A distillery with a difference

CEO Anderson Bakewell had a vision that a 'social distillery' built with and for the people of Harris could help address the island's economic problems. Managing Director Simon Erlanger tells us how this dream came to fruition, and why he thinks putting sustainability and community at the heart of their mission helped them to secure the funding they needed from HSBC.

“Our founder and chairman Anderson Bakewell has had connections to Harris for about half a century,” Erlanger explains. “He came here on holiday as a young man and fell in love with the island. However, over this period of time, the population has more than halved - from about 4,000 in its heyday to less than 2,000 today."

Bottling the essence of the island

Bakewell was, according to Erlanger, enchanted by Harris and its people, and wanted to help breathe life into the island again. “He recognised that a distillery would not just be a direct employer of people for generations, but it would attract visitors to the island, too, which would in turn hopefully lead to other enterprises prospering.” 

The company was founded in 2008, but it was only in September 2015 that the distillery opened its doors. The first batch of single malt isn't scheduled to be ready for bottling until 2020 at the earliest. With such long lead times, how did they ensure that they were financially secure?

An expensive undertaking

“As with any new venture, we've had our fair share of challenges but the main one will resonate with any distillery: whisky stocks need long periods of time to mature, so you need short-term revenue to tide you over. 

“To tackle this issue, we did a number of things: we sold private casks to individuals, meaning that they will have their own barrel of Isle of Harris single malt lying in the warehouse; we opened the distillery to visitors  - 70,000 in our first year in fact, which included a shop selling lots of interesting items  - including our Isle of Harris gin. This has been the big winner for us.”

Building the brand

The gin, Erlanger says, massively exceeded expectations. “It's brought in significantly higher revenues than we had anticipated, which it turn has enabled us to invest more in the whisky. 

“It helped us to build a reputation. So, people are now hearing about us and they're trying our gin and they're thinking, 'well, if that's how the gin is, I wonder how good the whisky will be?' 

“This really helped us when it came to securing further financing, including a seven-figure sum from HSBC, as did our social mission to create sustainable jobs and boost tourism. We've already hired 30 people, and every single one was from Harris, so we're delivering on the promises we made to our original funders. 

“That funding, allied to the success of the gin, will help us to grow faster than we had anticipated. We'll be able to invest in distilling and laying down more whisky for future sales of The Hearach single malt.” 

A different approach to distribution

In addition to their original ethos, the team decided to take a unique approach to distribution.

“In the UK, we only sell Harris Gin directly to the consumer; we don't work through distributors. So all of our custom is through people that visit the distillery or our online shop.  Once again, it's that idea of connecting the consumer to the island. I also think I'm right in saying that our click and collect service is a first for the industry.”

Erlanger explains that customers can purchase the gin online and then go to one of 40 'depositories' to collect it. At present, these are mainly situated across Scotland, but they are starting to spread south of the border.

As with their attitude to employment and community, this sets the brand apart from other gins in the market, and these differentiations, as well as the quality of their products, will continue to form the backbone of their success. 

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