The Scottish port city of Dundee made its name in the industrial revolution when it became known as the global centre for the three Js; jute, jam and journalism. The city’s fortunes may have ebbed and flowed like the tides that lap the banks of its Firth of Tay home but, in the last few years, Scotland’s fourth largest city has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Dundee has become a hub of the creative arts, so much so that the famed V & A museum is opening an outpost in the city next year. This creative spirit is manifesting itself outside of the arts, too. Small innovative businesses are capitalising on and contributing to this growing movement, including the subject of this month’s gin boxes.
Verdant Spirits was set up in 2014 by Andrew Mackenzie who, after going back to university as a “very mature student” to study a Masters Degree in Food and Drink Innovation, was inspired to start a distillery.
“I had very different ideas to pursue when I started, but a lecture from Alan Wolstenholme (now Chair of the Scottish Craft Distillers Association) on innovation in the Scottish spirits industry really sparked my interest,” Mackenzie tells us. It took a little while from the purchase of the premises, a small former engine house in Dundee, to getting the actual distilling under way and their first deliveries only started in April of 2017, but the demand for Verdant gin has been growing rapidly ever since. And for good reason.
Verdant is a classic London dry gin and while there are many London dry gins on the market, inside the zig-zagged Verdant bottle clearly dwells something very special. Mere months after the first bottles left their premises, Verdant won Gin of the Year at the inaugural Scottish Gin Awards, besting many more established distillers. This is even more impressive when you consider that Verdant was effectively being made by one person, Andrew himself, with his partner Judy looking after the finances.
“The Scottish Gin of the Year Award is a fantastic accolade for us to achieve so early on, and really makes all the hard work to date feel worthwhile,” Andrew says. “We heard on the grapevine that our gin had caused a bit of a stir amongst the judges in the London Dry Gin category and so we were hopeful of doing well there. But with it being the busiest category, with 15 other finalists, we knew competition was stiff, so even winning that category was a great result.”
To then beat contestants from five other categories was even more of a shock for Andrew: “That was beyond anything we could have expected – with so many more established and bigger brands in the fray. I hope it gives encouragement to other small, craft producers out there to continue to develop and produce cracking products full of care and integrity.”
The award-winning recipe is made up of 10 botanicals, with one or two reflecting its Dundee home. The city is the home of marmalade, so bitter orange from seville orange peel was an obvious choice for the mix. “Obviously juniper had to be the predominant flavour, as laid down in the definition of a dry gin,” Andrew explains. “Coriander and citrus flavours are also classics so they are both there and, because we bottle at quite a high strength, we have a touch of liquorice in there to round out the flavours and keep it from being too harsh.
The ingredients, while all obviously of great quality, are not necessarily unusual in the gin world. It’s Andrew’s rigorous quality control that makes Verdant what it is. He says: “I felt that many gins just ‘disappeared’ when paired with many of the modern tonics and get equally lost when used in cocktails”.
So, Andrew came up with three key criteria that his gin had to meet to avoid being lost amongst its rivals: “You had to be able to enjoy it neat, it had to make a cracking G&T (or what was the point?) and it had to make one my favourite drinks: a five to one dry martini, something very special.”
This no-frills approach to making the best drink possible is the defining ethos of Andrew’s business model. “It’s easy to get side-tracked into novelty botanicals or relying on local appeal and loyalty but that’s not, in my view, a good basis on which to build a brand with any future,” he muses. “I firmly believe that if you put your heart and soul into what you produce it shows and people appreciate that.”
It’s still very early days for Verdant but with such rapid success comes the need to evolve equally as quickly. This partly means employing more staff. It also means making the most of the space they have available to them. Andrew explains that work to restore and develop the old engine house into a visitor centre is now underway and will become a retail space and gin school come spring 2018.
When it comes to what’s next for Verdant, Andrew is looking beyond gin. Dundee has a centuries-old history of being a centre for the spirit trade, with the OVD Rum and Watson Whisky warehouses deeply ingrained in the city’s heritage. “Our next development will probably be our rum. I think it’s a really exciting spirit that’s been underrated for too long and its broad definition allows room for distillers to really express themselves in all sorts of ways.” Andrew has already developed a recipe with the brewing and distilling aficionados from Heriot Watt University, so keep an eye out for that next spring.
Most of all, however, Andrew wants Verdant to become more involved in the local community and a stop on the city’s evergrowing list of tourist destinations. With the new V & A gallery due to open and an increasing number of cruise ships dropping anchor in Dundee, there’s certainly the opportunity for Scotland’s best gin to find its way into the glasses of those from far beyond the country’s borders.