A tale of two gins

You would never have put Bute down as home to a thriving craft distillery business. But here we are: it is home to two small distilleries specialising in artisan gins: Spirit of Bute and Isle of Bute Gin. While they are businesses that need to turn a profit to succeed and grow, they both have very different aims and philosophies. I took the opportunity to visit both and to speak with them about what first attracted them to Bute and what their ambitions are for their brand and for the island they call their home.

Sprit of Bute Rothesay gin and Cushiedoos tonic.

Spirit of Bute is a small family concern currently based in a former greengrocer at 79 Montague Street. Its owner, Keith McIntyre, decided to up sticks, pack in his job as a social worker and invest almost everything he has into this venture. “It’s my pension”, he says, calmly and unapologetically. It has to succeed because there is so much at risk. We were constantly interrupted by a steady stream of customers – both visitors to the island escaping the showers and locals topping up their drinks cabinet and buying birthday presents. No one left without buying something, and some people bought a lot. Keith was the consummate salesman, taking a genuine interest in his customers, even offering them umbrellas that they could just pop through the letterbox when they were done with them. Some of the customers were even treated to a free tote bag (retail price £9).

About his ideas for the immediate and long-term future, well Keith had plenty to say, and all of it optimistic and positive. First, Spirit of Bute has diversified from distilling gin (which is still the main focus) of which he has two main lines – the Rothesay and the Ettrick – and occasional special runs, such as the Bute Dry Gin and the Pride of Bute Gin in support of LGBTQ+ and Pride. Keith also hand blends whisky and added rum to his offering (including a salted caramel rum that I am reliably informed is delicious). In addition, he sells a wide range of gins from craft distillers the length and breadth of Scotland and has a fine range of craft bottled beers, in addition to the branded T-shirts, baseball caps, towels, tote bags, pins, badges, posters, card, sweatshirts, hoodies, glasses, bottle openers, magnets and, soon, umbrellas that he is considering making available free for passers-by to return on an honesty system or “steal” and then provide cheap advertising.

For the longer-term future, Keith, who was one of the driving forces behind the Isle of Bute Business Improvement District, believes local businesses need to step up to make the island more attractive to residents and tourists alike. He is aware that in these days of ever more strained budgets, local authorities are increasingly focusing their limited resources on statutory services, with there being very little money left over for aesthetic improvements or even Christmas trees and decorations: all things that attract people to locations and encourage them to spend money to support the local economy. He recognises that there is resistance to the BID, which places a levy on local businesses to fund agreed improvements, but Keith believes these kinds of programmes are increasingly essential, and, he adds, it is better for people and businesses in the community whose livelihoods depend on the success of an idea to decide what is needed rather than a group of elected councillors sitting in Lochgilphead.

Spirit of Bute pin.

As for the future? He hopes the BID will be able to make a difference to the island, and to the town in particular, perhaps by making aesthetic improvements to the likes of Montague Street – long the town’s main shopping street – which is now looking tired and in need of some sparkle. He thinks the town would benefit from a good quality delicatessen, which could sit alongside a butcher’s, fishmonger’s, grocers and all kinds of craft cafes, bookshops and much more. A hipster’s dream? Perhaps. But then we all need dreamers, and Rothesay in general and Montague Street, in particular, could do with this kind of vision.

And looking beyond the shop and BID, Keith, a keen motorcyclist, also has an idea that could benefit the whole island: encourage motorcyclists to come over and spend some time on Bute. It has beautifully quiet, curvaceous and undulating roads that are perfect for motorcyclists. Also, he continued, most weekend motorcyclists tend to be middle-aged and upwards: people who usually have some disposable income and who are not afraid to spend it. As an idea, it has its merits. Keith will also be the first to admit that no one suggestion is a complete answer, but surely they are all part of the answer.

And with that, Keith had to return to his customers, making them feel welcome and important and rewarding their purchases with a free tote bag. It’s the small things.

Isle of Bute oyster gin.

The larger of the two concerns is the Isle of Bute Gin Company, which is based in an old storage building behind the Mansion House – the former offices of the Bute Estate factor – opposite the police station on the High Street. There I met Iona Buick, the distillery manager, who spoke about the international success of their gin and how all six of their products have been accepted into the Scottish Gin Awards.

The Isle of Bute Gin company is focused on expanding its markets and selling its product as widely as possible, and to do so – as a small batch craft distillery – while maintaining the quality for which it is renowned among gin aficionados.

Currently, the distillery produces six small-batch gins. There is Gorse, made with hand-picked yellow gorse flowers from the Mount Stuart estate, which has hints of coconut and vanilla; Heather, with wild heather from Bute, which has a citrus finish; Island, a herbaceous and fruity gin that lends itself to life on the Scottish isles; Oaked, distilled using aged oak Scottish whisky barrels to extract natural flavours of vanilla; the limited edition Calums Cabin in aid of the Calums Cabin charity – this is a fresh floral gin made with botanicals found across the Isle of Bute, including the thistle root that grows around Calums Cabin at the Straad, near St Ninian’s Bay; then finally, the very special Oyster, the world’s first oyster gin, which is made with Loch Fyne oyster shells to create a savoury drink that needs to be tasted to believed.

Isle of Bute Gin distillery is also at the heart of the Bute Yard food and drink hub that is due to open on a site next to the distillery’s current location. Bute Yard will be a place for small businesses, produce stalls, butchers, grocers and fishmongers to offer their wares in a project that is committed to growing food and drink tourism on the island. As a key part of this development, Isle of Bute Gin will move into larger premises alongside the craft Bute microbrewery. The yard will also hold regular farmers markets and fairs to support and complement existing events, providing both the island and the town with a new attraction to welcome locals and tourists alike.

The Isle of Bute gin still.

In the meanwhile, Isle of Bute Gin intends to focus on producing high-quality gins and marketing them to the world.

Two micro-distilleries, both established within the past three years, and both producing quality products and succeeding on their own terms. Both these businesses are, in their own way, putting the Isle of Bute on the map and serving as examples as to what is possible, if only we are prepared to think a little outside the box.


Spirit of Bute

Isle of Bute Gin

Bute Yard

Isle of Bute BID

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