The Big Interview: NB Gin founder Vivienne Muir

From humble beginnings in their kitchen, Vivienne and Steve Muir have built up a best-selling gin brand that was last year voted best London Dry gin in the world.

Vivienne Muirs company is already looking for new premises to meet the demand. Picture: Jon Savage

During her legal career and before co-founding NB Distillery, Vivienne Muir was awarded the chance to study for a diploma in leadership at Harvard Business School.

At the end of the course participants had to stand up and tell their peers what they wanted to achieve in the next few years.

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While many others identified roles like chief executive, she says: “I actually stood up and said ‘Look – if I am inspirational to people, I think I’ve succeeded’.”

It was therefore an understandably emotional moment when, after developing the distillery and its flagship NB Gin into an established brand, she was stopped in the school playground by a couple of fellow mums acknowledging her achievements.

“They said ‘You’re such an inspiration’. I was quite tearful when I left!”

This recognition came well before NB Gin was last year voted best London Dry gin in the world at The World Drinks Awards, this year again served at the Brit Awards after-party, and one of only two drinks brands selected to appear in the official commemorative album for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration.

Additionally, spirits from the company were last month served at a £10,000-a-head charity event hosted by the Duchess of Cambridge, and the brand has also been selected by the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club as one of the most revered brands in the world.

The company came into being after Vivienne and her husband Steve, both working as lawyers at the time, had decided to start their own business.

He wanted to do something alcohol-related, and while his preference was beer, she says: “I swiftly said to him, ‘If I’ve got to sell it, that would be the equivalent of you selling a handbag. I need to sell something that I really love myself’.”

With gin a common interest drinks-wise, it was while they were having G&Ts one evening that the couple realised where to concentrate their efforts. Setting out to make a gin they loved, they started a process of research using her mother’s pressure cooker and some old central heating pipes.

“We were looking at how botanicals reacted with one another, and what the best mix would be to try and work out how you would create a distillation process.”

Once they had settled on a taste profile, they bought a glass still, were granted an official licence “and we set up a supposed ginnery in our kitchen.

“We had absolutely no idea what was going to happen to us. We had very basic premises – we had our gin still, we had a table and we had a glass jug.”

This was followed by practising “for months and months and months… and we eventually came up with something that we felt was fantastic and was beating some major brands in some blind tastings.

“At that point we invested in renting premises and getting a gin still built for us. That’s how it started. We had no experience whatsoever in the drinks industry apart from being consumers, so everything was brand new to us.”

She adds that they were very comm­itted to London Dry as a product, a relatively complicated way of producing the spirit, and they went through a “painful” amount of losses to reach the desired outcome.

“We wanted a very distinct flavour profile, so when you taste it you get your hit of juniper,” as well as citrus and “a bit of spice”, she explains. “Consistency and that attention to perfection is just absolutely critical for us.”

The resulting drink, produced at their custom-made copper still, is made from pure British grain spirit and a blend of eight botanicals.

The initial plan was to sell it locally and see what people thought. “That was really our business plan. We both had full-time jobs. We just weren’t prepared for what happened to us, because we were so ill-equipped with equipment, and very quickly demand just went through the roof.”

So vast was the gap between demand and resource at some points in the early days that Muir found herself stretched across an extremely punishing schedule.

“I never slept, to be honest,” she says, explaining that she would start her day at about 4am, work until 6.30am before getting her children ready for school, then jump on the train to her day job and work again in the evening.

She even did several night shifts to meet major orders, “and I was going straight from the distillery to quite a demanding job during the day, so I was literally having no sleep whatsoever.

“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do but… we just had to go for it and we’re now seeing the benefit of all that hard work.”

Muir had studied law at the University of Dundee, and says the subject was “something that I always wanted to do” before laughing that “I think watching episodes of LA Law many years ago probably had something to do with it.

“I always wanted to be a court lawyer, so it was litigation that was my speciality.”

She then moved from litigation to working at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (Icas) in roles including executive director of regulation and compliance.

It was while working at that organisation that NB Gin was started, and she acknowledges that her legal background came in very handy in setting up the firm, for example in fathoming the regulatory structure.

As for when she knew they had a viable business on their hands, the turning point came six months in when they had exported to Spain and Germany.

“That was kind of the wake-up call for me to go ‘Actually, the export market is something we didn’t even think about’. We thought we’d reach Edinburgh maybe in a year if we were lucky,” she laughs.

“The light bulb went on for me and I thought ‘We have got a product that people want and they want globally’ and that kick-started me to look at other markets and to start thinking about how we develop the product.”

NB Gin is now distributed in more than ten countries, including the US, Australia, France, Spain, Germany, Denmark and Belgium.

“It’s been fairly rapid,” she says. “A key strategy is really to try and get our brand activated in some of our new markets, of which China is the next one.”

The company’s first 600 bottles are going out to the country at the start of August, and it has also just launched in Singapore, so she is “hopeful that we’ll be in a more significant contract in Canada” and also has product rolling out to more than 200 stores in Belgium.

She stresses that the firm, currently selling at least 5,000 bottles a month, “can comfortably move to 10,000 bottles a month with our existing processes, which is really reassuring for all our new markets at the moment”.

This vastly exceeds her expectations when they started out, laughing now that she wondered if in five years’ time “we could ever sell 1,000 bottles a month”.

As demand soars and having already moved from manual to semi-automatic processes, the next step up is full automation, which can produce any amount, and the company is looking to set up new premises locally in the next year to meet burgeoning demand.

Looking at the business’s progress, she says: “It’s just been this continual growth, which has been fantastic, although very hard. It’s just been incredible, and the quality of the product has been driving our entire business, with the right people tasting it.”

This includes UK Royal Family party planner Johnny Roxburgh. “He phoned me up and said ‘You don’t know who I am, but I think this is the best gin I have ever tasted in my life and I want to serve this on my menu’.”

“I also sent a thank-you bottle to a bar in London that gave me advice, and unbeknown to me the person who organises the Brits went in and drank it one night.”

With the business entirely self-funded to date, chief executive Muir stresses that continual investment over the last couple of years has meant they have had to keep operations lean, and the team consequently remains surprisingly compact. Her husband, who is still a lawyer by day, is chairman and master stiller, and her brother Steve Ross head of production, with casual staff employed when necessary.

Self-funding has also proved challenging in activating the brand in new markets. “That will be our biggest challenge in the next few years, and hopefully we’ll have some funding to reinvest through our own successes.”

Having launched NB London Dry Citrus Vodka, she says: “We do think that some additional products would be fantastic in our portfolio, but we’ve not finalised yet what we’re doing.”

However, as a firm exporting to Europe and beyond, with its vodka travelling to Germany, Belgium and France, Brexit is casting a long shadow.

“Yes, we are concerned – there is no doubt about it,” she says. “It’s hugely uncertain for us.

“I suppose in the short term we’re seeing some advantage because of the weakness of the pound… so I think there is a short-term surge, but the long term is exceptionally worrying for us.”

Muir is also adamant that the firm’s plan is to keep operations in North Berwick, with the town and the brand becoming increasingly intertwined.

“Locally is absolutely what we’re about. There are a lot of gin companies who ship things elsewhere or get people to make it for them [but] we’re about doing everything in North Berwick.”