Dunnet Bay Distillers: An Innovation Story

Dunnet Bay Distillers is the story of a couple who long dreamed of starting their own business and combined their passions with a desire to get back to their roots to open their own distillery.  

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Founders Martin and Claire Murray first met at school in Caithness. After moving away for university and work, they longed to come back home.

Martin enjoyed making gin and beer, experimenting with flavours for fun. Claire is creative with a passion for design. Using the best of both of their talents and skills they forged their plan, resulting in their first distillation in August 2014. Using local botanicals, they had created an earthy and floral gin, with both spirit and bottle design reflective of their Caithness surroundings.

The company grew far more quickly than Martin and Claire had anticipated, prompting them to get in touch with Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s (HIE) Innovation team. “Being a small family business, we were struggling to find the time or find those with the skill set to help us get things done,” says Martin.

“HIE gave us help sourcing people who had the expertise for the things we didn’t have time to do. They were very supportive during the development of some of our more challenging products. Without their help these products may have disappeared, but HIE’s assistance made their development and completion possible.” Martin and Claire now employ a further 13 people at the distillery which, thanks to their continued growth and innovation, is now open to visitors for tour with tasting sessions.

Innovation has been vital to Dunnet Bay’s growth and expansion, says Martin. “Before we started the business, innovation felt like something other people did. Once we started, we realised we had to innovate to do things more efficiently. It’s the simple little things. For example, putting stickers on our bottles. It was a clumsy, time-consuming process. So Claire’s dad designed a rack that could steadily apply three stickers at a time. He then tweaked it till perfection and it has totally sped up our process.”

Coming into the market during the recent gin boom, Dunnet Bay had to be innovative to compete and grow. Martin says, “Innovation has helped our business have an advantage over our competitors. We helped carve out our place in the market by creating spirits using local botanicals. This means we’re making products our competitors can’t make. We’re capturing flavours only we can catch. We also created the first grass vodka in the UK, using Holy Grass found on the banks of Thurso. Our gin and vodka bottle designs reflect how our spirits tie in with the story of the area. There’s a lot of Caithness both in or on the bottle.”

Speaking of his experience with HIE’s Innovation team, Martin said, “We’ve found it to be a brilliant resource to allow our business to innovate. They also help you break down the barriers to innovation. You might have an idea but sometimes, without the reassurance that it’s the right way to go, you drop it. With HIE, you get that reassurance. They’re a supportive and motivational sounding board.”

Collaborating with HIE has been vital in ensuring Dunnet Bay could scale up from its roots as a small-scale cottage industry. According to Martin, HIE’s Innovation team has helped the business develop something that is unique. “Innovation is in our nature. We want to do exciting things. It’s easy to go out and copy people and be successful but the real reward comes when you create something of your own.”

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