Building a successful spirits brand from scratch is no small task. Kate Malczewski heads to Speyside, home of the newly launched Eight Lands Gin and Vodka, to scope out the brand's strategy for taking over your back bar
In today’s launch-a-minute market, what does it take for a spirits brand to set itself apart?
It’s a question that haunts producers everywhere, from small-batch gin distillers foraging their own botanicals on their hands and knees to the CEO of a spirits portfolio powerhouse mulling over a new product in the boardroom.
The team at Glenrinnes Distillery, producer of new brand Eight Lands, are no different. Since father-and-stepson duo Alasdair Locke and Alex Christou set their sights on building a spirits company three years ago, they’ve been carefully considering their strategy for success.
They certainly had money to spend – as an oil services tycoon and one of the wealthiest people in Scotland, Locke was ready to invest £4m in the project, which Christou would spearhead.
They knew the family estate, located in Scotland’s Speyside at the foot of the Ben Rinnes mountain, would be ideal for a distillery, given the success of neighbouring estates like whisky giant Glenfiddich.
But rather than drawing from the scotch-making heritage of the region, Locke and Christou wanted to carve a path of their own. They ultimately settled on gin and vodka, two categories that, though crowded, did not put them in direct competition with their neighbours.
‘It's not to say there aren't good gins in Scotland, but in this area there aren't any gin or vodka distilleries. There was a gap that we could fill rather than setting up against really stiff competition,’ Christou tells Imbibe.
They broke ground on the distillery in January 2018, transforming a section of the family farm into a production facility complete with a bottling line and a tasting room. They enlisted distiller Katrina Stewart and operations manager Meeghan Murdoch to craft the liquids. Then, last month, a little more than a year since building began, they released the first bottles of Eight Lands Gin and Vodka, two of this year’s standout spirits launches.
Calculation and craft
The choice to produce white spirits was certainly more calculated than it was inspired by romantic notions of locality or terroir. ‘We see this as a £4m investment, and that's family money,’ says Christou.
Eight Lands Organic Speyside Gin
Nose: Candied lemon and lime, fresh citrus peel and an intriguing earthy note of woody herbs, all pinned to a backbone of juniper
Palate: Piney juniper kicks in from the start, followed by lemon peel and a light floral note of camomile. A hint of pepper keeps things lively on the finish
46% abv, £39, Eight Lands
Eight Lands Organic Speyside Vodka
Nose: Rich and complex, but still very much a vodka. Vanilla, nutty brown butter, marzipan and butterscotch
Palate: Smooth, full, lovely. Vanilla leads the charge, with a hint of roasted coffee beans and butterscotch supporting its round flavour. Perfect for an Espresso Martini; even better served neat straight from the freezer
42% abv, £37, Eight Lands
However, that doesn’t mean that the spirits don’t take full advantage of the estate’s natural resources. Christou had botanical surveys conducted to identify which plants on the land could be used in the gin; spring flow rates were measured to ensure that Speyside water could form the base of the spirits.
The estate’s farming practices have been entirely organic since 2001, and they knew they wanted to maintain this certification for Eight Lands’ spirits, as well.
Then came the development process for each expression. The gin was first, with the team taste-testing other brands’ products to use as benchmark. ‘We wanted to do something quite traditional in flavour profile, as a London Dry,’ Christou explains.
They settled on a blend of botanicals including cowberries and sorrel from the estate, and gathered feedback from bartenders before finalising the recipe.
‘We had someone from Hix test the gin, and someone from Swift. Ultimately their suggestion was to bump the abv up to 46% so that the gin could stand up to mixing.’
According to Christou, the vodka came a step later. ‘All the noise is in gin, but vodka is still a much larger category. We thought, let’s work vodka as well and see if we could do it.’
After more taste tests and conversations with the trade, the Eight Lands team decided they wanted to create a vodka that, while neutral, sits firmly in the ‘characterful’ camp with the likes of Kavka and Black Cow. They set out testing recipes: ‘Some tasted like new makes, with a bit of a whisky influence,’ Christou remarks.
Ultimately they chose to use a mash of malted barley and malted wheat, plus crushed unmalted wheat seeds, which yields a full, silky-smooth texture in the final liquid.
‘We ended up with something we thought tasted really good, unique without being weird. It still tastes like a vodka.’
The long game
With the distillery up and running and production in full swing, Christou is once again staring that initial question in the face: how can Eight Lands stand out?
The liquids themselves are, in Imbibe’s opinion, extremely well-made – even downright delicious – but with so many good spirits out there, this isn’t always enough.
The factor that could really set Eight Lands apart, more than its unique positioning as a non-whisky product of Speyside or its organic certifications, is its ambition – and the resources they're able to funnel into making its goals a reality.
The distillery is starting out producing 240,000 bottles a year, with plans to up the numbers as necessary, and the team are already looking at international expansion: ‘within three years we want 70% of our business to be from exports’.
‘We’re not looking necessarily at a lot of the craft gins that have emerged over the past years as models for what we want to emulate,’ says Chrisou. ‘I'm looking at the long game. I want this to be a brand that lasts. I want the core product to be something that can stand up there with the best-recognised brands in the on-trade.’