Meet the MakerColin McLean, McLean's Gin.
Published: 26th February 2018
One of the key objectives of The Gin Cooperative is to provide Scottish Gin makers of all descriptions the opportunity to tell their story including the good, the bad and the ugly bits of what it takes to make Scottish Gin. We’d heard of McLean’s Gin and how Colin and his partner ran what many consider to be Europe’s smallest craft distillery – from their cupboard at home in their tenement flat in Glasgow, Scotland. We couldn’t think of anyone better than Colin so he kindly accepted our invitation to be the very first in our ‘Meet the Maker’ series.
How did McLean’s Gin come about?
It’s quite a long story.
McLean’s Gin was technically conceived on 25th December 2015, although we didn’t know it at the time. Jess (fiancée, Chief Advisor and Head Taster)’s mum and dad gifted me with a Make-Your-Own-Gin kit for Christmas. I had experimented with home-made wine and beer (to mixed levels of success), so I suppose they assumed spirits were the next natural step.
Fast forward to 13th February 2016, where the forgotten gin-kit was removed from the cupboard where it had lay gathering dust (yes, the same cupboard that the magic all happens) and was finally put to good use, just in time for a last minute Valentine’s gift. The first batch of McLean’s Gin was that day created and (to both of our surprise) quite enjoyable.
Now fast forward another 9 months or so (and a similar number of test batches). We were now happy enough with our gin to give it to our closest friends and family for Christmas; dressed in 350ml swing-top Kilner Bottles.
Christmas Day came around and what would later become McLean’s Signature Gin received a great reception from everyone who tried it that day, from life-long gin drinkers to those with a former passionate dislike for the spirit. It was so well received that 2 of the more “rowdy” members of the family battled fiercely for the final measure at the bottom of the bottle (we did warn them it was quite strong…).
From the feedback received (“More people need to try this!”), we decided to have a go at making a business out of it. As a medical student (now a Junior Doctor) and the Technical Manager of a small construction company, we knew it was going to be a steep learning curve, but if you never try, you’ll never know.
We’re now about 1 year into our journey and things have certainly grown arms and legs. Our tiny 1.5m2 cupboard has knocked out around 800 bottles of tasty, home-made gin which is now available in 14 (and counting) bars/restaurants/retailers across Scotland (and, as of March 10th 2018, south of The Wall, too).
What important lessons have you learned on your Gin journey?
There are truly too many to count.
Do your research before jumping in head first. Making and selling alcohol is no walk in the park, particularly trying to do so from home. Speak with a legal professional before getting involved to save yourself some sleepless nights and week-long headaches later down the line.
Always be yourself and be up-front about what you do; we were initially fairly quiet about our gin being made in the cupboard of our flat, but in reality people tend to love the story, and actually this has quickly become our USP.
Be prepared for the Christmas rush and have plenty of stock ready, unless working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week sounds like your idea of “festive fun”.
Don’t waste your time making a business plan; you won’t stick to it. Flexibility and adaptability are far more important than a written document which will only serve to limit your imagination and ultimately your growth.
Take the time to talk to your customers, and be a human, not a machine. It’s no surprise that people want to deal with people.
Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, just do your own thing.
What makes McLeans gin different?
We make 5 (soon to be 6) different gin expressions in 6L batches from the 1.5m2 cupboard that adjoins the living room of our 1-bedroom flat. With the above in mind, we are fairly confident (but never quite certain) that we are Scotland (and probably far beyond)’s smallest commercial gin producer.
What’s next for McLeans Gin?
If things continue in the direction they have been going recently, we’ll have to leave the cupboard behind sooner or later. We’ve invested in some bigger equipment (30L, so 5 times our current capacity) which is currently pending approval. We’re also hoping to launch our bespoke gin service this year, but we’ll see how far we get. In the later part of the year we’ll be looking to take on quite a few more stockists and spreading the McLean’s word further afield. In summary, gradual expansion. But we have a few little interesting ideas up our sleeves too.
What’s your biggest highlight of the McLeans Gin adventure so far?
There are literally so many so far!
We love doing gin festivals; we took part in a few last year and are signed up to another 6 this year (so far), including Scot Gin Fest, who are holding 5 events across the length and breadth of the country. We love watching people’s reaction when they try our gin, especially our Signature which has a strong aniseed kick that totally divides the nation into love/hate categories; virtually nobody falls in-between.
We also can’t get over seeing the gin we’ve made from our cupboard on shelves in shops and bars, and even better, selling out as quickly as we can re-stock them.
I was out for a few drinks on Saturday night at my local (Koelschip Yard in the south-side of Glasgow). In the time I was there, I watched FOUR people order a McLean’s Gin! It’s a feeling that’s quite hard to describe, but I spoke to all of them to get some feedback and thank them for their custom and support. One of them even said it was the best gin they’d ever tasted. Ooft! Although, another definitely seemed less sure.
Being on the BBC Radio Scotland with Kaye Adams on their “Probably Scotland’s Smallest Gin Producer” feature was also extremely cool.
Probably the real highlight has been meeting so many great, motivated, inspiring people. We’ve met chocolatiers, jewellers, rum producers, brewers, designers, events managers and no end of interesting and passionate entrepreneurs; quite a few of whom we would now consider good friends.
Where would you like to see McLean’s Gin in 5 years time?
At this point it’s impossible to say. Our long term goal is a house in the country, growing all of our own botanicals and running a visitor centre/gin school where people can come and stay with us and make their own bespoke gin from start to finish.
We’re also hoping our bespoke web service will be in full swing by that point too; McLean’s Gin was started with the intention of offering bespoke gin only, but for various reasons (primarily licensing and time related) plans changed and we settled on quite a few recipes (5, to date) that we were very happy with and that we thought we needed to get out there.
We get a lot of requests from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Mainland Europe; we’re hoping within that time our gin will be available in all of these countries, as well as being a bit more readily available throughout Scotland and the UK.
We do intend to keep McLean’s Gin relatively small i.e. we don’t have plans for complete world domination; our product prides itself on being hand-made and managed by humans, not computers or machines. We wouldn’t like to change that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t intend to grow, and we are constantly thinking.
What’s your personal ‘perfect serve’?
Signature:- 1 part gin, 2 parts tonic (FT Mediterranean or Bon Accord Classic), Red apple
Floral:- 1 part gin, 2 parts tonic (FT Mediterranean or Bon Accord Classic), Summer berries and/or sprig of lavender
Citrus:- 1 part gin, 2 parts tonic (FT Indian or Bon Accord Classic) Grapefruit wedge and/or torn bayleaf
Spiced:- 1 part gin, 1 part good quality ginger ale (Fever Tree works). Twist or orange peel and/or cinnamon stick.
Cherry Bakewell:- 1 part gin, 2 parts Cream Soda (Preferably Barr’s), a maraschino cherry (or two).
Who’s supported you on your Gin journey?
Friends and family have been extremely supportive, for which we are extremely grateful. We also have a number of people who, until McLean’s Gin launched we didn’t know, but have shown us an incredible amount of support since. We won’t name them, but they know who they are, and without them we’d probably have given up by now.
Who else? Chris at Scot Gin Fest has been very supportive, as has Niall at Wee Beer Shop, who has promoted our gin extensively on social media and let us hold an in-store tasting (which was absolutely rammed, by the way, and will definitely be happening again).
Craft56.co.uk have been hugely supportive too, and certainly kept us busy on the lead-up to Christmas when they held a competition to win a bottle of our Spiced gin. The competition really helped get our name out there, and our Cherry Bakewell gin is the biggest seller out of all of the gins on their store!
What’s the best part of the Gin making process?
Coming up with new recipes, mixing up new and exciting botanicals, the joy of nailing something you love and ultimately meeting people and letting them have a taste of it!
What’s the worst part of the Gin making process?
Definitely labelling bottles by hand. We swear by doing things by hand, but the length of our labels make it difficult to get perfect (which is very frustrating, as a perfectionist!). After a couple of dozen labels in a row, it does start to hurt the thumbs, too. And it’s extremely time consuming, and ultimately just rather boring. We’d probably rather be doing anything else than labelling bottles (apart from maybe ironing), but needs must!
The cheapest labelling machine we’ve found is £1,700.00 though, and at the moment this just isn’t feasible. But something we might have to think about for the future to avoid arthritis and/or insanity (whatever comes first)!
You can learn more about McLean’s Gin here.