Set up by husband-and-wife team Martin and Claire Murray nearly a decade ago, Dunnet Bay Distillers is located in Caithness in the far north of Scotland.
The couple are passionate about handcrafting spirits that celebrate the heritage and provenance of this wild corner of north, priding themselves on using local hand-foraged botanicals.
The distillery is most renowned for producing the multi-award winning Rock Rose Gin, a flavourful and fresh, zesty yet berryful gin, which features a carefully selected collection of local and traditional botanicals. Perhaps most noticeably, it was also pioneering in offering fully recyclable refill pouches, so you can keep your bottle for life.
Along with a range of Rock Rose Gin Editions – from Navy Strength and Seasonal Editions to an Old Tom Pink Grapefruit and Guest Flavours – Dunnet Bay Distillers also offers a Holy Grass Vodka and a newly released Mapmakers Rum.
We caught up with co-founder Martin Murray to hear about their journey over the past ten years…
Do you remember your first ever taste of gin?
I think I do, actually. I was flying to Huddersfield for a course when I was working with Zeneca on a Year in Industry placement. The chap next to me ordered a gin and tonic, and I thought I would have the same. I really enjoyed it and it’s still the drink I associated with flying.
What was the first gin which really caught your attention?
I remember being in a bar in Bergen and being recommended Hendricks Gin for the first time. Everyone drinking it with cucumber caught my attention as it had always been lemon or lime in my gins before then.
When did you decide ‘I want to make this stuff’?
I loved brewing and distilling when I was at Heriot Watt University doing my Chemical Engineering degree and I think ever since then it’s what I wanted to do. When our family came along it gave us the spark to go on our own adventure.
Talk us through your career up until Dunnet Bay Distillers?
I moved into a graduate role in the nuclear industry after leaving university. It was the wrong role for me, so I moved to work with Total Energy in Aberdeen. Working there was brilliant. I was given responsibility and confidence as an engineer and I worked offshore for three years before moving to France as a Project Manager.
After France, I moved onto a BP project as Start-up Engineer for a major project for them in the North Sea. It was an interesting role as we were tying a new project into an ageing platform. I finished the project as Lead Start-up Engineer bringing first gas and first oil onto the platform. I worked like crazy when I was offshore – but I was writing our gin business plan in the evenings.
How long did it take to finalise the recipe for Rock Rose Gin? Talk us through the process – both creative and thought.
Myself and my wife Claire launched Dunnet Bay Distillers with our signature spirit Rock Rose Gin back in 2014. We’re based in the spectacular bay of Dunnet in the far North of Scotland. It’s a beautiful place to live and work and so we wanted to create a gin that really captured the heritage and provenance of our home county of Caithness and showcases the abundance of botanicals in our local environment.
As we were waiting on equipment to arrive at the distillery we started doing small-scale trials with different local botanicals. In the end we did a total of 55 trials featuring over 80 different botanicals.
We had a simple goal of making our favourite gin. Simple, but hard to achieve! I think it was around 8-10 months before we fell in love with the gin that is now Rock Rose Gin. We were very popular back then as we were always looking for taste testers!
What’s been a highlight for you since you launched?
For the business, it was winning Scottish Gin Distillery of the year at the Scottish Gin Awards.
We didn’t think we’d win and almost missed the announcement. On a personal note, winning the Outstanding Contribution to Scottish Gin Award 2023 Winner this year as my peers nominated me. I think it’s nice that I’ve been able to help people in the industry and they recognised that.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
I love reading the great feedback on our products and tours. Our team does a great job!
What lesson did you wish you knew when you embarked on the business?
I wish I’d known to appreciate the early days more. I think I was terrified that we’d be a business that would fail in the first three years and couldn’t ever appreciate the achievements.
We were very popular back then as we were always looking for taste testers!
You run the business alongside your wife Claire – do you find it difficult to switch off from work?
We do a little bit. If we are in a restaurant it’s only natural that you look at the drinks menu first! Claire has great discipline in keeping work away from family time. We have times at home where we talk about work, but these are limited. It’s important to have time to be a family and time together without chatting about work. We are a family first – and the business comes second.
Sustainability is at the heart of the company. Talk us through the Refill Rewards Club...
Sustainability has indeed been at the heart of the company since the very beginning. Our loyal fans loved our bottles and kept asking for a solution to make the bottle a bottle for life. The refill pouches that we brought to market were the first fully recyclable pouches with a freepost return scheme. We won awards for this and since then there have been numerous brands that have followed in our footsteps, which is pretty cool.
The refill rewards scheme helps reward our customers with free snacks and tonics if they sign up to a subscription. It’s been incredibly popular and we now do “Guest” pouches that means our subscribers get exclusive gins. The recent fig leaf and apple mint was incredible! Hats off to our gardener Hanna for the recipe.
What are you working on next?
We’re working on a couple of key areas for the business. First off is growing our gin sales overseas. Our recent relaunch in the US is exciting and we’ve had consistent re-orders, so it’s going well.
Our big focus is the conservation and revitalisation of Castletown Mill, turning it into the home of Stannergill Whisky.
The Mill is a historic building anchored in the Caithness landscape and as the new custodians, we’re looking forward to regenerating and breathing new life into the building. Our aim is to sensitively restore the Mill to become the brand new home for our expansion into the Whisky market, producing a new Caithness single malt whisky – Stannergill Whisky, which we hope will become a legacy brand.
By creating a destination distillery to educate visitors on the history of the mill and celebrate the heritage of the site, we really want to re-establishing the Mill as a proud Caithness landmark once again. The contract has started and we’re hoping to finish the project in early 2025.
You make gin, rum and vodka. But if you could only drink one spirit for the rest of your life, what would you choose and why?
It has to be whisky. Whisky is synonymous with Scotland and if I am making and drinking whisky for the rest of my life, then it will mean the mill project was a success. It’s likely the toughest challenge I’ve had and still excites and terrifies me in equal measure! I love the mill, but restoring a 200-year-old building has its challenges.
To find out more and discover the full range visit: dunnetbaydistillers.co.uk