Gregor Leckie spent the first part of his career working in “every aspect of the drinks industry.” From the age of 17, he worked in wine, brewing and distillation to pubs, cocktail bars and nightclubs.
But it was his time working in vineyards and with an influential operator in Perth, western Australia, which changed his thinking on drinks.
“I started studying my WSET courses when working in Edinburgh after university, and wanted to get involved in commercial drink production. Having sorted a working visa for New Zealand, I moved there aged 22 to start learning Viticulture and Oenology and that brought me to Hawkes Bay to learn red wine manufacture,” he explained.
“I moved around the country, working behind bars to keep me afloat which then took me to Australia. While there, I worked with a number of influential operators, namely Paul Aron and Joost Bakker, who taught me a new approach to drink making and showed me sustainable practises in action.”
It was this knowledge of sustainability plus the effects of too much to drink and age, that led Gregor to start thinking about his next move.
He said: “I moved home at 27 to reconnect with my family and start something with impact. I had the name and the ethos already, I just needed to find the right product.
"As I got older, hangovers became a bigger problem and I wanted to use my unusual experience and skill set for something positive.
"Seeing and working with the additives and preservatives in commercial drink production highlighted the need for honesty and transparency at Rapscallion.”
Since the company was launched in 2016 as a pop up, Rapscallion Soda has built its reputation on creating sodas that use fresh, natural ingredients with unusual taste combinations to create their low-sugar soft drinks.
Recognisable by their no nonsense, design-led colourful cans, the core range includes flavours such as Ginga Ninja, Burnt Lemon, Dry Lime and Strawberry.
The drinks are made with fresh, seasonal and, importantly, local produce, which is something Gregor could see was coming to the fore when he moved back to Scotland.
He explained, saying: “When I moved back to Scotland in 2015, chefs were talking about quality produce but the UK drink industry hadn’t caught up with a focus on local, quality ingredients.”
This gap in the market, coupled with Gregor’s wine making skills and desire to create something sustainable, was what sparked the idea for Rapscallion.
“I love working with my hands and love everything about food and drink, so the real fun started when I used the techniques I learnt in wine, beer and spirits and started to play with water, Scottish fruit and bubbles,” Gregor said.
“In 2016, I started a small pop-up bar beside Bier Halle with a fresh fruit menu, focussing on Scottish seasonal ingredients.
"Our soft drinks started outselling our cocktails every week and our customers started to encourage me to make them commercially.”
When asked if his career choice came from a family background of foodies, he laughed, saying: “No, not at all. My family often think I’ve lost my marbles.”
It took two years of intensive development and trials at festivals and farmers’ markets for the product to come to full fruition, and in 2018 Rapscallion ‘quietly’ launched their first ‘raw’ cans.
They’ve grown organically since then, and can be found in some of Scotland’s top restaurants and bars, as part of cocktails or as a refreshing non alcoholic option for customers.
A year later in 2019, the core ‘seasonal range’ launched. Gregor explained this, saying: “This is our modern take on traditional soft drinks, minus the excess sugar, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
"Our Scottish ‘seasonal’ range was designed to showcase the best of what Scotland produces, sourcing the best fruit picked at the peak of the season directly from the farmers themselves.
"The response we got last year from these small batch runs was absolutely incredible. We have found ourselves in this new category of Adult Soft drinks, and we love it.”
The drinks are made on site in Glasgow, and the team spend time making sure the optimum fruit is used, explained Gregor: “We spend a lot of our time ensuring we can source the best fruit at its peak in the season.
"We only ever use enough raw organic cane sugar to carry flavour from the fruit. Nothing more. Loosely speaking we wash and prepare all fruit and spices at our facility in Glasgow.
"A lot of care and attention goes into preparation of juices and macerations in the first 24hrs. We work hard to utilise every part of the produce, ensuring everything gets put to use.
"Once we’ve captured those individual components, it’s time to start blending with freezing cold Scottish water and begin carbonation.
"We leave our products to rest overnight before canning, pasteurising and packaging our cans before shipping to our customers. It’s our final combination of canning and pasteurising which locks in the freshness to every can.”
As for the flavours, research, the seasons, the company’s location and feedback from customers that play a huge part.
“It all starts with ‘what’s in season’. Because our goal is to capture that flavour from the fruit, it’s important we get the best produce fresh from the farmer or wholesaler” said Gregor.
“Once we have found a primary fruit that tastes incredible, it’s our role to find complimentary flavours to create flavour in three dimensions.
"We support that primary fruit with spice, citrus, bitterness and a touch of sweetness before supercharging with carbonation.
"It’s the process of carbonating our fruit blends that really brings our products to life; we work hard to create layers of flavour which should unravel after every sip.
"We find constant inspiration from our customers on what we should create next. I think that’s important to balance that customer demand with industry knowledge on how to create flavour.
"Our new X_series is our chance to trial out their recommendations at a micro scale and gain valuable feedback before taking the best recipes to commercial scale.”
When it comes to location as inspiration, Gregor draws, once again, on his wine experience, saying: “In wine they talk a lot about terroir, but I don’t think your average customer is ready for that conversation in soft drinks yet.
"But we’re working on it. I think we have some of the best fresh produce in the world and often it's grown only an hour or two away from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
"There’s nothing better than biting into the freshest strawberries in the height of summer and I’m sure that’s down to our colder climate and slow growth. Because of the quality of the fruit we can get locally, our job is to capture that flavour as best we can.
"We work hard to integrate layers of flavour in our sodas which unravel over time, but the primary fruit always needs to be top quality and fresh as a daisy.”
He added: “I do worry that the long term effects of supermarket shopping are breaking the connection with what is grown and what is consumed, and ultimately then can make or break the people producing for them. We want to shorten that supply chain, from producer to consumer.”
A cornerstone of the business is sustainability, something that’s at the forefront of most people’s minds after COP26 in Glasgow.
Gregor said of this, “Buying locally is more sustainable. Not just on reducing emissions in transport, but keeping money in the local economy, giving the soil a chance to recover and getting the best, freshest product to the consumer faster.
"We’re making decisions now that should ensure Rapscallion is here for a long time, not just a good time.”
Sustainability is also part of his future plans, “the ultimate goal is to build a carbon negative, regenerative production facility in the heart of Scotland but that will take time, money and support to bring to life in the near future,” Gregor said.
Despite a challenging couple of years, Gregor is looking to continue to grow the business and raise investment in Scotland.
He said: “Growing the business alone has been incredibly challenging, but also hugely rewarding. We are now at the stage where I’m looking to bring the right commercial experience to our Board of Directors and inject cash into our production facility to meet the demand here in the UK and beyond.
"This year, we are looking to bring on the right talent, releasing more small batch innovation projects online, and rebuilding the business on a digital foundation to allow us to grow rapidly from 2023.”
Find out more about Rapscallion and buy online.