Dunnet Bay Distillers on the joys and challenges of running a remote business

Martin Murray, co-founder of Dunnet Bay Distillers
'I keep thinking that we’re going to plateau, but we don’t,' says Martin Murray of Dunnet Bay Distillers Credit: Julie Fraser

When Martin Murray decided to follow his heart and swap a career in oil for gin, he never dreamt that his first batch would sell out in 48 hours.

For those brave – and barmy – cyclists who have on this year’s bucket list the epic 874-mile trip from Land's End to John O'Groats, give Martin Murray a call before you set off. He might be able to meet you at the finish line with a celebratory G&T, made with his signature Rock Rose Gin, freshly-brewed 11 miles down the coast in Dunnet Bay.

His business, Dunnet Bay Distillers, which he founded with his wife, Claire, is one of the most remote producers of alcohol in the UK.

But with the stunning scenery of northernmost Scotland comes great responsibility; the location does make distilling the company’s signature vodka and gin tricky.

“The air temperature here can get as low as minus 7°C,” explains
the co-founder, who has to watch out for the alcohol becoming too louche, or hazy, in cold weather. “I have to be very hands-on. 
I’m next to the still throughout most of the distillation, keeping an eye on things and doing regular tastings."

It’s the same during hot spells, which can cause a loss of flavour. However, they don’t come around very often, he jokes. But where Murray lacks a tan, he does have access to some strong local ingredients. The distillery uses roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) in its gin, which grows in colder climates. It brings a floral taste to the final product.

Mixed with sea buckthorn, red rowan berries, and juniper berries from Bulgaria and Italy – plus a handful of seeds, spices and other plant substances – it creates the company’s Rock Rose Gin, which is formed using a process of vapour infusion. Instead of the botanicals coming into direct contact with the base liquid, spirit vapour becomes infused with flavour by passing through baskets of ingredients, before condensing into liquid.

“It has a lot of juniper in it,” says Murray. “But thanks to the vapour infusion, it’s not overpowering. The final taste has notes of fruit jam, with citrus and a very light spice. It’s clean and refreshing.”

Local ingredients also come with interesting backstories. Central to his signature vodka is northern holy grass (Hierochloe borealis), a herb that was discovered on the banks of the nearby Thurso River by Robert Dick, a self-taught botanist.

“As a baker, people dismissed him,” explains Murray. “And it was only on his death that he was accepted as being one of Scotland’s great botanists. I wanted to tell that story.”

Murray’s tale begins at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University in 2002. “The seed was planted there,” he says. “I got to the end of my third year and had a choice of doing a masters in either oil and gas, or brewing and distilling.”

If we were to build what we’ve got outside of our county near a city, it would be so much more expensiveMartin Murray, Dunnet Bay Distillers

Murray, who was particularly passionate about the latter, went along to a careers fair. “The brewing and distilling stalls had nice drinks, but no jobs,” he jokes. Business in oil and gas, however, was booming, so Murray, not keen on graduating without any work, went with his head over his heart.

He enjoyed 10 “great” years working for Total and BP, but grew weary of having to travel so often, which was made worse when the Murrays decided to start a family.

“I decided to revisit my passion,” says Murray, who after a failed attempt at launching a micro-brewery (“I realised a fundamental flaw before I even got started: nobody around here likes the beer that I like”), began investigating stills for producing spirits.

With irregular shift patterns (two weeks away with work; two weeks at home), Murray used his downtime to build a small distillery. He experimented with ingredients, with Claire his official taste tester.

“I got a real understanding of flavours and how they pair up,” he says.
“I was hooked.”

The plan, he explains, was to build things up slowly. “After three years, we would hopefully be in a position that I could quit [my job], and Claire and I could run the business – just the two of us.”

But that went out the window when, in 2014, the couple started to tell people locally and on social media about Dunnet Bay Distillers’ first batch of gin, which sold out in 48 hours, thanks to a bit of word-of-mouth advertising. Pictures of the striking white, ceramic bottle design were passed around a lot on social media.

“That was 900 bottles, which was great, but then people started to ask about the next one,” remembers Murray, who had to rope in family members to help bottle, wax, number and ship the large order.

“We sold another 900 in less than 24 hours and haven’t really looked back,” says Murray, who quit his job in 2015. “I keep thinking that we’re going to plateau at some point, but we don’t.”

The business, which employs 12 full-time staff, registered turnover of £1.2 million in 2016 (year ending July). Bars, restaurants and retailers including Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols stock its two signature brews.

Aside from the local weather, the remoteness of Dunnet Bay does present other challenges. Delivery costs, for example, and timelines, “because next day delivery just doesn't happen here,” says Murray.
“It does have an impact on our costs.”

But on the flip-side, the distillery has access to affordable land and labour. “If we were to build what we’ve got outside of our county near a city, it would be so much more expensive,” he explains. “Being here, we’ve managed to self-fund the business.”

The company's next investment will be a new visitor centre and shop. “One thing that we never thought of when we picked this site was the North Coast 500,” says Murray of the North Highland Initiative’s scenic, 516-mile route around the north coast. “There were plans for it when we set up, but it only really got going last year.

“[Being listed on it] has changed everything; we get more people in every day than we could ever imagine. So we now need a proper shop, because the current one is a bookcase in our office.”

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