interview isle of harris
Social Distillery

For, with and from the Isle of Harris – Simon Erlanger about the Isle of Harris Distillery

Anyone who has ever been to the Scottish island of Harris knows about its beauty and the deep sense of homeland of its inhabitants. The friendliness with which guests are welcomed, the strong social cohesion, the perseverance to defy the forces of nature and at the same time to focus on the important but also beautiful things in life – in such an atmosphere only good things can come into being. Such is the case with the Isle of Harris Distillery, which went into production in the fall of 2015. With its award-winning Harris Gin, the Isle of Harris Distillery, which describes itself as a “social distillery,” is now known far beyond the borders of Scotland and has already made many friends in this country as well.

Simon Erlanger is Managing Director of the ambitious Isle of Harris Distillery. about-drinks spoke with him about the origins of the distillery and its social commitment on the island. He also talks about the production of Isle of Harris Gin and the forthcoming single malt whisky The Hearach.

First of all: Please tell us your name and the position you’re working in at the Isle of Harris Distillery.

Simon Erlanger: My name is Simon Erlanger, Managing Director at the Isle of Harris Distillery.

How did you come to the spirits industry?

Simon Erlanger: I started back in 1997 as a young Area Manager with Johnnie Walker, responsible for sales in Southern Europe. It was a desire to travel the world and a love of whisky which drew me to the industry.

The Isle of Harris – where is it located and what’s so special about the island?

Simon Erlanger: The Isle of Harris is a small island in the Outer Hebrides, off the far north-west coast of Scotland, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The Isle of Harris is known for its breath-taking natural landscape, making it one of the most spectacular places to visit. The island is rich in culture, with traditional music and the Gaelic language still very much present in the tight knit community.

isle of harris

Why did you choose the Isle of Harris to build the Distillery?

Simon Erlanger: The vision of establishing the first (legal) distillery in the Isle of Harris was that of Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell, who has been deeply connected to the island for many years. His vision was of a distillery built in the heart of Harris which would strive to be the source of social and economic growth, as well as a source of pride, expressed through the making of exemplary spirits. The Isle of Harris has experienced a rapid decline in population over recent years, and hope was to create sustainable employment which would encourage people to stay, live and work on the island.

How long has the distillery existed and how did it come into being?

Simon Erlanger: Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd, was formed in December 2007 and following finance being raised through private investors and development funding, building work began on a reclaimed piece of land at the head of East Loch Tarbert in early 2014. The building work was complete and we were able to offically open our doors on 24th September 2015 and start making and sharing our spirit with the world, to mark the occasion our warehouse held the biggest ceilidh the island has ever seen!

isle of harris distillery

Tell us about the social idea of the Distillery!

Simon Erlanger: Probably the first of its kind in Scotland, we were built for the purpose of creating multi-generational employment for Harris. Back in 2015 when our distillery officially opened its doors we had only 10 members of staff and over the past six years we are proud to have grown our team to over 30 full time employees. All our distillers are local men and women who have learnt their craft from our expert advisors. The ‘Social Distillery’ aims to create further jobs in the community to encourage people to live and work on the Isle of Harris. We give back to the community where we can, for example we give all our used malted barley draff to the local crofters to feed the island’s cattle.

isle of harris

Let’s talk about the Isle of Harris Gin: How is the Gin made? Which botanicals are used?

Simon Erlanger: The Isle of Harris Gin is distilled on the island in our small copper gin still, known as ‘The Dotach’. The gin consists of nine carefully selected botanicals including our locally sourced Sugar Kelp seaweed which creates subtle coastal notes in the spirit. Sugar Kelp is harvested by Lewis Mackenzie, our local diver from the seas around the Outer Hebrides. Our distillers discard, instead of recycling, the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ of the spirit run, leaving only the best of the distillate’s ‘heart’ helping to create an exceptional smoothness. We then bottle the Isle of Harris Gin by hand at the distillery, before applying the labels and closing each one with a natural cork.

isle of harris

How is the bottle connected with the island? Who did create the design?

Simon Erlanger: The bottle was designed by a London based company called Stranger & Stranger. Members of their team spent time over on the island prior to designing the bottle to experience the landscape, beaches and warmth of the local community before deciding how the bottle could represent this small Outer Hebridean island across the globe. You will notice the texture and pattern on the glass resemmbles waves, and the beautiful blue colour in the base gives a nod to the sea that surrounds the island. The main label is made with sugar kelp and copper flecks to reflect our locally sourced botanical and the copper still in which the spirit is made. Finally, the inscription on the base ‘Esse quam videri’ which translates to ‘to be rather than to seem to be’ which was the family moto of our founder and is in keeping with our values at the Isle of Harris Distillery, being ‘open stright and true’ about what we do and what we are trying to achieve.

isle of harris gin

Tell us about the Hearach – what is it?

Simon Erlanger: The Hearach is our forthcoming single malt whisky and the first legal whisky to be made on the Isle of Harris. ‘Hearach’ is a Scottish Gaelic word for someone native to the Isle of Harris. There is no fixed date for the Hearach to be ready to sell to the public, we believe it will be ready when it is ready. Our oldest casks are now 5 years old and sampling has already begun to see how the spirit is maturing, we look forward to the day we can share a dram of the Hearach with the world.

How is the Whisky made?

Simon Erlanger: We are maturing the spirit in ex- bourbon, ex-oloroso and fino sherry casks at our shore-side warehouse in the nearby village of Ardhasaig. Unlike most island malts, it will be distilled, matured and bottled in Harris to ensure full island provenance. We are aiming to produce a medium peated single malt with character and complexity, reflecting the island and its people.

isle of harris

Where are the products available in Germany?

Simon Erlanger: The Isle of Harris Gin is available in specialized spirits retail and online in Germany as well as from www.harrisdistillery.de.

Describe for us the cooperation with Alba Import? Why did you choose this distributor? 

Simon Erlanger: Dietmar and Corinna got in touch back in 2014, before we had even built the distillery! We have stayed in contact ever since and finally we decided it was an ideal time for Alba to take on the distribution of our products. Alba Import have a fantastic reputation for working closely with independent spirits brands. Already they have made Germany the number 1 export market for our Isle of Harris gin and we are excited to work with them when the whisky becomes available.

isle of harris gin award

What measures do you use for marketing? What are you doing specifically in the area of social media?

Simon Erlanger: At the Isle of Harris Distillery we prefer to talk about storytelling rather than marketing. We tell our stories on a variety of different social media platforms including, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. We enjoy connecting with our customers online and sharing the story of our social distillery and our beautiful island.

Do you have any plans for the rest of 2021 and 2022?

Simon Erlanger: We are looking forward to welcoming more visitors over to the island as well as continuing to share our story around the globe. Keep an eye out on our social media channels for more of our projects and updates in the very near future!

Isle of Harris Distillery | harrisdistillery.com | harrisdistillery.de | facebook.com/isleofharrisdistillers | instagram.com/isleofharrisdistillers | albaimport.de

+++ We would like to thank Simon Erlanger for the open and very interesting interview and wish him continued success! If you also have an interesting brand, then we should talk. Just send us an email with the subject “about-drinks interview” to redaktion@about-drinks.com – we look forward to hearing from you! +++

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