What is a distillery?

The City of Aberdeen Distillery is the first distillery in Aberdeen for 80 years.

Many customers have a great deal of knowledge about gin and the world of distilling - there is a growing demand for real authenticity.

But what is "real"?  We all expect to be told the truth. However, bold marketing can confuse and misrepresent what is and isn’t a distillery. The term “distillery” is a valuable marketing term and is associated with a high level of quality, a rich story and true authenticity.

How do you know if a distillery is a real distillery?  

Keep reading to find out.

“We hope to give a clear and reliable definition of what a distillery is – empowering you to support the distilleries that are passionate about distilling true and honest Scottish Gin.”

It’s always a good idea to ask any gin producer where their gin is distilled, and specifically for dry gin we mean where are the juniper berries distilled with the alcohol.  Gin is all about juniper, so this is the key question.

You may be surprised to learn that some gin brand owners have never even seen the still their gin is made on.  Why does this matter? Because we think gin tastes better when it’s authentic.

London dry gin must be made to a process defined in law.  Top tier London dry gins do this entire process where the gin claims to be from. This means all ingredients, alcohol, juniper, coriander etc. are brought to that place and distilled.

A real distillery requires a huge investment, time, effort, planning, permissions, learning, a reasonable sized property, premium ingredients, special equipment, skills to operate the stills/machinery and uses the full London Dry Gin making process.

Just to be clear - for the purposes of this article we are looking at only what defines a distillery and in no way judge what makes a great tasting gin.  All distilled / London dry gin is made by a distillery even if sometimes it's not the "distillery" whose name is on the bottle.  

When the term “distillery” is used, you are entitled to expect it to be a distillery.

Both the Oxford and the Cambridge dictionary defines a distillery as a factory where strong alcoholic drinks are produced by the process of distilling.

This is a common sense definition and it removes all of the bizarre outcomes that arise by other methods. It must be a factory – a premise primarily distilling as a commercial enterprise, it must involve strong alcoholic drinks, and it must use the process of distilling.

You could examine these points in great detail but I would suggest there is an easier way: look at it, does it look like a distillery?

When we started thinking about opening a distillery, there wasn’t a distillery in Aberdeen.

Had there been distilleries in the past? We kept seeing names of streets that alluded to a history of distilling and we believed there was a history to uncover. For example, there is the Old Brewery in Old Aberdeen, and the area Kittybrewster. So we did some digging!

We searched the city archives and quickly found 6 distilleries from the past. We found a seventh site that might have been a distillery but were never able to confirm it.

When we approached the authorities we discovered there was no experience in the city in authorising a real distillery. No one had actually asked to authorise a distillery that had a real still. That slowed us down as we had to walk together in order to get everything properly approved.

Distilleries always need specific permission as they are a special class in law.

The fact that no one had done this for a real still probably answers the question of whether we were first (for 80 years) or not.

In tax law anywhere that processes spirits is deemed a distillery - but only for the purpose of collecting tax.  The process can be anything and the term “manufacture” is not restricted at all. For example, if you make a mulled wine and pop in some brandy at Christmas, then you would be considered a distillery by the tax law definition. 

Tax law doesn't really help what a distillery is because the purpose of tax law is to collect tax – not to define what a distillery is – the law states this.

In recent years, the tax authority has changed their use of language from “distillery” to “spirits production” to make clear that spirits can be produced without a distillery being involved. This change again makes clear that tax law is not trying to define what a distillery is and acknowledging that some spirits are produced out with a distillery. Ultimately this is to stop people not paying their taxes.

That said, it’s clearly the case that your kitchen does not become a distillery just because you make some mulled wine. Tax law doesn’t really help define what a distillery is.

Is it the type of equipment that determines whether a place is a distillery or not?

Her Majesty's Customs internal operations manual tells their inspectors that a distillery is a place with a still. They list two types of still: a pot still or a patent still (Coffey still/column still).

They do note that there are other processes that can be used to produce alcohol but that these tend to be used for industrial processes. This includes freezing, reverse osmosis, and evaporators.

For example, some alcohol-free beers are made with freezing techniques.

Another piece of equipment, normally reserved for laboratories for the removal of solvents, is the rotary evaporator commonly referred to as a “rotovap”.

This is not a still.  It’s not just us that think this, HM Customs take this view, as well as drink industry experts. The operators of such devices could properly be called evaporators (or lab technicians) rather than distillers. In addition, the capacity of a rotary evaporator is only 1 litre. You can’t make much gin in that.

There are distilleries that use rotary evaporators, however they also have a still and so can genuinely call themselves a distillery. Sacred Spirits are an example of this.

While distilleries need planning permission, 1 litre evaporators do not.

If the equipment being used is not a still, then clearly it isn’t a distillery.

In the UK, a distillery always needs planning permission as it is a special case.

However, planning permission is a declaration of desire rather than a statement of fact; a site may be given permission, but the changes may not be made. In this case, the permission expires after a period of time.

The permission will be specific to both the site and the method of distillation. There is a very good reason for this: distillation involves very high strength alcohol and it’s easy to set it on fire. That’s the reason you are very unlikely to get permission from your local council to distil in your house, basement or shed.

So here again, there is no definitive answer as to what is a distillery, however, if appropriate planning permission has not been attained for a site that claims to be a distillery, by law it isn’t a distillery.

A distillery needs specific planning permission.

From around 1820 very few claims of being a distillery were made as it would have resulted in a visit from HM Customs and possibly a spell in prison!

For a distillery to be legal, it had to have a traditional still and the still had to be at least 1,800 litres (400 gallons) or larger.

“Stills under this size were automatically rejected - if their owners applied for a licence.”

There was a change in the law in 2005 which allowed such rejections to be challenged and in 2009 SipSmith – in London – did exactly that and then legally operated the first still (under 1,800 litres) in almost 200 years. SipSmith were the first craft distillery in the UK and the only one for a few years following.

It is important that a distillery has all appropriate licences, but since 2009 any size of still could be licenced. Therefore the size of the still doesn’t help.

Any distilleries without the appropriate licences are automatically not a distillery.

As we said earlier, the easiest way to judge it, is simply to look around…

  • Is it a factory?
  • Is there a real still? Is the still actually used? Does it looks like it is just for show?
  • Stills come in all shapes and sizes – you might see traditional copper stills, you might see stainless steel ones – do you see something that can produce a reasonable quantity of product?

Scenario: You hear of a popular gin produced in a certain area with an intriguing story related to an area of the country. It seems brimming with authenticity.

They must own and run a distillery there right? Maybe. Maybe not.

It may be that the brand has been incredibly well marketed but the product is actually distilled at a mass producing commercial distillery, quite possibly in a different country.

Gin producers often take this first step to produce a gin – i.e. the brand first approach, rather than the distillery first approach. This lets business owners take the first steps into the gin world with the lowest possible risk. It may be over time that the brand can sustain itself without having an actual brand-owned distillery. While the gin will have been made in “a” distillery, it might not be brand owners’ distillery - there's nothing wrong with that as long as they don't claim to have a distillery.  Authenticity matters.

Popularity, story, marketing, bottle processes can contribute to the perceived likelihood that a distillery is owned by a brand, but this does not always follow.

So what’s the answer?

To decide whether a business is making a bold marketing claim or is an actual real distillery, all of these points must be considered together. If one of them fails to meet the test, it would be difficult to justify they are a distillery.

  • Do they meet the dictionary definition above?
  • Are they distilling the product?
  • Do they have the appropriate distilling equipment?
  • Do they have appropriate planning permissions to manufacture at the site?
  • Are they authorised to operate as a distillery?
  • Are they authentically producing the product?

What’s our opinion as a Scottish Gin Distillery?

For a customer to recognise what type of drinks business it is, we recommend the following terms…

If you are distilling the product on site and meet the conditions above, the business is a Distillery.
Otherwise, and even if producing gin, a correct business term would be Drinks Producer or Gin Producer or Spirits Producer.

Each category of business is worth celebrating in their own right and in no way reduces the passion for creating great tasting drinks. Using the correct term however offers transparency & honesty to customers while recognising and respecting the investment (and risk) that other businesses have made in order to set up a real Distillery.

A business that calls themselves a distillery without meeting the above criteria is mis-leading customers and this is obviously not on, as they could have set up a distillery if they have wished. Of course, it’s cheaper and quicker not to.

Final thoughts

It’s all about honesty, transparency and authenticity.

Moving beyond the definition of a distillery, what ultimately matters is openness and demonstrating the passion for your craft – the word distillery is a shortcut to this representation but it’s not the be all and end all – celebrate true Scottish craft and it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself.

“City of Aberdeen Distillery is proud to be the first distillery in our city for 80 years. We are honest and open with all our customers. We’re transparent in how we distil our gins. We love running our tours and anyone can discover how we run the distillery to create our range of delicious true Aberdeen distilled Gins. The Head Distiller loves a tricky question about distilling – feel free to challenge his distilling knowledge!”