The female entrepreneurs behind the Scottish gin explosion

Gin expert and creator of the Gin Room Scotland Jayne Carmichael Norrie speaks to some of the women that are helping to drive the Scottish gin industry forward.

Published 23rd Sep 2016
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

There has never been a more exciting time to be a gin fan; many world-class, award-winning gins are being produced right here in Scotland.

The last two years has seen a great resurgence in Scottish Gin; with this year alone expected to see a 50 per cent increase in the number of gin distilleries popping up around the country.

The Alcohol Industry is viewed as traditionally male-dominated, yet in many distilleries across Scotland it is the female entrepreneurs who are spear-heading the Scottish gin explosion.  Creator of the Gin Room Scotland Jayne Carmichael Norrie speaks to some of those who are driving the industry forward.

Debbie Strang – Shetland Reel Gin


Picture: Dave Donaldson

After purchasing former MoD site Saxa Vord in Unst with her husband, Debbie researched opportunities to create more diverse products which would counter the short tourist season in Shetland, capture the great provenance of Shetland, and would celebrate Shetland’s culture.

After realising a distillery on Unst would be the most northerly distillery in the UK, and would provide a unique legacy plus year-round employment, Shetland Reel Gin was born.

What is your role?

I am the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Shetland Reel Gin. I am responsible for accounts, marketing and events.

How did you get to the role you have today?

We have set up a number of small businesses over the years. As you know with any small business, until you take on your employees, in the early days you are responsible for everything.

There’s always a limit to your budget, to your set up. You always have to bring the professionals in such as legal and accounting, but everything else you have to do yourself.

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We didn’t have any experience in the Spirits Industry so we partnered with another married couple. Stuart is our Master Distiller and his wife is responsible for Quality Control. So they are responsible for the creating of the recipes and that side of the business. I am responsible for setting up the accounts, marketing and events. We now have three employees on site and a Distillery Manager.

What do you love about your job?

There are two elements that it always comes back to. From an individual perspective, it’s walking into a shop and seeing Shetland Reel on the shelves. You look at it and you realize the huge amount of time and effort that has gone into developing the product has been worthwhile. When you go do a tasting and you get feedback from people on how good a product it is and how much they enjoy it, that is also really exciting too.

This is just an exciting thing; the fact that there is an explosion in gins… I’m just so pleased that we are two years down the line. It is an exciting time for gins, and for Scottish gins in particular. It is fun to go to a bar and ask for Shetland Reel to check they are serving it correctly.

What drives you?

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Helping people to better understand our product. People really want to understand who it is behind the products, where the inspiration comes from and how you get your Botanicals.

Do the guys go out and search for the seaweed in the sea? Yes they do, they were trained in how to do that. All the little bits of detail that go into the making of the drink is of great interest to folk.

It was two years in August since we launched our first Gin and we’ve launched two more since. That’s the benefit of being a small business; actually producing the Gin, including special editions and limited editions, is quite straightforward when you’re small.

We can basically sit down at a kitchen table and plan with relative ease. I’m really passionate about Shetland and the Shetland people have really embraced what we are doing. Shetland is a very special place and deserves to be at the front of what’s good about Scotland, both in food and drink.

Why do you think there is such a huge interest in Scottish Gin right now?

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I think there’s a whole host of reasons. Scotland has been really successful in promoting its own Food and Drink and delivering the message that there is something a bit special here. People really want to know the story of products and are more interested in traceability.

The botanicals used in a gin often ties it to specific locations, which strengthens the offering for more who love Scotland. There’s been a lot of support with the Scottish Craft Gin Trail and the Scottish Craft Distillers Association.

What do you love about working the Scottish Gin industry?

It would be difficult for somebody young to come into the industry. It is different from Whisky in that it’s more achievable to set things up, but it still has a cost.

There are so many small distilleries being developed at the moment, anyone who is interested in getting involved should contact them. It is a growing sector, getting in touch and being as excited as we are would be a good start.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about joining the industry?

It’s no different to any other type of business. Being your own boss has its advantages but it is massively hard work, especially in the setup phase.

What is in the future for yourself and for the industry?

Continued growth and development of our team. We have members of our team who have worked themselves up from being a bottler and labeler to doing online courses in brewing and distilling. There are many opportunities for someone who is interested.

READ MORE: New gin created by three female entrepreneurs on Jura goes down a storm

Kirsty Black – Master Distiller at Arbikie Gin

Picture: Macario De Lods Rios

Picture: Macario De Lods Rios

Over the last six months I have done a lot of intensive research into the Scottish Gin Industry, and as far as we are aware Kirsty is the only Master Distiller of a Scottish Gin brand. Arbikie is also one of the few Scottish Gins that is a single-source Gin; Arbikie create both the alcohol and the botanicals to create their Gin on their farm estate.

What is your role?

There is only two of us that work full time in the distillery so my role is very varied.  I am involved in every aspect of the distillery from receiving in the potatoes or grain from the farm through every step to get it in a bottle.

How did you get to the role you have today?  

I completed a MSc in brewing and distilling at the International Centre for Brewing &Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt University.

Whilst studying Iain Stirling (one of the Arbikie Distillery owners) approached the university and asked if there was a student who could work on developing gin recipes for them.

I was selected and spent my masters project investigating new botanicals, then one thing led to another and I was offered the job of project managing the distillery build.  This evolved in to developing all of our products and the day to day production and running of the distillery.

What do you love about your job?  

With there being just two of us (Christian is a fellow HW graduate) we need to manage every single aspect of keeping the place operating.  This isn’t just the routine milling, mashing, distilling, packaging, and cask filling but also everything that goes on in the background.

One day this might see me stuck in front of a computer doing the record keeping but the next could see us out in the fields planting botanicals, rebuilding a pump or unloading a lorry of casks.  You’ve got to be on your toes: it’s the variation that I love.

What drives you?  

I am always driven to figure out how things work, how something is made.  I am always striving to learn new skills and information.  Through my various jobs I have always been studying something else on the side - for example when I worked in medical devices I studied forensic medicine and now, as a distiller, I am also doing a PhD looking at the use of legumes in intercropping and the alcohol industry.

Why do you think there is such a huge interest in Scottish Gin right now?  

I think as a whole people are becoming more and more interested in eating and drinking local.  They care where the food they eat comes from, understanding who grows / makes it - so why not apply the same approach to what you drink too?

What do you love about working the Scottish Gin industry?  

The alcohol industry is an incredible crowd of people!  Generally everyone is very open and supportive, I’m not someone who is scared to ask for advice or admit I don’t know something and luckily there is always someone willing to assist.

Also, we recently founded the Scottish Craft Distilling Association (SCDA) consisting of a large number of the newer, smaller producers in Scotland which provides a further support group with a common goal of ensuring only the best spirits come out of Scotland.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about joining the industry?

I would advise that they try and get some hands on experience first to ensure they understand what the job involves.  It isn’t as glamorous as people may imagine - there are a lot of long days and physical work.  If they try it out and still want to go for it i’d ensure you have a good technical grounding as well as practical knowledge.

What is in the future for yourself and for the industry? 

Arbikie is still in its early stages, we are still developing the distillery itself, the products and the company so there is lots for me to still focus on here.  Through the SCDA it is apparent to me that there are new, excited, enthusiastic people coming in to this industry all the time so hopefully they’ll bring new ideas and flavours that we haven’t seen before.

READ MORE: 6 of Scotland’s best gin distillery tours

Claire Rennie – Summerhouse Drinks

Picture: Elizabeth Mathie

Picture: Elizabeth Mathie

What is a Scottish Gin without a good quality Tonic? Claire Rennie is the Founder of Summerhouse Drinks and the creator of Walter Gregor, Scotland’s first Tonic Water.

What is your role?

Head of fizz at Summerhouse Drinks.

How did you get to the role you have today? 

I have always been involved in the food and drink industry starting with growing up on our family farm which produced beef, lamb and potatoes.  My early career was spent in the seed potato industry, exporting Scottish Seed potatoes throughout Europe, North Africa & the Middle East.

When I moved up to join my husband Ross on his family farm, I started Berry Scrumptious, which specialized in fresh chocolate covered strawberries and berry flavoured confectionery.

Then we started making artisan soft drinks in 2014.  The soft drinks took off so we sold Berry Scrumptious to new owners and now concentrate on making our artisan soft drinks.

What do you love about your job?

I love being my own boss and also when we get repeat orders – it means our drinks are loved!

What drives you? 

I have a real passion for products which do not use artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colours or flavours.

When I see ‘sugar free’ on a soft drink, I am very suspicious. Generally it is sugar free but natural sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners.

Why do you think there is such a huge interest in Scottish Gin and soft drinks right now? 

The ‘traditional’ gin and tonic has been turned on its head with the raft of new, craft gins that are being produced.  This experimentation with different gins by consumers is also encouraging experimentation with mixers – be that different tonics, ginger beer, lemonades and sodas.  Therefore, there is a gin drink to suit all tastes. It is exciting for consumers and producers alike.

What do you love about working the Scottish Gin industry? 

I love the camaraderie that exists in the craft side of the Scottish Gin industry. There is respect between distillers, brands, bartenders, connoisseurs and producers of soft drinks like ourselves.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about joining the industry? 

Don’t hesitate!

What is in the future for yourself and for the industry? 

The future for both is very positive.  We are expanding our capacity to cater for the increasing demand for our artisan tonic waters and lemonades for pairing with current gins and those which are yet to be created.

It is unclear how sustainable the current rate of new gin distilleries coming into production is but the global interest in gin provides real opportunity for all members of the Scottish Gin industry.

• For further information on Scottish gin and its producers why not check out the Gin Room Scotland

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