 kW ‘run of river’ hydro-electric scheme on the nearby Lephincorrach Burn provides electricity for 90 houses and, importantly, powers the copper still that produces the gin.
Scotland’s unique spring water has a long association with malt whisky production and so Niall is also capitalising on this as a vital ingredient in the estate’s gin. Taken directly from a Victorian spring located just above the distillery, the water is gravity fed directly to the distillery where it is used in the gin-making process.
Additionally, for every case of Kintyre Gin sold, a tree will be planted in a dedicated woodland area, leaving legacy on the estate for future generations.
Outside help was essential to get the project off the ground, and a chance meeting with an Edinburgh-based whisky expert led to Niall connecting with Leon Webb, who had done some work with Harris Gin. Leon was subsequently employed as a consultant to create Kintyre Gin’s distinctive blend of botanicals and its unique taste. As the venture gained momentum, Su Black has joined the team as Head Distiller, on a full-time basis.
Niall was able to secure an innovation business grant from Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE), which helped them to develop their original recipe. Niall also worked closely with HIE in developing a solid business plan for Beinn an Tuirc, and is aiming to break even or to show a modest profit within the first 12 months of operating, based on sales of 5,000 bottles. The aim is to produce up to 20,000 bottles per year within five years and continue to grow from there.
Crowdfunding is one way that Niall and his fellow directors are looking to raise funds for the new venture and to raise awareness amongst potential consumers. They have even made a film in which Niall and Emma discuss the significance of the ethical and sustainable elements of their business.
Levels of support have been impressive and funders receive various rewards – from a gift voucher to a distillery tour and weekend away on the Torrisdale Estate.
The gin distillery is just one part of Niall’s ambitious plans. The Torrisdale estate is well-located to capitalise on Scotland’s successful tourist industry and since the 1980s has been letting out accommodation to tourists.
Work is already underway to convert the farmhouse next to the distillery into a visitor centre with a tasting room and shop and Niall sees further opportunities to expand the estate’s offering:
“We have scope to convert further space to a gin school potentially; we could have visitors coming for a tour where they sample our gin, they get a tour of the distillery, they look at our hydro-scheme, and then they plant a tree – possibly a juniper tree – on site.
“Because we have accommodation, we could potentially run day or weekend courses where visitors come and stay, try our woodfired hot tub, try our gin, and even have a go at making their own gin.
“However, that’s definitely phase two. We are very much focused on getting the distillery up and running at the moment.”
Surprisingly, Niall doesn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur, though he does admit to having lots of ideas, the more “ridiculous” of which have included plans for ostrich farming, worm farms and crayfish farming.
Niall is keen to point out that things may not be as idyllic as they seem for landowners such as him. The changing tax system and the withdrawal of non-domestic rates relief on hydro schemes has seen his tax bill treble at the last revaluation. He also acknowledges that public perception can be a big issue in Scotland, given the government’s land reform agenda. But Niall is tackling this head-on:
“The government thinks the community should have more of a say in estates such as ours. We have to work with that and so we have pledged to donate a percentage of our profits, when we’re up and running, to support local community projects and help to fund other local business start-ups.
“We need to be doing everything we can to help local employment and bring people back into the area because de-population is a real issue for areas like Kintyre, where many younger people are drawn away to work in larger towns and cities.”
Source: Landed Estates Annual Review 2017, Saffery Champness