Arbikie Distillery on sustainability and family


John, David and Iain Stirling from Arbikie Distillery
Photo credit: Arbikie Distillery

John Stirling is the co-founder of Arbikie, the Highland distillery he runs with his brothers David and Iain. We speak to him about Arbikie’s philosophy, sustainability and running a family business.  

Arbikie’s story began one night in New York. John Stirling and his two brothers were out enjoying the city’s nightlife, when a plan was hatched. “We decided we would build a distillery on our family farm in Scotland,” he recounts over a phone call. “As the night went on, the more drinks we had, the better the idea became. By the end of the night, it was the best idea ever.”  

John is now the director of Arbikie Distillery, the company he runs with brothers David and Iain in their native Angus. The distillery is located close to Lunan Bay, a landscape of sand dunes and low cliffs overlooking the North Sea.  

“The area we’re in is sometimes called the Sunshine State, which I know is very surreal for Scotland,” he laughs, “but it means we can grow certain crops here more easily than in other parts of Scotland. We grow all the botanicals that we use in our spirits, and we also grow the chillies that go into our vodka.” 

This emphasis on farm-to-bottle production is at the heart of Arbikie’s philosophy of sustainability.  

Land, farm and distillery 

“We had a very clear vision from the start. What we were going to do was build a farm-based distillery, growing everything on site with a focus on sustainability,” says John.  

“It’s about going back to the way that whisky used to be done: tapping into that association between land, farm and distillery. As we were looking into the various aspects of making whisky, we realised that rye grain used to be grown in Scotland, but it hadn’t been done for nearly two centuries. It took a few years to actually develop the crop, but in the end, we’ve produced the first Highland rye whisky in Scotland in 190 years.” 

Arbikie’s respect for Highland whisky traditions goes hand-in-hand with the idea of terroir – a hotly debated topic often met with resistance and criticism within the spirits industry.  

“As farmers, we know terroir exists – the difficulty is proving it,” says John. “My take on this argument is that people just don’t understand terroir. They don’t understand the land – they’ve not been farmers. They don’t understand that if you grow things in different places, it will taste different.” 

True to Arbikie’s terroir-driven vision, each bottling of their single malt will be individual rather than consistent: a reflection of the land and the particular year in which the rye was harvested. 

Another point of difference that distinguishes Arbikie from their competitors is that their single malt won’t be released until it’s 18 years old. “We set a very ambitious target that we were not going to release our single malt until year 18,” John explains, “We didn’t want to be in a position where we’d have to release a single malt that was too young or not quite right.” 

To achieve their goal, John explains how the team utilised their other crops to create spirits to generate cash flow. Arbikie have produced a potato-based vodka from the 6,000 tonnes of potatoes they grow on the farm; out of that vodka also came a gin, made with local botanicals. It truly appears to be a self-sustaining production cycle.  

An optimistic vision  

On the topic of sustainability breaching the mainstream, John is optimistic. “Some of the bigger companies are now starting to look into more locally-sourced grain, knowing where it comes from and what goes into it.  

“Increasingly, people are much more aware of the environment and what we’ve done to it – and I include farmers in that. There’s more of a connection to where things are made, and with the internet and social media, people are taking far more of an interest. Therefore, I hope, in the next five years or so, we’ll see a big change in this. 

“When it comes to Covid and the hospitality industry, it’s been tough for everyone. But we’re a resilient industry. Some of the lessons from this are, I think, that people are more caring now in terms of sustainability and are compelled to investigate that a lot more.” 

A family affair 

The conversation turns to the topic of running a family business. “It’s difficult!” laughs John. “No, it’s fantastic. More than anything, we’re on the same page of what we’re trying to do. One of the great things about whisky is that it’s a legacy project, and we have a legacy.  

“At Arbikie, we’re making whisky now that won’t be ready for 18 years. We’re one of the few privately owned distilleries in Scotland without any outside investors, and that’s something we’re proud of. This allows us to take bold decisions and say, ‘No, we’re not doing this. We’re not taking the quick option.’  

“We have a clear idea of what we’re doing and we’re on the same page. Like any family, we have arguments – but the next day, it’s easier to make up. It’s good working in a family environment.”  

Is there something about working in a family business that lends itself naturally to a more sustainable way of thinking, I ask?  

“This isn’t to preclude other people who aren’t in a family business, but I do think that’s the case,” affirms John. “Because we grew up on the farm, which has been in our family for generations, we’ve got a natural association with the land and the soil: we understand the local environment.  

“We’ve all gone and done different things, but I think our shared understanding of the land allows us to follow our philosophy of sustainability. We’re looking to be better farmers, be better distillers, be better for the environment, and make better decisions. We might not have taken that direction had we not been brought up in this environment.”  

Browse Arbikie’s spirits here.