To celebrate their seventh birthday, I had a little chat with the team at Dunnet Bay Distillers to get to know them a bit more…
Hi there, can you introduce yourselves?
Hello, we are Martin and Claire from Dunnet Bay Distillers – all the way up in the very far north of Scotland! You can’t go much past us before you fall into the sea. We distil the Rock Rose Gin range as well as Holy Grass Vodka.
How did you get started in the gin game?
Well, Martin likes to tell people it’s because I drink gin! In truth, it’s because we both drink gin ? Martin has long had an interest in distilling and the drinks industry (particularly whisky) and whilst studying Chemical Engineering with Energy Resource Engineering at Heriot Watt University, he had the option to specialise in Brewing & Distilling or Oil & Gas. After a visit to the careers fair where it was lined with oil companies and very little distilleries, he went with his ‘poor student’ head and chose oil and gas. It was a career he excelled at and also really enjoyed, however, there was always the hankering to try distilling. We have both always been keen to have a business and return home to Caithness. After a spell of working in France with our young family, the next move was to somewhere we didn’t fancy. This provided the catalyst to make the decision to return home to and start our distillery. We chose to distil gin as it is such a fascinating spirit and we knew we could really create something special which showcased our home county. My background is hospitality and tourism and was very keen to entwine that aspect into our business. Not to mention that we both really enjoyed a gin!
How did you come up with the name?
We spent time with a local herbalist, Brian V. Lamb, who showed us many things growing locally that we could forage for. On one of these walks, Brian introduced Martin to Rhodiola rosea – a rose in the rocks – and it was a kind of eureka moment. Brian broke into the root, which smells deliciously of rose, and Martin knew it would be great in our gin. The name arose from there: a rose in the rocks – Rock Rose. No other name we tried after that compared.
Did you always plan on settling in Dunnet Bay? How important is your local area to you as a brand?
Yes, I was born and grew up in Dunnet and Martin, 10 miles away in our local town of Thurso. Although we moved away to Edinburgh to study together, subsequently travel and then live in France, we always knew that one day we would return home. Caithness is a wonderful place to have a family and we loved growing up there. Our local area is very important to us, we use locally foraged botanicals and gleam inspiration from it’s wide open skies and vast space. We have been very well supported locally and have many unofficial ‘brand ambassadors’ who are really Caithness exiles – they will promote us to their friends and local bars and share images with us of where they have spotted our gin.
Your ceramic bottles are iconic and beautiful – what is the process behind your branding?
We love our ceramic bottles as they felt so different, we believe we were the first gin brand to use a ceramic bottle! It was a bold move to use the ceramic but we loved it as soon as we saw it. At the time no other gin brand (not including Jenever which are traditionally in a ceramic vessel) used a ceramic bottle. We did some research with bars and friends – everyone said no to the ceramic bottle as they all felt gin should be in a clear, blue or green bottle! However, we loved it and stuck to our guns. When we released an image of the bottle people fell in love with it and it has become iconic.
How do you decide on your new flavours?
We look to our surroundings for inspiration and quite often it’s a crazy conversation over the ironing board which leads to something that works. Our bottle design lends itself beautifully to changing with the seasons and so we decided to introduce our Seasonal Editions. We have a fabulous gardener, Hanna, who forages locally for our botanicals and she was instrumental in selecting the ones which depicted each season. Hanna has a whole library of different botanicals distilled, which is great to smell, taste, and experiment with.
What’s your favourite way to enjoy your gins?
The Rock Rose Original Edition is still my favourite (although the Cask Editions are close seconds). We both enjoy the Original Edition differently, and I think it is very important to acknowledge that people should enjoy it as they wish. I savour mine with a curl of orange and Martin like his with a sprig of toasted rosemary. The rosemary smells amazing and quite often we will have one with both garnishes. We used to love when we went to consumer shows and let people try it both ways – we’d take a tally to see whose garnish was preferred ?
You’ve appointed an Environment Manager as part of your team this year – why is sustainability so important to you?
We absolutely love where we are. It is a beautiful part of the world and we want it to remain that way. The environment is incredibly important and we all need to do our bit to make sure we are not destroying it for our future generations. It can be frightening when you start reading about the damage so far, so we want to make sure we are doing all we can to reduce our impact. For this reason, we created refill pouches which are entirely recyclable so that our lovely bottles can be reused. Environmental sustainability is something which really requires time and understanding and we felt it was important that we had someone dedicated to this role to really make sure we could do the best possible. Sarah Lyons had been our accountant previously, but she has always been very passionate about the environment and has a degree in Oceanography and Mathematics, so she was a natural to step into this exciting newly-created role to make us even more eco-friendly. We are already very ‘green’ when it comes to use of solar energy, water usage, minimising plastic use and so on, but we believe there is always room for further improvement.
Not only do you sell your gin in refill pouches, but you’ve launched a Refill Rewards Club – tell me more about that.
Our Refill Rewards Club is a great subscription club. Our members can choose which spirit they would like sent to them and they can change as often as they like. They can choose the frequency too from a range of options. Each time, we send their chosen spirit along with mixers and some wee surprises in the box too. They refill their bottle and pop the pouch straight back in the post box to us. It couldn’t be easier: they don’t need a stamp or an envelope – it is marked Freepost Rock Rose and the postie takes it right back to us. We then take care of the recycling.
It’s like a present arriving with every delivery and our members are loving the goodies that come with it too – we have included the brand new flavour of Mackies Crisps, delicious shortbread from Reids of Caithness, the ingredients to make a Christmas cocktail, and lots of other fabulous products. It is exciting selecting the goodies each month. I am currently planning October which will be the Refill Rewards Club’s 1st birthday and I can’t wait for the box to go out now. I love getting the feedback on the goodies.
As lockdown restrictions ease, what are your plans for the future?
It would be great to have more events at the distillery again. We had a wedding planned for March but it has been postponed for the time being. It will be lovely to be able to host events like these again and introduce Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka to even more people. Our visitor centre is quieter over the winter months so we try to do something different that might be of interest locally – this will be our plan again this year to make the most of the space. We are also attending external events once again. Next up is the fabulous Henley Festival in September. And then of course there is International Scottish Gin Day (ISGD) when, along with so many other fine Scottish brands, we look forward to working with bars to celebrate our gin. We are even having a competition for bartenders and mixologists to create a special ISGD Rock Rose Gin cocktail for 2 October 2021. We are also a member of Luxury Scotland and look forward to working once again with the superb hotels and restaurants across Scotland to bring Rock Rose Gin to their guests also.
Thanks for chatting to me! I’ve been lucky enough to try a few of the Rock Rose gins, you can read my thoughts on their seasonal Winter gin, Pink Grapefruit Old Tom gin and Citrus Coastal gin. If you want to see more of Rock Rose gin, they are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.