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Martin Murray - Rock Rose

Rock Rose bottles
Written by Gin Foundry

Established in 2014, Rock Rose Gin has fast become an established presence in the UK’s gin scene and has proved to be one of the most exciting releases of the past few years. We caught up with distiller and co-founder Martin Murray to talk about his journey so far and life behind the stills of Dunnet Bay Distillery.

Gin Foundry - Hi Martin, great to talk talk with you again. You were working in the oil industry for a while, having studied brewing and distilling previously. What made you want to begin distilling again and to set up a craft distillery?

Martin Murray - I think that there were a number of drivers that led to the set-up of the distillery. First and foremost, I loved brewing and distillation, and I wanted to set-up a distillery to run whilst I was working offshore. I think at the time I seen it as a longer term transition in careers. Then I realised that setting up a distillery could allow us to bring up our family in our home county and I could leave the oil industry quicker than I could have dreamed. This was a real motivator and I think that got me through the hard times!

Talking of the “home county” - the distillery is based in Caithness, making it one of the most remote distilleries in the UK. Was that a challenge for you and was there any reason you chose to set it up there in particular?

Dunnet has always been our family home. My wife’s family go back generations here, and it was an easy decision to come home and build a distillery here. However, it is remote and indeed very challenging. That said, our distillery is 1 mile from our house, and I can walk along the beach or through a field to get to it. In the winter I tend to hitch a lift.

The early days are always exiting but must have been daunting too. There are huge learning curves and immensely satisfying milestones - what was the journey like for you setting Rock Rose Gin up and seeing it all come together?

It was daunting! I remember coming back onshore after being away for 3 weeks and their was a building in our field, and it felt so scary! Especially as we are both from different industries with no prior experience. The journey has been amazing so far. We’ve had some unbelievable experiences, but also some really hard times. The most fulfilling part is seeing our bottle on a shelf or hearing someone raving about our gin. That’s why we do it, and it’s the best bit about our job.

You’ve recently expanded your team but much like David & Fiona from Shortcross, Ian and Hilary at Sacred, at the core of the distillery are you and Claire, a husband and wife team. What’s it like working together?

It’s fun, but we are careful to ensure that it doesn’t swallow up our lives. We try to keep work as work, and separate it from our family life. I think a bigger challenge was having our parents (my dad and Claire’s mum) as our first employees. It keeps us very grounded and we still make the tea!

That’ll certainly keep you on your toes! You use both local and more classic botanicals - how long did it take for you to perfect your selection and the final recipe?

A long lead time and the planning process gave us over 18 months of trials. We infused a lot of vodka to trial different botanicals. In the end it was over 80 botanicals and 55 different gin recipes. Great fun.

In terms of recipes and distilling, you are one of the few distilleries to vapour infuse the botanicals - could you describe how you distil Rock Rose Gin?

My background is in operational engineering, and I trialled the distillation purely by taste. It means that I load our still at around 60% ABV with a wheat neutral grain spirit. It takes 2 hours to heat our still (it’s an electrically heated water bath still from John Dore to my requirements).

The vapour comes off and picks up flavour from our low height basket before being condensed in a shell and tube condenser - we use water from the burn at the back of the distillery to cool this. I collect the first part of the spirit as I find the juniper oils burn too much. It then takes a further 8-9 hours to collect product and then we collect some tales for re-distilling. We use 18 botanicals to produce our gin. It’s technically a London Dry Gin.

You have released two gins now, one is your flagship Rock Rose Gin, the other at Navy Strength. For those who haven’t tasted it, how would you describe their flavour?

It is quite a complex gin, and I seem to pick up different notes a different times of the year. When I taste it I really enjoy the warm, fresh juniper taste, which is followed by a nice berry taste and the lemon sherbet finish is quite something.

The Navy Strength has a stronger juniper profile than the regular strength Rock Rose. It has the same complexity, but tends to shine better in drinks like the Negroni.

I drink Rock Rose as a Gin & Tonic, and Navy Strength as a night cap with a touch of tepid water.

You also release limited edition Gins and “distiller’s cuts” which are both innovative and experimental. Could you tell us a little more about that side of the distillery and what you’ve done so far?

I still want to learn about aromas and tastes, and keep doing my experiments. We’ve done some really fun things in the past 16 months, and the distillers editions gives the drinker a chance to enter my world! I wish I could tell you some of the things we’ve created, but time will reveal all.  Our Lassies Toast Gin is the first one for 2016, and it is a gin for Burns Night. We’ve based the gin recipe on the Moorland Tea that Rabbie is reputed to have enjoyed. We’ve got speedwell, berry leaves and wild thyme and it is rather unusual.

Sounds like it! Gin aside, one of the other things that is striking are the bottles themselves. Who came up with the idea(s) and direction regarding the ceramic bottle and overall design?

We work with a lovely team of designers at Pocket Rocket, and when we seen the concepts we fell in love. We had a shortlist of concepts printed off, and we hung them on a washing line in our kitchen and removed a design each day. We ended up with the one that we had loved from the start.

Interestingly our initial feedback from the industry was that it didn’t look like a gin bottle, but we made a brave decision and went with what we liked.

You did right, it looks great. The demand for gin in general has grown hugely over the years, with many now available in a competitive market place. In your opinion, what makes your gin stand out from the rest?

Our bottle definitely attracts people, but the gin keeps people coming back for more. People really like the fact that we started our distillery on our own and that we took the leap into doing it full time.

Talking of which - you’ve gone though this huge growth in less than two years, gaining the support and gin enthusiasts and bartenders alike in a such a short timeframe. What’s the next big objective for the next 18 months?

Our growth has been a by product of us having fun and doing what we love doing. I want to keep on doing this. We’ve been overwhelmed by the support our wee gin has received. We thought it would take 3 years for anyone outside Scotland to even know we existed. The fans have allowed me to quit my old job and do this full time at home. I can’t say thank you enough for that.

And last but not least… What’s your favourite way to enjoy Rock Rose Gin?

Well…..as a husband and wife team we cannot agree on every thing! I love it with Fever-Tree tonic (1 to 2) with a sprig of freshly toasted rosemary. Claire enjoys it with Fever-Tree tonic (1 to 3) with a curl of orange peel.