Our background was almost entirely in the hospitality industry, after a few years working in some terrific hotels, we decided to go it alone and bought a tiny little 12-bedroom hotel in the amazing Outdoor Capital of The UK. The hotel was functioning but only just. We knew that if we were driven by offering the best possible service to our guests then they would forgive our appearance as we reinvested in upgrading our rooms and public areas.
Interestingly the one area that has changed the least is our Old Ferry Bar, it retains all its original speak easy style and comfort but has an upgraded drinks selection. Within a very short space of time we had even achieved the dizzy heights of a national award of Best Bar at The Scottish Hotel Awards 2017. What we lacked however was a customized gin to call our own. We contacted many Scottish distillers and the prices quoted were too high to make it a viable choice.
So, we decided to do it ourselves. On the land of the hotel were two former agricultural byres which we painstakingly converted ourselves into our tiny Craft Distillery and Gin School. With the help of family and friends we managed it between shifts over a period of 2 years. Our dream was just to create a gin for our bar, what we eventually created had far reaching appeal.
We started developing our recipes at home and then with great experiment and patience in our distillery, as area by area it was completed. We brought on board a local feedback panel and one Friday last year we finally chose our winning gin recipes. Our first local products were released on the 15th of November last year and have proved incredibly popular, looking to 2018 we have a number of other spirits that are still at test phase but we can’t wait to release them to the world!
Currently only 2 months since the release of our first gin products it is only Noru and I, distilling, bottling, labeling and distributing by hand our outstanding 2 gins but we know that as we come into spring that our numbers will need to increase to keep up with demand. It is key for us that we create a sustainable base of local custom looking for excellence rather than a mass market for a diluted product.
Pixel spirits was chosen as a name as the original idea and ethos behind the company was to create a customized gin for a bar. A single pixel or idea is all you need to create a company, a brand or an idea. Our idea for creating a bespoke gin for a company has mass appeal and we are now in a lucky position that they contact us. As a result of our testing we created many wonderful gins, 2 of which we launched as local products, highlighting local attractions in our vicinity. When we decided to launch the idea, we knew that we needed someone to help us with our artwork ideas and having worked on projects with renowned Scottish Illustrator Iain McIntosh we knew that he was the only person for the job.
Our first 2 releases came in November 2017. Neptune’s Staircase is named after part of the Caledonian Canal in Fort William. Only 3 batches of this creation exist, it is strictly a limited edition, featuring bladder wrack seaweed and nettle leaves it is a very smooth and easy dry gin. Devil’s Staircase is named after a part of The West Highland Way that passes through Glencoe.
As the name would suggest it has more of a spiced character, featuring Nutmeg and cardamom it is warming on the pallet. Both of our gins are created on Orsetta our 100 liters i-still. We make in the region of 75 bottles per distillation. Over a period of 5 weeks we then marry our creations with beautiful highland water to achieve drinking strength, each bottle is then hand filled, corked, labeled and sealed before it leaves our distillery. We produce our gins in 70cl and 20cl formats.
Behind the Loch Leven Hotel stands a former farm. Much of this has since been converted into accommodation or services for the hotel but 2 interconnecting byres still existed. They were perfect in size for a craft distillery and had stood for hundreds of years surrounded by a loch to the south and mountains in every direction. It was exciting giving them a new lease of life!
The space is subdivided into 4 units, the most important obviously being our still room, where the magic happens. After this we have our gin school, where people can come and create their own unique gins on tiny 2.5-liter copper alembic stills. After this we have a large room for bottling labeling, followed by a store.
We are still in our infancy, and product development is always in mind. At this stage I would recommend some smaller 2 – 10 Liter copper alembic stills for research and testing, having the gin school means that we can test 4 gins at a small level before scaling up, but one at a time would probably suffice ;-). Our main still is a 100 liter I still. These are from Holland and customizable depending on your requirements.
We went for the smallest of their products at manual level so that we could test the waters, if things work out we can always scale up and add lovely automated features but for now it suits our requirements and those of our clients.
Launching in November meant that we were very lucky being so close to Christmas and already having built up a local and national wait list meant that our first batches flew out, mostly to individuals. We have carefully pinpointed locations and businesses where we want to be seen and have grown from there.
We have been lucky to be supported by fellow businesses and organizations in the area, the support of Discover Glencoe and The Outdoor Capital of The UK has been amazing in getting our product out in front of customers. Over the next few months we have a wealth of trade events and festivals to attend to slowly expand our reach.
Unusually our biggest challenge unlike a lot of craft distilleries didn’t come from building regulations, being the first in the area, the wait was long to get the go ahead, but relatively smooth after that. One of the biggest challenges that we faced was the conversion itself. Taking on old buildings is never easy but we decided to do the build ourselves, calling upon external support only occasionally for example for electrical works.
Fitting this around running a hotel, testing recipes, building a brand is hard and when you are faced with harsh highland winters, the prospect of standing in a freezing old barn tiling or hanging doors is not always the best of notions. But perseverance and hard work finally paid off.
The best thing about our startup journey was the people that you meet and the places that you travel to as you learn. I will always be eternally grateful to the people who took the time to help me reach this ambition. Distillers like Mikko at Helsinki Distilling Company or Avian at Wrecking Coast who would give up their own time so that I can pester them with stupid questions.
The best thing about being a distiller is the infinite possibilities, I can go to bed dream an idea for a new product and be up testing it in the morning. The versatility of this industry is phenomenal.
The best piece of advice that I was given was to always buy the best equipment that you can afford. Skimping on the essentials that you need to run your business every day is the fastest route to a big problem. My advice is to read as much as you can from fellow distillers, there are plentiful books, magazine, websites and forums dedicated to distilling, read them through in the time that you have and make notes on things that you find important, through this you can learn and start focusing your vision. Use the forums to ask.