I always say North Point Distillery started when Struan made the mistake of saying, “I am moving back to Scotland to start a distillery.” Whether he was joking or not, we will never know.
Left to Right: Greg Benson (Head Distiller), Laura Pearce (Brand Ambassador), Struan Mackie (Co-Founder) and Alex MacDonald (Co-Founder)
Sitting in a Starbucks next to Liverpool Street station in London, I sat across from Struan (who famously does not drink coffee), discussing how our respective jobs in consulting for Tech Start ups were going and our plans for the future. His sentiment of departing London to his native Scotland and producing the ‘water of life’ (aka Scotch Whisky) was not entirely ill-founded: Struan previously had a Whisky business during his time at Strathclyde University; meanwhile, I found myself taking more interest in the consumption of Whisky during my time at the University of St Andrews.
Regardless, Struan and I continued our meeting beyond Starbucks to a venue where we could both enjoy the beverages, and what better place than the pub around the corner? This was the first home for the dreams, follies, and the “ideas that no one has ever thought of” (supposedly) that eventually became North Point Distillery & Dalclagie Scotch Whisky. This midday so-called meeting quickly progressed into a dinner “meeting,” which was succinctly followed by a cocktail “meeting”.... We were extremely thorough in this initial planning stage.
From this first meeting in the fall of 2019, our planning and excitement accumulated terminal velocity. I travelled up to Thurso for the first time in 2019, breaking my current northern travel record of Inverness. Upon arrival, I realised that I was in fact, closer to Norway than I was to my flat in London. Dorothy was not in Kansas anymore. We began seriously considering our change of careers and pursuing this now-shared dream of creating a small-batch craft distillery that created Gin, Rum, and eventually Scotch Whisky, that we both would love to drink, toast, and enjoy with friends and family alike.
It was in 2020 that the dream became a reality. We created our Limited company in January of 2020 and proudly declared that “2020 is going to be our year, and there is nothing that could possibly go wrong”.... Safe to say Struan and I should not start a fortune telling business.
Raising investment throughout Covid 19 was certainly a challenge. Navigating the newly formed distance-working landscape provided a multitude of hurdles, and it certainly delayed our search for the home of our distillery. I would assert that few people had driven down as many dead-end roads, lanes, and avenues across Caithness County as Struan Mackie. Searching desperately for the right building to start our journey proved challenging. Eventually, Struan found our home in the Forss Business and Energy Park, a former US Naval Radio Station, active throughout the Cold War. It had character, it had a story, and it had offices. It certainly was not designed with a distillery in mind, but that was fixed easily enough – at least, that is what Struan assured me over the phone, pen in hand, ready to sign the rental agreement. I had only seen 7 seconds of the property through a limited connectivity video call. I agreed to the property, and off we started.
It all started to gather steam in July when I first made my trip north in a window of allowed travel. I drove the 13 hours from London to Thurso and when I walked into our distillery for the first time, I was greeted with the sight of a table, three chairs, Struan’s phone acting as a less-than-secure 3G hotspot, and a very large empty carpeted room.… We called it the Still House.
That third chair would be promptly filled by our first employee, Laura Pearce (neé Laura Mackenzie). Laura, a local, had a wealth of experience working in the spirits industry and was exactly what we needed. She quickly realised that we might have exaggerated when we said our current distillery was “a smaller operation” than she was used to; however, she got stuck in, and we got to work.
Our plan was Rum, creating an initial, amazing product that came to be our Pilot Rum. We did this by distilling on our bespoke still, which had been ordered earlier in 2020. This still, Sandy Stroma, will always hold a special place in our hearts as it allowed us to create our product and served as a conveniently sized space heater when our heating was sporadic that winter.
I would be remiss to talk about our distillery without speaking about our distiller, Greg Benson. A Glaswegian born and raised, Greg speaks faster and remarkably thinks faster. At times, he appears to be more of a supercomputer dedicated to all things alcohol, conveniently shaped as a human not to scare off the tourists! Greg was given creative license when he joined our team under one condition: we never make him create a Pink Gin. He can elaborate on this in his own time. Greg was the brain behind every product in our launch, bringing the complexity and creativity we needed, and it was the job of everyone else, especially Greg’s Kryptonite, Laura, to make sure he didn’t go off the rails!
Our first launch came on October 12, 2020. We all worked around the clock ahead of the launch, working well into the wee hours of the morning almost daily. Our launch had 3 products: our Pilot Rum, a distiller’s edition Spiced Rum, and a distiller’s edition Gin. All three products have definitive stories associated with their creation – perhaps to be saved for another blog?!
Our dream of a distillery was solidified on October 12, and we haven’t looked back since. We are excited to continue sharing our journey and stories from the distillery across this blog.
See you next time.