From graduate civil engineer, to software systems and IT consultant to whisky distillery owner might not seem the most obvious career path for shaping a successful business. It seems as if no-one is more surprised by the transition than Tony Reeman-Clark, Strathearn’s Founder.
“Whisky was the only drink that gave me a hangover. I was finishing up a project in my previous role and was presented with a large whisky at the end of the night. Thinking of the hangover, I drank it (it would have been rude not to) only to discover the following morning that my head felt fine and clear! The scientist within was intrigued. After lots of ‘research’ I discovered that if I drank a good single malt, with slow distilled, well-defined cut points, then you get a good heart spirit with very little of the ‘nasties’ at either end.
“It was like waking up in one of the best wine regions in the world and finding that for the first time, you can drink it!”
What followed was a wonderful period of whisky discovery, during which Tony spent two years absorbing all the myths, romance and falsehoods associated with whisky distillation. In much the same way as a whisky matures in the cask, an idea began to mature, catalysed during a tasting session held during the Whisky Fringe six years ago. Tony’s idea evolved into a plan to open a small distillery.
“Initially, I was interested in re-starting production at the famed Rosebank Distillery in Falkirk, but that proved to be a dead end. After lots of false starts, pure chance led me to our current site at Methven.”
Tony continues: “We started building the distillery in January 2013 and our licenses followed the following August. Our first whisky, a limited run of just 100 bottles, was bottled in December 2016.”
Tony admits that Strathearn being the first small distillery, it hit every bump in the road along the way, but finally the first release was made to the waiting world.
“We didn’t know what to do with our first bottling, which is why we chose an auction site on a 12-week run, commemorating our third anniversary since securing our license. To be honest, I expected to be ringing up family and friends in week 10, trying to encourage some bids.
“The reality was, we had a bid on every bottle within 10 hours! Within two weeks, bottle number one was up to £2000, leading us to hold a sweepstake in the office as to how high it would go – no-one was close to the final total!” Bottle number one finally sold for more than £4,000, a figure Tony believes might well be the highest amount paid for any first production bottle from a distillery.
The rebirth of craft distilling
Having helped to set up the Scottish Craft Distillers Association (SCDA) in 2013, a group which Tony chaired for more than three years, he has seen a renaissance in craft distilling across Scotland.
“I look upon the movement as a new industry. As a result, a lot of supporting industries are returning, and new innovations such as modular maltings units are opening-up the sector in new ways. Coopers are returning; coppersmiths are returning and the sector is attracting people of all age groups.
“We’re fortunate that we’re one of the few producers in the UK licensed to distil anything. While trying to find the right site for a whisky distillery, I began experimenting with gins. That led to the creation of our three main gins at the time: Heather Rose, Citrus and Oaked, all of which we continue to sell,” says Tony.
“At that point, a friend from Thistly Cross Cider rang me up to say they had 2,000 spare litres of cider and was there anything I could do with it. We decided to distil it, and our cider brandy was born. We currently distil gin and rum for a wide range of clients.”
With a new rum product launch imminent, and a tequila just around the corner, the distillery is bursting at the seams. The business’s meteoric growth has led to the launch of a new brand, Strathearn Distillers, encompassing the wide range of spirits now being produced, with the dedicated Strathearn Distillery brand being retained solely for whisky.
“Looking back to the original decision to start a distillery, I always thought this would be a small lifestyle business. But we’re now getting so busy that we’re having to solve logistical problems and seeking ways to improve our efficiency.
“The phrase I use is ‘Innovate to be traditional’. We ferment slowly, at a lower temperature, we distil more slowly – a slow distillation movement if you like – because it’s all about creating the perfect taste. Everything we do, is driven by flavour.”
Further info: www.strathearndistillery.com