Thanks to European development funding Hilary Miller has been able to return to her home in the Isles of Scilly where multiple generations of her family have lived before to set up her own craft distilling business with her husband Arthur. After only a few years from launch the Scilly Spirit Distillery is winning a raft of awards in all the major international spirits competitions and gaining distribution around the country thanks to its initial listing with John Lewis. Richard Siddle finds out just what inspired the couple to start a distillery in Scilly.
You don’t have to look too far to be inspired when setting up a new business in the beautiful setting of the Isles of Scilly. Here’s Hilary and Arthur Miller’s story about setting up the Scilly Spirit Distillery.
Tell us about your background and how you got into the drinks industry?
Arthur Miller: I’ve worked in the drinks industry since 1995, in a number of UK and EU-wide brand marketing and management roles, initially within wine and subsequently across all drinks categories.
Hilary Miller: I cut my teeth within my family’s hotel business before forming my own corporate events and hospitality catering company in London in 1997. Ten years later, we made the decision to re-join my family on St Mary’s Island, within the Isles of Scilly, and Scilly Spirit Distillery was born in 2019.
What was the inspiration for wanting to start the distillery?
Hilary: Many generations of my family have lived on the Isles of Scilly, so our ultimate ambition was for us to join them. As soon as we arrived, I was keen to try something new and to try our hand at distilling our own gin. The Isles of Scilly had just been awarded £1.3m grant by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to support the tourism industry; its specific focus was on creating new business opportunities, employment and new tourism experiences, so our timing was spot on.
Arthur: We were fortunate to secure funding, which made it financially viable for us to progress setting up our small batch distillery. The outstanding beauty of the Isles of Scilly, whose heritage revolves around the sea, gave us both such a wealth of inspiration for both our gin and the design of our bottles.
The inspiration for the gin stems from an actual recorded event back on 18th January 1665, when an East India Spice Trade ship called the Royal Oak was wrecked off Bishop Rock on the Westernmost point of the islands. The rescued captain’s log showed that the ship had been carrying peppercorns from Java, and so this is one of the key botanicals in our Island Gin.
The bottle design is inspired by Scilly’s iconic Bishop Lighthouse – the tallest lighthouse in the UK and stands proud on Bishop Rock to alert today’s ships. This is reflected in our bottle’s tall neck, while a deep wooden stopper resembling Bishop’s helicopter landing pad.
Hilary: We’ve captured the distinctive, vibrant aqua green colours of the sea that surrounds the archipelago in our bottle colour and we’ve incorporated a striking outline of the vista of the edge of the Western Rocks (again influenced by the view, as one looks out to Bishop Rock lighthouse from St Mary’s Island). Our brand story sits on both sides of the bottle, to ensure that vista can be seen through the bottle when held aloft or when it’s on shelf.
Lastly, our tamper seal gives refence to the Pilot Gig rowing boats, with a Gig’s wooden oar replicated down each side of the bottle neck. A key part of Scilly’s heritage, these nod to the survivors of the ship wreck who had been rescued by St Mary’s Pilot Gigs.
How did you set about doing it, building the distillery and putting the whole project together?
Arthur: Having secured the ERDF grant, we set about finding a commercial building – something that is not easy at all on Scilly, as there are so few and they rarely come to market! We eventually found a suitable site in 2018 and a year later we were able to open the distillery.
Hilary: The ERDF grant application was also very time-intensive. In terms of the development of the brand, we have done this all ourselves, starting from scratch; from the branding to the packaging and everything that comes with it, (bottle design, print design, stoppers, tamper seals, plus cardboard cases, boxes and fitments for trade sales and direct to consumer website sales), photography, to creating our own new website, plus secure trademarks and of course our social media pages!
What was the initial business plan in terms of what styles of spirits you wanted to produce?
Arthur: The initial ambition was always to produce a number of gins, including a Navy Strength expression and a cask aged gin. Subsequently, following more local research and the impact of the pandemic both on our business and the Isles of Scilly, we felt there was a great opportunity for us to produce our own whisky. Given the rarity of English island distilleries producing that spirit, and our unique location, making us the most south westerly distillery in the UK, we set about the development of our whisky in 2020/2021, filling our first oak cask on November 2 2021.
Has that changed in terms of what you now produce?
Arthur: No. We remain focused on our core Island Gin and the Atlantic Strength Island Gin, continuing to grow our UK distribution and progressing export market opportunities whilst maintaining our ongoing production of our whisky.
Where do you source your main ingredients from?
Hilary: As the Isles of Scilly is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Conservation Area, it is not possible to forage whatever you like for commercial purposes, and so use of local plants as botanicals is very restricted. We have had permission from the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust to forage some of the Wild Atlantic Fennel for our Atlantic Strength Island Gin. This grows around a lot of the coastal paths here on St Mary’s, and it is a key botanical in this gin, delivering lovely flavour notes. What’s more, with the Atlantic Ocean providing the island’s mains water supply, there’s genuinely Atlantic water in each gin, so there really is a little bit of Scilly in every sip. All of our other botanicals are ethically sourced from a small number of established suppliers.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome at Scilly Spirit Distillery?
Arthur: One of the biggest challenges at the start is the limited availability of commercial property on the island. With our distillery being just 72m2 floor space, we’ve had to be smart, manoeuvring most things in cages on trolley wheels, to enable us to relocate stock when we need to create space to carry out a bottling run for example, or when we need to conduct our distillery tours and gin school sessions. We’ve acquired two additional commercial buildings since we started, but space remains a challenge for us, as our business grows.
Additionally, freight can be difficult. Being on a small island, 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall, we have to rely on a thrice weekly freight ship service. This is both in terms of bringing bottles and materials to the island and subsequently taking pallets of finished goods to the mainland. This service is often impacted by the weather, resulting in cancelled sailings, with the obvious challenge to us, in terms of waiting for supplies and delayed dispatches.
Hilary: As for our fellow distillers, the pandemic was a significant challenge for us, with few or no tourist visitors and therefore no cellar door sales, distillery tours or gin school business, plus the loss of UK mainland wholesale business, with the on-trade closed. Fortunately, we maintained strong website sales throughout, as well as some wholesale business with those that had a strong online offer.
What have been your biggest achievements to date and why?
Arthur: We have been thrilled to have received so many awards from key international competitions for all three of our gins. Our Island Gin was awarded “Master” in The Spirits Business Gin Masters (one of only 14 gins to receive “master” from the 320 international gins tasted), as well as 93 points and a Silver Medal by IWSC 2020. Then in this year’s IWSC, we were awarded Gold for our limited-edition Aged Rosé Island Gin.
Our bottle won “Best Design & Packaging for Spirits” in the 2019 Drinks Business awards (only a few weeks after we launched) and Gold in the San Francisco International Spirits Competition 2020.
Hilary: Considering we are genuinely just a husband-and-wife team, operating in such a relatively tiny small batch distillery building, we’re incredibly proud at all we have achieved since our humble beginnings. We are still fulfilling every aspect of our business ourselves, from distillation runs to bottling, labelling and packing for all trade and consumer dispatches, whilst also running our distillery tours and gin school experiences throughout the six-to-seven-month tourist season. All of that whilst also managing all operations, finance, sales and marketing requirements, including maintaining our website and social media activity.
Where are you currently distributing the spirits you are making?
Hilary: In the UK, we have relatively strong retail availability of our Island Gin, thanks to John Lewis listing this since August 2021, as well as widespread wholesale distribution. We also fulfil direct delivery to a number of independent retailers and on-trade customers, a number of these being Michelin starred restaurants and are growing our export distribution.
What are your next plans and targets for the business?
Arthur: Export is our next priority, given the UK gin category is arguably close to or even at saturation point. We are already making good strides on this, with exports to date including Denmark, plus new distribution about to start in Italy. With a very strong, loyal following of both French and German consumers, thanks to tourism bringing people to Scilly every summer (and taking our gin by the case load to their yachts), we are also striving to secure distribution in these two markets. We will also have the excitement of launching the first release of our whisky at the end of 2024, with subsequent cask releases thereafter – watch this space!
Do you have any advice to anyone else looking to do something similar?
Hilary: Do it! Be brave and go for it! Thoroughly research your category well before you start. If possible, ensure your brand has genuine provenance, and take inspirations from your location, ideally with bespoke design elements – these will help set you apart from your competitors. Explore what local or regional grant funding is available; this is a great way to get started, versus seeking the more traditional investors and finance options.