Taking gin to the next level
Craig Innes and his wife Noru are finally realising their dream of starting their own craft distillery, creating gin next to their hotel near North Ballachulish.
The Loch Leven Hotel could not be in a prettier spot and owners Craig and Noru take great pride in the property, which they purchased in 2013. Now they are realising their dream of creating gin right on site and are ready for the next business challenge.
Craig said: “I have a background in hospitality and hotels, first in Rome as a receptionist then as a butler and developing to guest services manager at the prestigious Howard Hotel in Edinburgh before I moved to front of house manager at The Bonham Hotel in Edinburgh.”
Born in Edinburgh, Craig studied in Aberdeen before his travels to Rome. It was in 2013 that the couple decided to invest in a hotel in the Highlands.
“We started looking all over for a property,” said Craig.
“One of the criteria for the bank’s investment was that the property had to already be generating a small profit.”
On October 1, more than four years ago, they began their business journey in hospitality and it has been an ongoing process to invest and redesign the hotel in a “labour of love”.
“That is where our dreams really started,” explained Craig.
“Within a couple of years we were already winning awards for our food, our drinks offering and our pet- friendly ideas and only this year added Hotel Bar of The Year 2017 at The Scottish Hotel Awards as one of our accolades. We never asked for more money to better our product but rather focused on service standards and re-invested every penny.”
At that time, Craig and Noru were witnessing the emerging gin industry in Scotland. There were a number of discussed former farm byres as part of the hotel that they decided to convert into a craft distillery but they were unable to find a supplier who could create a bespoke gin for their bar at their desired price point.
He said: “We witnessed the start of the craft gin revolution, loving both gin and the spirit of craft distilling and the creation of unique small batch produce and so we decided to do it for ourselves and create our own gin.
“If you create your own distillery you can make your dream a possibility. This takes a huge amount of investment, time and property and product development, and so our dream took time and ultimately had to grow to sustain itself. We had to be able to produce gins not just for the hotel, and perhaps a few others, but at least with local appeal to fund our passion.”
It may have taken time, but Pixel Spirits was created in early 2016 and it is almost ready to launch its first products this winter. Incorporating both their love for creating craft produce with the ability to grow outside of the local market, the vision behind Pixel Spirits is the creation of bespoke, tailor-made products for The Loch Leven Hotel and possibly others when the product grows.
Craig said: “The reality of any distillery is that if you put in one hour of spirit production you will put in at least 10 hours or more developing your brand and marketing.
“I am insanely lucky that I have the business support of my wife Noru Innes who can turn nothing into something. Her talent for sales, web design, numbers, marketing and ideas creation inspires me daily, and it is only through her that we have made it this far.”
The two locally focused gins launching soon are the Devil’s Staircase and Neptune’s Staircase – both named after attractions in the area. With the aim to make an outstanding product and quirky branding and sourcing local ingredients, Craig believes they have stayed true to their original dream.
“We wanted creative and fun branding which can tie into the location,” he said.
“We loved the idea of playing with the characters of the Devil and Neptune.
“Through the hotel we invested in converting the byres and we drew on our own funds for the equipment. We have done crowdfunding and a chap I know stepped in to offer us a business loan short-term which was a remarkable win.”
Craig and Noru have been lucky that their family and staff at the hotel have supported their business goals. With up to 20 people employed a year in the hotel, the hope is that after the launch of Pixel Spirits they can start scaling it up too, employing locally into a year-round sustainable business.
Craig said: “In the future months, we look to employ a small local workforce to help with the production as well as being brand ambassadors to develop our brand. From our experience in the hospitality sector we have learnt that tourism dependent areas such as Lochaber operate under a very seasonal model. We aim to shake up this model, our hotel operates year-round and if other businesses do so then we can work together to drive year-round business by operating year round attractions.
It was essential that we developed a tourist attraction that was available year-round. Next month we launch our Gin School. Initially this will be appointment-only with the hope to grow this to be a daily indoor alternative activity for those rainy days – the only problem is, as you know, it never rains in Scotland.”
With the first batch just awaiting labels before reaching our lips, Craig reflects on what advice he would offer to others, considering their own business: “Never promise what you cannot achieve. Be open and honest with everyone.”