Isle of Bute Gin's Story
Taste of Place Trails Stories
Iona and Jessie are the two members of the Isle of Bute Gin Company’s growing team who sit down to speak with me about the business. Iona is the distillery manager, based on Bute, while Jessie is the marketing coordinator, and splits her time between their warehouse in Glasgow and the island distillery. It is evident within the first few minutes of talking to Iona and Jessie that both of them are deeply passionate about the gin, speaking about it with fondness and eloquence.
Distilling the story
Isle of Bute Gin started in 2018 when Rhona Madigan-Wheatley, the director of the company, bumped into head distiller Simon Tardivel at a festival. It was Rhona’s dad who originally had the idea for the gin, and the chance meeting with Simon was the catalyst for taking it from an idea into a fully fledged distillery. The gin started life in Glasgow, with botanicals being brought over from Bute, before their distilling operations moved entirely to the island at the beginning of 2020 when they were finally able to secure suitable premises. Their move to the island coincided with other exciting opportunities, as they were able to open a beer garden in the distillery courtyard, offering a much needed outdoor venue for the people of Rothesay during the pandemic.
The full experience on Bute
Now that restrictions are easing, the distillery is expanding once again, and Jessie excitedly tells me of their imminent plans to open an indoor space ahead of the busy tourist season. Their current outdoor beer garden has room for twenty people, while the new indoor space, Bute Yard, will have the capacity to accommodate up to four hundred. Simon’s background in beer brewing is being put to good use, with the new space being marketed as both a distillery and brewery, while the existing courtyard will expand to house food and coffee outlets.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a successful core product, and Isle of Bute Gin is clearly very successful. Jessie says “there’s obviously a lot of local love for it but the brand itself has a lot of UK-wide recognition, we’re in some really great spots.” She says they have plans to expand into the US market, and several distribution routes already in place across Europe. There are six gins in the range, all using botanicals and special ingredients from the island itself. Their Oyster gin is particularly interesting, with the flavour from locally harvested oyster shells being directly imparted into the spirit. It was inspired by oyster stouts, which Simon had experience with from his beer brewing days, though it took some experimentation to get right – apparently early iterations used the whole shellfish, and didn’t quite have the desired results! They’ve now honed it into a delicious and unusual gin, and recommend pairing it with chillies and ginger which, in itself, sets it apart from other gins which usually favour a citrus garnish. Other oyster gins have now appeared on the market but Iona and Jessie are confident that Isle of Bute Gin was the first to have the idea, a fact they take evident pride in.
The makers behind the product
Jessie is originally from the States, and began working with the Isle of Bute Gin Company “literally three weeks before COVID” after having worked with a brewery in St Andrews. Simon was a friend of hers before she started working for the company, and would often ask her to sample new recipes and offer her opinion – “it was really nice going, ‘oh this is a fantastic product, I think it’s really really good’ and then coming and actually working for him was really neat.” She says she feels privileged that she was able “to know the product well enough as a customer beforehand”, and it’s clear that she genuinely enjoyed it and liked the taste of it before it was her job to sell and promote it.
Iona’s dad is originally from Bute but the island was never home for her, having grown up around Stirling and central Scotland. She had just returned from travelling when the COVID pandemic hit, and opted to move to Bute to stay with her dad to make the most of the views and fresh air during lockdown. She only planned to stay for a few months, but that was in 2020, and she’s still there now. Iona says of her journey working at the distillery; “I actually started painting the barrels outside… so it was just a helping hand at first, and then I started helping in the bar… and then worked my way up to be the distillery manager now.”
Serving up local opportunities
While it sounds like everything is going from strength to strength for the Isle of Bute Gin team and their expansion of Bute Yard, Iona admits she is a little worried about being able to staff a venue serving 400 people. However, as she says, “[the] whole idea of creating Bute Yard was to bring a younger generation back. To have that job opportunity there for a lot of younger people and hopefully just rejuvenate the island a little bit”, so she’s confident that the venue opening will in turn create opportunities for people on the island which may not have been there before.
With the spirit of the Isle of Bute at its heart, and its plants and produce giving the gin its distinctive flavour, it’s only natural that the Isle of Bute Gin Company’s next step should be creating a venue which celebrates all these things – a place which is as much for island locals to enjoy and take pride in their home as it is for visitors to experience it for the first time. Iona and Jessie clearly each bring their own passion, skills and experience to the team, and their love of the product and its impact is evident. With the imminent arrival of Bute Yard on the Rothesay scene, it looks like this is shaping up to be the Isle of Bute Gin Company’s busiest year yet.