Doctor returns to Highland roots with Dunrobin distillery

The Seamstress's Room at striking Dunrobin Castle, on the east coast of the Northern Highlands overlooking the Moray Firth, is said to be haunted.

Lizzie Sutherland says all the ingredients are in place at Dunrobin Castle to create its distillery. Picture: Jenn MacKay

But visitors to the attraction will be pleased to hear that it is set to be home to spirits of a more appealing nature as it gears up to house a fully functioning whisky and gin distillery in its grounds.

The 189-room castle dates back to the early 1300s, is owned by the Sutherland family, one of Scotland’s oldest clans, and resources for the company’s products including foraged botanicals will come from their land and the Dunrobin farm.

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The business is being launched by Lizzie Sutherland, the granddaughter of the Countess of Sutherland and the daughter of Lord and Lady Strathnaver, along with her husband Boban Costin.

“We’ve been on this journey for over two years,” she explains, with planning permission to build the distillery, visitor facilities, a tasting room, shop and bonded warehouse now obtained.

A £5.5 million fundraise, which is being handled by Lazarus Consulting, has also been launched, and Sutherland says this will be used to restore the castle’s former powerhouse, adding two wings to accommodate production and storage, as well as fund costs including equipment.

The hope is to create six to eight jobs at the site, which has a planned annual capacity of 95,000 litres of pure alcohol (LPA) and a maximum capacity of 300,000 LPA.

It is set to produce gin for sale from 2019 and whisky from 2023, with renovation and construction on target to start later this year. “We’re really ready to go,” she states.

As for how the distillery idea came about, she and Costin met abroad but moved to her native Scotland so she could complete her doctor’s training. They kept coming up to the Highlands whenever they had spare time, planning to move up north eventually, and were looking for a project to tackle.

“The idea for the distillery came as part of that,” she says. “Everything’s here – we’ve got the water, the barley.”

The building that will host the venture “is right next to the castle and it’s an old industrial style of building, so it’s just really well-suited to being a distillery and it just all seemed to fit really well”.

Sutherland, who is a GP in the Highlands, also admits to being a novice in the drinks trade, so “I always need people around me that are better than me to help”.

Experts that have been drafted in include Douglas Cruickshank, formerly part of Chivas Brothers’ senior management, who holds the role of whisky director, and his gin equivalent is eighth-generation distiller Charles Maxwell, who launched Thames Distillers in 1996.

Conservation architect Lachlan Stewart is also on board while Costin, an attorney, is founder, chief executive and director while Sutherland is founder and director.

She says her biggest priority at the moment is how to make the brand stand out in an undeniably busy craft spirits sector – accountant UHY Hacker Young said 53 distilleries opened in the UK last year amid a continued “gin-naissance” although this was down from 56 in 2015. However, Scotland bucked this trend, with 18 opening last year up from 12 the year before.

And while some experts believe that only a few existing Scottish craft gins can genuinely brand themselves as such, due to purity of provenance, Sutherland praises her future competitors, stating: “I’ve got a lot to learn from them.”

Dunrobin cites research revealing that single malt whisky exports have grown by about 160 per cent since 2004, and Sutherland sees a big advantage for Dunrobin in that it already has a strong level of footfall, at 85,000 visitors a year, “so I think compared to other distillery projects we’re in a better position for a return early on”.

Revenues are forecast to exceed £1 million in 2019.

The distillery is “another interesting thing for people to come and see”, with plenty of heritage and imagery to draw on as it prepares to get up and running, she adds.

One aim is to be in bars and restaurants in the likes of London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and all in all, “it would be wonderful in ten years to be a really established brand and that feeding back into the Dunrobin Castle brand and Golspie.”


Born: Glasgow, 1984

Education: University of Glasgow Medical school, MSc in tropical medicine at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

First job: Junior doctor at Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital

Ambition while at school: To travel, study medicine or environmental sciences

What car do you drive? VW Toureg

Favourite mode of transport: Zanzibari dhow

Music: James Bay, Geordie Jack, Sigrid, The Frames

Kindle or book? Book

Reading material: I just finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Can’t live without: My husband, my son, our dog and being outside

What makes you angry? Injustice

What inspires you? People making good craft products

Favourite place: Golspie