The Single Estate Gin Distillery Trying to Save Juniper
In the grassy Scottish Highlands, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and a blustery, wet sand beach, there lies of a 2,000-acre farm and distillery called the Arbikie Highland Estate that is quietly changing the spirits industry.
For four generations, the Stirling family has been stewards of the estate—a farm dating back to the 12th century that once belonged to a Scottish king. Iian, David, and John Stirling—three brothers—have worked on their family’s land most of their lives. Originally, the farm produced barely, wheat, potatoes, and rye. It wasn’t until the early aughts that the brothers realized they could be using the farm’s natural resources for their own ends, and in 2012, they established a gin and vodka distillery . Two years later, Arbikie released its first potato vodka, with the mission of becoming one of the most progressive and sustainable gin and vodka distilleries in the world. Their number one concern? Juniper.
In 2015, scientific journal Plantlife released a study contending that juniper, the shrub used to make gin, is critically endangered due to the spread of a fungal disease called phytophthora austrocedrae. Though the study described Scotland as the “last remaining stronghold” for the plant, less than one-third of the wild crops were said to be fit for usage.
“We decided to take steps to protect it,” David Stirling told me.
Juniper is a sturdy plant; its prickly shrubs prefer a mild climate, and it's usually found growing on a mountainside near the ocean. The Stirling brothers decided to transplant juniper out of its natural habitat and cultivate it on their farmland, protecting it from the pathogen that has been ravaging juniper stocks and threatening gin production.
“When the BBC came [to visit the farm], we basically said they couldn’t enter the field so they couldn’t transfer anything to the juniper,” Stirling says. “We’re looking after that crop by making it commercial.”
The Stirlings didn't stop at juniper, however. They now grow all of their own botanicals, down to the potatoes used in their vodka. The few exceptions include the strawberries in the Arbikie Strawberry Vodka, which come from a cousin who runs his own farm just next door. Occasionally they'll buy chipotle chilies from another nearby farm, too. Otherwise, Arbikie subscribes to a strict single estate policy.
“We plant, grow, and harvest all within the distillery itself,” Stirling explains. “By growing our own ingredients, we’re controlling our own destiny.”
This strategy keeps the farm’s carbon footprint at nearly zero. Arbikie’s focus on sustainability is especially visionary as farm-to-table restaurants surge in popularity.
“We believe in drinking the way we eat,” says Stirling. “We’ve seen this joined up process where the chef looks to the farmer, and now the bartender is looking toward the distiller.” He calls the Arbikie method of distilling spirits, “field-to-bottle.”
Field-to-bottle means that there is “complete traceability” for the consumer in the way Arbikie spirits are crafted. The distillery doesn’t buy a neutral grain spirit—a generic alcohol base that can flavored or turned into different spirits—from an outside source. Instead, the Arbikie team distills every element of their gin, vodka, and newly released rye, from scratch. Arbikie even has its own lagoon on the farm, from which the distillers source their water.
“You can trace [the spirits] back to the exact field where the botanicals came from,” explains Stirling.
Arbikie grows three different types of potatoes for its vodkas (Stirling says that he thinks of his potato crops as a winemaker might think of his vineyard): the King Edward, Maris Piper, and Cultra. These potatoes give Arbikie vodka a creamy texture and a rich mouthfeel, with black pepper, spice, and pear notes. Meanwhile, the nearby beach provides seaweed, which is used to flavor the gin, along with blaeberry and carmine thistle.
Arbikie also produces the only gluten-free gin (it’s potato based, like the vodka) in the entire United Kingdom. And this year, Arbikie’s AK Gin nabbed the award for the World’s Best Martini. In December of 2017, Arbikie also became the first Scottish distillery to produce a rye whiskey in 200 years. At the moment, the distillery working on producing a “100 percent home grown” single malt Scotch whiskey.
The Stirling brothers' vision—to foster a spirits industry where sustainability and transparency are the norm—is imperative as more consumers demand that farmers, distillers, and food producers from every corner of the industry become more conscious of their impact on the environment. Their product happens to taste divine, too (when I initially met David Stirling at Sun Food & Wine Festival, he presented me with the best gin and tonic I had ever tasted, by a long shot). At Arbikie, two worlds—nature and spirits—are finally learning to work together.