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Graham Taylor - Hills & Harbour Gin

Craft Distillery
Written by Gin Foundry

Meet Graham Taylor, the mastermind behind a Hills & Harbour Gin, a brand that if you haven’t heard of already should be on your must try lists. Visually exciting in its bottle aesthetic and with depth and story to spare in its provenance and distillery accessibility - it’s on the fast track to becoming a big name in the craft distilling scene in the UK. Ahead of the distillery’s appearance at Junipalooza London, We sat down to find out more…

Hi Graham, for those who haven’t come across you yet, who started the Crafty Distillery and when did the journey begin?

Graham Taylor|: I’m the founder and owner of the distillery. Our journey began back in late 2013, with a bit of banter with my brother Stephen. Thanks to our father we were both big fans of Scotch Whisky, and when a small whisky distillery came up for sale in Scotland we joked about how great it would be to get into the industry.

We could never have afforded it, but that conversation peeked my interest enough to uncover the exciting growth happening in craft spirits in the UK and the USA. I saw an opportunity to create a distillery known for its craft process and inclusivity. To do our approach justice we needed to create a grain to glass craft distillery that could make any spirit from scratch, with the main aim of putting the graft back in craft.

How long did it take you to get it all built and running?

It was another year in mid 2014 before we really got moving. With our brand strategy developed we set forth to design and plan our custom built grain to glass distillery. Finding the land was one big challenge. Then my father suggested an elevated piece of land with uninterrupted views across the Galloway Hills. We took our time to design a building that respected the landscape and also took advantage of the views. By mid 2015 the plans were finally submitted, and by March 2016 we finally broke ground.

And what was the highlight of the journey?

Working alongside my talented father Billy, who actually built the distillery. We soft opened in June 2017 alongside the launch of our Hills & Harbour Gin (H&H). After 4 long years, I can honestly say it was so much harder than we had ever imagined, but we’re glad we did!

You bring together 11 ingredients including traditional, locally foraged and world ingredients. Did you always have a certain vision in mind, or did it evolve as you trialled out different ideas?

The vision for our spirits has always followed our simple brand mission. ‘To create tasty honest spirits for everyone who likes a tipple.’ To achieve this our distiller Craig Rankin developed our H&H over 14 months and more than 90 necessary recipes to dial in the final blend we use today. To ensure vibrancy and a wide appeal, all of the five basic tastes of the palette are hit with elements of sweet (Mango), sour (Orange), bitter (Noble Fir) salt & umami (Seaweed). We also created sensation by hitting the nerves with subtle numbing Green Sichuan Pepper & tangy Bay Leaf. As a final twist we also wanted to involve the most important element of all – the public.

And at what point did you solicit the opinion of others (r the general public)? We remember a pack being sent out at one point ahead of the launch with the public being asked to join the process.

We made our final recipe three different ways, one heavy for your traditional gin lover, one modern and light and one sweeter for today’s gin drinker. The variations went out to over 400 of the general public, to which they fed back. Through their feedback we shaped the final balance and body, creating a gin truly developed with the people for the people.

Mango, seaweed, noble fir and green Sichuan are the botanicals that really stand out as being a little different. The fir and seaweed make sense from a geography perspective, but what about the mango? Was that a moment of brilliance or is there method to the madness?

There is always method in our madness, but ultimately the moment of brilliance has to happen when you complete the distillation and then taste it. The approach to find true vibrancy in flavour by hitting the full spectrum of 5 basic tastes was taken, but also to balance them was equally important. Juniper is bitter and the counter part to this is sweetness. Interestingly mango is not so far away from juniper in taste sharing terpenes that give a similar “piney taste” and alongside that it delivers a sweet and soft flavour to counteract the bitterness. Mango was more destined to be there rather than chosen, it was simply down to us finding a natural counterpart to the Juniper. Nothing in our H&H arrived there on a whim, all the ingredients share a similar story to how they earned their place in the balance of our gin.

Rather impressively, you go grain to glass and make Hills & Harbour from scratch! How do you get your base to 96% and what motivated you to take the extra step?

We worked hard to add a special base to our gin, using a mixture of methods to ensure our base spirit is above 96%. After milling, mashing, fermenting and stripping our local wheat, the final spirit run is done in modern reflux stills, which if you put some good stuff in, you achieve fantastic character and smoothness back out. Not only are we creating something really tasty, but crucially it’s unique to us. Putting the set up cost, time and graft to one side, why would you not want to do this step?

Do you distil both the base and the gin on the same stills or are these kept separate (for example due to the type of still / the size of it)?

The gin run is done on the same still physically, but actually a totally different still in how it works. The still is detuned to run as a pot still, giving us flavour rich product with a resulting distillate between 70-80%.

The visitor part of the distillery is clearly central to the operation. Did that emerge due to location or was that always part of the idea from the start?

From the outset it was crucial that the distillery was both destination and producer. We grew up in Galloway and know it’s special, so it was important for us to help shine a light on our region, which is often described as a mini-Scotland, as it has it all. Central to the modern building design we created a welcoming and contemporary environment for visitors to enjoy. Floor to ceiling glass takes advantage of the views to the Galloway Hills and beyond. As our Hills & Harbour Gin features botanicals from the forests and coastlines of our region, it was important that our visitors could experience directly a connection to our provenance. The distillery is almost exclusively finished with local wood and stone, with a 5m, 100 year old tree bar creating a unique and bold centre price.

How many people visit the distillery each month and what kind of tours do you offer?

Last summer we got around 4,000-5,000 visitors a month, and we see this increasing again this year. We offer two types of tour. A ‘Tour and Taste’ which takes your taste buds on a journey through our unique approach, where you can learn the secrets of our process, from how we make our very own spirit, to the botanicals we carefully selected. We also offer a unique tour called the ‘Gin Escape’. The exclusive adventure takes you on a tour of the unspoilt forests and coastlines of Galloway. We head out or the day and you help us forage for the key botanicals that make our gin unique. When we return you get to make some unique cocktails with the days foraged botanicals, and enjoy a private tour of the distillery. The Gin Escape is one of the reasons why we were voted ‘The Scottish Gin Destination of the Year’, as we offer an experience that connects our landscape and gin together.

Congratulations on scooping the prize. What’s coming up next for Hills & Harbour Gin, are you working towards a big milestone for 2019?

Our plans for Hills & Harbour Gin are to continue to build a strong reputation in the market as a distillery that only pursues products big in taste, integrity and hard work. As the craft spirits market evolves and becomes ever more crowded, the upside for us is that gin fans are now very much interested in how, who, where and why a craft spirit is made. We’re confident our real and inclusive approach will continue to earn us a place within folks, hearts minds and palettes both here in the UK and beyond.

As for our next milestone, we have a new product launching in March. In keeping with our mission it is something that appeals to a wide audience, and introduces a new product category, which we believe is a world first.