The Big Interview: Eden Mill distillery's Paul Miller

A bottle containing some of the first drops of whisky to be distilled and bottled in St Andrews for nearly 160 years was recently sold at auction for more than £7,000.

Miller is proud of Eden Mill's diversification into authentic whisky, reinforcing the company's link to the original Seggie distillery and St Andrews
Miller is proud of Eden Mill's diversification into authentic whisky, reinforcing the company's link to the original Seggie distillery and St Andrews

Part of a single malt limited release from Eden Mill, such a record price for the maiden release from a distillery is a source of much pride for the business’s co-founder Paul Miller.

He and his team worked hard to bring back whisky distilling to the area after the Seggie Distillery and Brewery closed in 1860. The firm, based in Guardbridge, had launched in 2012, starting with a small brewery, building the brand, and then moving into gin-production, becoming Scotland’s first single-site brewery and distillery.

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Miller compares its operations to a game of Monopoly, where gin-production equates to buying properties and then houses to dip your toe in the water. “When you actually buy the hotels, that’s the equivalent of us getting out there with our whisky. That’s when you get the potential to get the real prize.”

It’s certainly a potentially lucrative move for the business, which now has more than 50 staff.

It was reported earlier this year that exports of single malt Scotch whisky in 2017 increased by 14.2 per cent to £1.17 billion. Both UK gin and Scotch saw record growth overall, with increases in volume of 12 per cent and 8.9 per cent respectively.

Other players getting in on the act include The Three Stills Company, which is behind the new Borders Distillery and was founded in 2013 aiming to “capitalise on the growth of Scotch whisky sales, particularly malt whisky, and the explosion in demand for gin made in Scotland”.

The “ginaissance” has certainly continued at full pelt, with the UK’s Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) proving correct in its prediction that the UK’s producers of the drink would see £500 million in exports in 2017, the year the drink returned to the Office for National Statistics’ inflation basket, and double the level in 2008. Further, the WSTA expects gin to be a £2bn industry by the end of this year.

None the less, Miller stresses that Eden Mill’s broadened offering provides a safety net in the face of fickle tastes. “We’ve established Eden Mill quite deliberately as an umbrella brand,” he says.

“You constantly have to be ensuring that you’re doing the very best you can across all the categories. I think the consumer is increasingly promiscuous – they won’t stick with the same thing forever.”

He also sees the firm’s positioning as authentic and trustworthy as key selling points in a market where the WSTA flagged an estimated 95 different gin brands in the UK alone.

“There are many, many more new brands than there are distilleries, because many of them actually don’t have real homes. We believe the consumer really wants to engage with a business that’s real, and people that really do make things.”

All the same, consumers are very keen to try new things, which means that Eden Mill’s distillers and creative minds must keep customers engaged. “The onus is on us to do that. Never take the consumer or the drinker for granted… We’re constantly reviewing the range and the routes to market.”

The Fife firm has further diversified its income streams with various visitor offerings, including a gin tour that has topped TripAdvisor’s list of attractions in Fife.

Last year, Eden Mill also announced a £150,000 investment in a “unique” blending experience. The resulting Blendworks is a two-and-a-half-hour masterclass that lets you create, bottle and brand your own bespoke gin in a classroom overlooking the 18th hole of the Old Course. It unleashes your creative side with a spectrum of ingredients including sea buckthorn berries, lime leaf and rose petals, and provides an insight into the history of the spirit.

And it reinforces Eden Mill’s original aim of adding to what St Andrews had to offer, rather than just trying to create a brand and living off the location’s name.

Early on in his career, Miller’s dream of owning his own drinks operation had seemed a “ridiculously ambitious” notion. “Only really in the past few years has it been possible,” he says.

“As a mid-life crisis goes, setting up your own brewery or distillery is quite the thing,” he jokes.

By the time Eden Mill got off the ground he had been in the drinks industry for about three decades, but with an original degree in land economics, he might just as well have become a chartered surveyor, except that the idea of a career in property or construction just didn’t appeal.

The die was cast when he bumped into a friend who was working at a branch of Oddbins. “He said, ‘They give you free wine tastings here in here every week – it’s brilliant. You should come and work here,’” Miller recalls.

Miller took up a post with the retailer, and had soon developed an “absolute fascination” with top wine and spirits brands. This was followed by a spell working at International Distillers & Vintners, before it became part of Diageo, whose range includes Tanqueray gin, Smirnoff vodka, and Guinness.

At IDV, Miller was involved in developing new products, and he later moved to Glenmorangie. He believes that when the latter was a private, family company – it became part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 2005 – you could constantly sense the difference you made to the organisation and to the brand’s performance. “That for me fuelled the enthusiasm for whisky in particular.”

Miller also worked for Molson Coors, before it bought Bass, later spending a year with the Scottish Government on its alcohol industry partnership. But it was when his boss, Pete Coors, visited St Andrews and asked to see the nearest distiller or brewery that the future Eden Mill boss decided to fill what he realised was a gap in the market.

The firm has now struck deals for exclusive products with the likes of Harvey Nichols, John Lewis and Aldi, as one of ten distilleries taking part in the discounter’s £480,000 Scottish Gin Festival that launched on 3 May.

“There’s a huge demand for [our] brand out there and retailers that are themselves progressive and flexible and looking to be innovative and creative are ones that we want to partner with,” says Miller. “We’re small enough to be able to tailor bespoke options for some of these retailers that we work with.”

There have also been sponsorships with the likes of Scottish Rugby, which saw three team members take part in Blendworks to craft a gin “representative” of the organisation, and more such agreements are planned.

The Guardbridge site is now at capacity, which has been a driving factor in plans unveiled in February to invest £4m in creating a new distillery and brewery just metres from its current base. This, it says, will enable it to increase production of gin, beer and whisky, concoct more “innovative and pioneering” products, and keep aside space for further expansion.

The proposed development will be housed in the University of St Andrews’ new Eden Campus, on a site formerly home to Seggie’s operations, and includes a café/bar, visitor centre, shop, presentation room and a VIP tasting area on the top floor, as it looks to double the number of visitors taking distillery tours to 50,000 a year.

When the expansion was announced, Miller said: “To stay competitive, the spirits industry in Scotland needs to embrace new ideas and experimentation while respecting its heritage and traditions, particularly with whisky.

“We firmly believe that this development will greatly benefit the local area and the wider Scottish economy, which is always what we have set out to achieve as a business.”

Looking further afield, Eden Mill products are sold in more than 20 countries. It has seen Europe performing very well, continued growth in the US, and UK duty free proving very successful, Miller explains.

None the less, Brexit looms large on the horizon; a matter “for cleverer men than me to work out”. He adds: “I know it will create a lot more administration for us – it remains to be seen whether there’s a significant effect on business overall though.”

The business has also been funded privately to date, but is now looking at teaming up with “the right kind of” partner business, perhaps from within the industry. “For us that feels like the best way to go rather going out and just looking for any investment,” says Miller. Such a strategy “may be able to play a role in helping elevate the business to the next level”.