Arbikie: a brand history

22nd July, 2020 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

The Stirling brothers have turned their vision of a sustainable field-to-bottle distillery into a thriving reality. The Spirits Business reports on Arbikie’s progress to date.

*This feature was originally published in the April 2020 issue of The Spirits Business

Picture the opening scene of ‘Arbikie’ the movie. Three brothers staring out at rain‐soaked fields of wheat, barley and potatoes on the family farm. The crops are starting to rot, the mood is one of despair, and the brothers are drinking heavily to drown their sorrows. Suddenly, in a great burst of sunlight, bottles of gin, whisky and vodka begin to dance before their eyes.

Truth be told it wasn’t quite like that. The lightbulb moment that led John, Iain and David Stirling to turn Arbikie into a highly innovative field‐to‐bottle distillery did involve drink – but it happened elsewhere. The three grew up together on the 2,000‐acre farm in Angus, halfway up Scotland’s east coast, but the idea presented itself in a New York bar circa 2010. The fact that David co‐owned the bar, Iain had a drinks industry background starting with Whyte & Mackay and John was an accountant at KPMG, suggests the Stirlings are not stereotypical Scottish farmers.

The brothers believed they had spotted a gap in the way old Scotch whisky distilleries evolved from the farm. “We were a few drinks in, and after a few more drinks the idea became better and better,” John recalls. In the sober light of day, somewhat amazingly, the idea still had legs. They sat down and crunched the numbers. They had the raw ingredients and an empty building in a disused dairy, and they had a strategy. “Our vision from the very start has been to produce the best single malt we possibly can,” says John. “We set this target that our first release was going to be an 18‐year‐old.”

It was a statement of intent that there would be no compromise on quality. The whisky stills were only fired up in 2015, so we won’t see an Arbikie malt for some time.

Taking such a leisurely, long‐term view is a luxury afforded by the lack of outside investors or private equity, as John explains: “We didn’t want to be in a position where people would say, ‘Where’s the money?’ Where’s the profit?’.” While the casks slowly mature, Arbikie’s master distiller, Kirsty Black, has been busy with other spirits.

First came Tattie Bogle potato vodka in 2014. At £39 (US$45) a pop you can see the attraction for Arbikie with farm gate prices of just 20‐30p per kilo of spuds, and supermarkets rejecting anything knobbly or blemished. However, potato spirit is over three times more expensive to make than grain spirit, claims John, who explains the process: “You boil up the spuds into a mushy paste, and when it starts to react with the yeast it smells like fresh apples. Even doing vodka at 95% ABV, you can tell the difference between cultra potatoes, which are slightly earthy, and maris piper.”

Arbikie malts are a long game (photo courtesy: Tim Keweritsch)

In its drive to maximise alcoholic yield, he believes the whisky industry risks causing harm, and says: “Basically, you have one variety of grain dominating whisky production, and if that fails you’ve got a big problem.” He also feels the big distillers “have in many ways driven down the price of grain”, and are being disingenuous if they trumpet their green credentials while importing barley from wherever’s cheapest, regardless of food miles. Meanwhile, Arbikie has been planting heritage varieties in the name of biodiversity and flavour. “In future we will produce some very interesting spirits where it’s more about the malt and the grain as it used to be, and less about the ex‐Bourbon casks,” he says.

Arbikie began planting rye in 2014 and launched Scotland’s first Highland rye single grain whisky four years later, having explained to a concerned Scotch Whisky Association that rye had been used traditionally. Vibrantly spicy, it was described as “a wee belter” by whisky writer Dave Broom.

Meanwhile, other white spirits have appeared, including Kirsty’s Gin and Haar Vodka made from wheat. Most innovative of all, however, has been the recently released Nàdar gin, “which is pea‐based and climate positive”, says John. “Kirsty did a five‐year PhD project on producing alcohol from peas and legumes. It’s world‐leading as no one else has ever done this. Peas are brilliant in that they nitrogen‐fix and also carbon‐fix.”

Nàdar’s backstory gives it an edge in such a saturated gin market, and goes to the heart of Arbikie’s sustainable ethos and its commitment to try and produce everything on the farm. So far John reckons they are more than 90% there, with gin botanicals in poly tunnels, and juniper planted in the hedgerows, though yet to bear fruit. “We haven’t come across anything we can’t grow at the moment,” he says. The only exception being sugarcane, which is too tall for a poly tunnel, and that means no Arbikie rum.

Yet, returning to Tattie Bogle vodka, you have to ask if consumers really care about provenance or ingredients, this being a spirit where the premium end has traditionally been about lifestyle, and the commodity end is all about price. John accepts that may be true for most consumers but says: “I think things are now changing. People never used to care where their food came from. Now they do enormously, and we’re seeing that gradually within spirits.” That said, one suspects the single estate message will have less impact than the environmental one, and if so, climate‐positive pea gin could be a real winner.

For all that, the gin and vodka are there to pave the way for Arbikie single malt when it finally appears. “The hardest aspect when we started, and the one we underestimated the most was route to market,” John admits. Even in the US where his brother David lives and takes care of sales, “it probably took us two years longer than we expected”, he says.

Today, the brand has a growing presence in the UK, South Africa and now Canada, and is eagerly eyeing up Southeast Asia. But it’s certainly not easy being a 21st‐century farm distillery, and you wonder if that message will get through if, and when, they ever do make ‘Arbikie’ the movie.

Click though the following pages to see a timeline of Arbikie.

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