Tales from the Larder: Stories of resilience from Scotland's food & drink sector - NB Distillery
Gin producer shaken but undeterred by pandemic.
Originally started as an experiment in the kitchen of founders Steve and Viv Muir, NB Distillery has since grown into a multi-award winning enterprise.
Based in North Berwick, Scotland, NB Gin is now made in a custom-built distillery that produces world class spirits and hosts ‘taster tours’ providing corporate meetings and events.
NB Gin has also been voted the Best London Dry Gin in the world.
Rhona Hartley explains how the coronavirus pandemic has stirred the East Lothian drinks producer into making a cocktail of new initiatives to ensure its survival.
What has changed in your sector since lockdown?
I don’t think it’s overstating it to say the food and beverage sector has been catastrophically affected.
With bars, restaurants, hotels and all hospitality and tourism essentially stopping it has in turn impacted significantly on food and drink producers.
Normal supply routes ground to a halt, alongside all exports.
It’s been very challenging on all fronts.
What impact has lockdown had on your business?
The distillery had to close, and that didn’t just mean an end to drinks production.
We had recently been awarded a ‘5 star’ rating from Visit Scotland and were looking forward to a bumper year for visitors coming to the distillery.
As soon as lockdown happened all tours also had to be cancelled.
We were due to become part of a Rabbie’s tour of East Lothian due to be taking place from April 2020 four times a week. We were all geared up and had trained guides to accommodate these tours.
We also had sold Itison vouchers earlier in the year and those tours all had to be cancelled and we had to arrange for people to get their money back.
Without diversification the whole business would simply have closed down.
What have you done in response?
We immediately reviewed and strengthened our online capability. It was clear that had to be a priority.
We set up free delivery for online customers and fast, safe doorstep delivery to customers. Local buyers in East Lothian benefitted from same or next day delivery.
New discounts and offers were created and in addition we quickly developed a high-quality sanitiser “Nil By Mouth” and started supplying NHS, carehomes, local businesses and construction companies.
We provided some free of charge to volunteer groups and worked seven days a week to ensure key high-risk industries in need were supplied. It was a hugely emotional yet rewarding experience.
Our sanitiser is of the highest quality following the World Health Organisation formula and consists of 80% alcohol. It has been snapped up by the major house builder Cala Homes, as well as one of the largest dental groups in Scotland.
Special edition ‘Ginsolation Packs’ featuring bottles of our gin as well as Nil By Mouth sanitiser have also been extremely popular.
What have been the consequences of your change in operations?
The business has managed to retain staff and service differing sectors in need of a product like sanitiser in a time of crisis, which is a huge positive for morale.
The swift move to online sales and service has ultimately enabled the company to maintain a level of revenue to continue operations.
The future however is still uncertain.
It is very difficult to reopen a visitor centre that is also part of a production facility like ours under the current lockdown guidelines.
The future of our business has to be reviewed weekly at this point until restrictions are eased further.
What are your predictions for the short term in your sector?
The hospitality sector, particularly bars and restaurants, faces massive challenges.
The recent example of an outbreak connected to a bar in Aberdeen has shown the risks and difficulties.
I think additional funding for this sector is required to mitigate the challenges and to support when localised lockdowns are required.
What are the changes that will ‘stick’ once out of lockdown for your business/products?
Online shopping will continue to grow rapidly as shopping habits have now significantly changed.
Our strong portfolio of innovative new offers to customers will continue to evolve.
One of our best-selling products is ‘The Ginsolation Pack’ - £35 for four tonics, a 70cl bottle of NB Gin 42%, and a 500ml sanitiser.
Sanitiser is here to stay without a doubt. The response to the quality of our product is fantastic and supply will continue to grow.
This will continue alongside our fabulous cocktail combinations and other gin and rum packs planned for Christmas.
Exports will be slower to return as different countries are at different phases.
Sadly our visitor centre will not open for the foreseeable future. Our luxury experience is all about coming home with a personal touch, and we don’t think that’s achievable within the current guidelines.
Opening up also creates risk for our production and sanitiser business, and we simply cannot put that in jeopardy.
We are however looking to diversify once again and bring tastings to people in their homes and gardens, so watch this space!
What can the industry learn from all of this?
Never give up. There is always scope for diversification and promotion of new offers to attract new customers, and it can be done really quickly when necessity dictates.
I think venues will also have to offer exclusive use dining for small group gatherings only, complemented by options for takeaway and events in people’s homes or online.
Producers are in a delicate position and need to move from reactive supply position to a proactive approach that seeks new customers directly, especially those that can withstand changes in the sector whether that’s down to COVID-19 or any other reason.
Any business in this sector is going to have to be ready to react to shifts in the market in a positive way if they want to survive and thrive.
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