Meet the distiller: Kirsty Black

Here at Flavourly, we try our best to introduce you to the companies spearheading the craft alcohol movement – whether that be a farmhouse brewery in rural England or a burgeoning distillery from Scotland’s rugged coast. Each company has its own fierce identity and aesthetic, with quality drinks to match. This month we delve a little deeper into one of these companies and meet one of the individuals behind the scenes, integral to the production of the delicious drink that arrives on your doorstep. Kirsty Black is Master Distiller at the Arbikie Highland Estate and it is her signature gin that will be finding its way onto your taste buds this month. We chatted to Kirsty to find out more about how she got into distilling and how she goes about making the gin that so proudly bears her name.

Try Kirstys Delicious Gin!

As it turns out, distilling wasn’t the first choice for Kirsty. It wasn’t even remotely related to the first choice, in fact. “Prior to discovering the world of alcohol production, I was an engineer in the medical device industry working in the glamorous worlds of diabetes monitoring and pregnancy test kits,” Black explains. Ten years down this line, however, a change was needed. Kirsty packed her bags and returned to Scotland to attend Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University – famed for its courses in brewing and distilling.

Black’s younger years had involved weekends “surrounded by big pans, hops and bubbling fermenters” in various dabbles with homebrewing, so studying brewing seemed liked a logical step. During this time, Black worked with Edinburgh brewing stalwarts Caledonian Brewery, along with a new, smaller outfit called Barney’s Beer. This then led to her crossing paths with the future founders of Pickering’s Gin, who distil in Summerhall in the city (a space also shared with Barney’s Beer), and it was this meeting that changed Black’s perspective.

“I helped them set up the distillery and design Pickering’s Gin; my interest in distilling had truly piqued. It fuses two of my loves; plants and alcohol!”

Black’s Masters degree project also brought her into contact with the Stirling family, owners of the Arbikie Highland Estate in Angus. She learnt about their plans to set up a distillery and when they offered her the opportunity to head up the operation, it was a chance that couldn’t be missed. Given a blank canvas in the form of an empty shed, it was Kirsty’s job to build the distillery, licenses as well as creating and developing their products. She explains that working for a new outfit was “an amazing opportunity but a never-ending learning experience”. Every start-up faces its challenges but Black highlighted how she was lucky that there were several people on the estate who had the skills and experiences needed in some of the difficult times. “We’ve been very fortunate that the estate already has such a wealth of experience and knowledge. From welding to woodwork, there isn’t much these guys can’t do.” Occasionally, a little additional assistance is needed but even that isn’t far away. “The few times we need external help, there is nearly always a local company ready and eager to face the new challenges of the distillery”.

What guides Black’s distilling is a dedication to the individual mechanisms, cogs and gears that help make the final product. “I have a constant desire to understand how things work. Every product is different but to make anything I go right back to the basics and asking questions like “What is the structure of a potato?” or “What are the flavour compounds in that plant? Are they good, bad, stable?” Once you’ve developed a theoretical idea on how to make something then the trials can begin”.

This ethos, based around the precise minutiae contributing to the greater whole, may have something to do with Black’s training and qualification as a plant scientist. And this interest in plants also transferred quite nicely to gin distillation. “I originally graduated from university with a degree in plant science and, despite never having a job in it directly, my fascination of being able to walk along a path, munch on seemingly unassuming plants and experience a flavour explosion lived on”. This provided a creative foundation for the Kirsty’s Gin recipe. She spent a summer researching Scottish gin botanicals while at Heriott-Watt, giving her the chance to apply what she had learnt about local flora and share knowledge with other plant enthusiasts. This meant that when she arrived at Arbikie and saw the stunning surroundings, she already had a library of potential flavours that could be used to best capture the area in liquid form.

Indeed, her gin uses some of the more common gin botanicals, namely juniper, angelica root, coriander seed, liquorice and orris root. What makes it distinctive, however, are three special ingredients that capture the ocean, rock and land that surround the distillery.

Firstly, there’s seaweed (specifically Atlantic Oarweed): “The seaweed we use grows widely around the coast of Scotland. It brings coastal, salty notes to our gin capturing the sea which we sit and look out onto everyday across Lunan Bay. The sea is a presence that envelops our distillery so it is a very important botanical in our gin”. Carline Thistle Root is another unique ingredient. Kirsty explained, “[It] is a shoreline plant with a distinctive daisy-like flower. It grows close by on the rocky, sandier soils and we use the root to add warm, aromatic notes to the gin”. Last but not least are Blaeberries: “This Scottish blueberry grows in abundance within a stone’s throw of the distillery. We use the small berries to add warm, rounded, middle notes to the gin”. And while Black doesn’t believe in a ‘perfect serve’ as such, if she was making a gin and tonic with her gin it would be garnished with blueberries and a twist of lemon to best complement the botanicals.

Arbikie is pretty unique in that they grow, harvest, distil from scratch, mature and bottle all in one location: “At Arbikie, we use our potato vodka as the base spirit from potatoes grown on the farm.” As the gin market gets ever busier, distillers need unique selling points that make their products stand out. While Kirsty doesn’t think that we have reached ‘peak-gin’ yet, she predicts that customer’s interests will be directed more at the provenance of the raw ingredients used in gin production. “Much like in food, where people are interested in where the ingredients come from, consumers will be looking for the same information about their favoured gins”. If she is correct, then Arbikie is all set to tackle the future head on with full traceability of ingredients and innovative recipes.

“Our aim is simple, to become the most progressive distillery in the world”.

Originally published in Issue 3 of our Flavourly magazine. Written by William Moss.

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