Master Distiller and Distillery Manager at Arbikie Highland Estate, Scotland, UK
Interviewer: Yuno Dinnie
I first heard about Kirsty Black when I was listening to the radio one February morning when a story caught my ear: a Scottish distillery had developed the world’s first climate-positive gin. The gin, named Nàdar (Gaelic for nature), was developed by the award-winning Arbikie Distillery and boasts a carbon footprint of -1.54 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per 700 ml bottle; in other words, it removes more CO2 than it creates. How is it achieved? The secret lies in the ingredient of its base spirit: peas.
All plants need nitrogen to grow, and commercial crop cultivation relies heavily on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is a very energy-intensive process, and excess nitrogen leaching into the environment causes air and water pollution as well as contributing to climate change. However, legumes such as peas and beans have a unique ability to take nitrogen from the air, fix it in the ground and improve the soil. This means not only that peas do not need synthetic fertilizers, but also that they help to reduce fertilizer use when growing other crops in the same field. Even waste products from the gin-making process such as pea hulls and pot ale (liquid residue) are good for the environment, as they can be used as protein-rich animal feed instead of imported soya beans, a major driver of deforestation around the world.
Nàdar is the culmination of five years of research by Arbikie’s master distiller Kirsty Black. I am delighted that Kirsty has agreed to be interviewed.
Give peas a chance
— How did you come up with the idea of using peas to make a climate-positive gin? Was there a ‘eureka!’ moment of a sort?
Kirsty: Sadly, there wasn’t a ‘eureka’ moment as such. Releasing the gin was the culmination of a variety of work by a lot of different people. Although we made the spirit and the gin at Arbikie, years of work preceded this with research relating to legume agronomy, fermentation and life cycle analysis being completed by the James Hutton Institute, Abertay University, Bangor University and Trinity College as part of an EU Programme (TRUE: TRansition paths to sUstainable legume based systems in Europe, https://www.true-project.eu). We all knew the value legumes have to the environment, but we needed a high value market to encourage farmers to grow them – as we’re based in Scotland, turning them into alcohol was too good an opportunity to miss! At Arbikie we like to innovate and, as both farmers and distillers, we saw the opportunity to distil the world’s first climate-positive spirits.
— What was the hardest part of the research/development process to create Nàdar?
Kirsty: I think the hardest part was making the move from lab-based research to full scale production. In theory I knew it should all work but when you are dealing with tonnes of peas versus grams I think some nerves are to be expected. We also didn’t know if people would ultimately understand or accept what we were trying to demonstrate and achieve by making this product.
— I understand that Nàdar Gin is a product of your PhD research, which you conducted over five years while working at Arbikie as its Master Distiller. How did you manage to juggle these two time-consuming commitments? What kept you going?
Kirsty: Yes, I am completing a part-time PhD looking at all aspects of legumes (peas, beans, lentils etc.). My work starts in the field with the potential to use legumes, due to their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, in supporting traditional cereal crops. Then I go on to look for premium markets for the crop itself – namely alcoholic beverages for the starch component and feed/food markets for the protein.
I’ve always been happiest when I am busy, learning something new with every day full of variation. By both working for a distillery and a university I get the opportunity to do research that has real-life applications in industry, which is hugely satisfying.
— Does Arbikie export to Japan?
Kirsty: Yes, we do through Global Grocery in Tokyo and are keen to do much more, especially with Nàdar as the discerning Japanese consumers are very sustainably-aware and are likely to be keen to buy the world’s only climate-positive gin.
Arbikie Highland Estate (https://www.arbikie.com/) was founded in 2013 by three brothers John, Iain and David Stirling at their family farm in the northeast of Scotland. Known for its field-to-bottle ethos, Arbikie produces spirits distilled from ingredients grown and harvested on the estate. Its first products were vodka and gin made from misshapen potatoes that could not be sold to retailers and would otherwise be wasted. With Nàdar, Arbikie has taken its pursuit of sustainability one step further.
— I’ve read that you have also launched Nàdar vodka. Is there any plan to expand the Nàdar range further – Nàdar whisky perhaps? Are you working on any other climate-focused projects?
Kirsty: Unfortunately, Scotch whisky can’t be made from peas, only cereals but there are lots more legumes and flavors to try so we are always experimenting and developing new potential products. As a whole, Arbikie’s goal is to be one of the most sustainable distilleries in the world. We’ve started this by focusing on our raw materials and how they are grown on our farm but we are now questioning every item that enters and leaves our building and how we can make the best choices for the environment. All of our projects going forward will be climate-focused.
— Has sustainability always been an important consideration in your work and life? What does it mean to you?
Kirsty: I grew up on a fruit farm so have always had an interest in the countryside and what grows wild around us but also how it is changing as a result of our actions. I feel we all have a responsibility to reduce our impact on our planet. I hope the release of our Nàdar products demonstrates the possibilities to other distilleries and breweries in looking differently at sustainability and their environmental impact.
— What do you think your industry can do to be more sustainable?
Kirsty: The Scottish distilling industry is already pretty focused on sustainability, looking at alternative energy sources and improving their emissions. I think the next step is to look at growing and agriculture and how we can influence the practices and promote an increase in biodiversity. At Arbikie we grow the crops that we distil and an amazing range of botanicals, including juniper, lemongrass, limes and chillies.
— Alcohol can be harmful, and problem drinking (which soared during the COVID lockdown) is a big issue associated with your industry. How do you feel about that, and what do you think can/should be done to encourage responsible drinking?
Kirsty: Arbikie follows the responsible drinking code set out by the Portman Group. “The Portman Group aims to consistently challenge the industry to deliver high standards of best practice and fulfil the essential self-regulatory role of ensuring the responsible marketing and promotion of alcoholic products to UK consumers under our Codes of Practice, which outline the guidelines all alcohol producers must follow when naming, branding and selling alcoholic drinks.”
See the Portman Group’s Codes of Practice here:
A woman in a man’s world
A biology graduate specialising in plant sciences, Kirsty initially worked as an engineer at a medical device company before heading back to university to complete a master’s degree in brewing and distilling. She joined Arbikie in 2014, where she helped to build the distillery and oversees all aspects of product development. Her first gin from Arbikie, named Kirsty’s Gin, won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2016, and the Spirit Business magazine named her one of the top 10 female master distillers and blenders in the world. While working at Arbikie, she embarked on her PhD research at Abertay University and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee to examine the potential of legumes as a sustainable feedstock to the brewing and distilling industries. Her research won the first prize in the Institute of Food Science and Technology Young Scientist of the Year Scotland Award in 2018.
— You trained as a scientist, became an engineer, then retrained to work in brewing and distilling. What has it been like to be a young woman in these traditionally male-dominated fields?
Kirsty: I realize now that I’ve been very lucky throughout my childhood and education that I was never discouraged to pursue a career in science nor told that I couldn’t do something based on my gender. Unfortunately, within the distilling industry gender stereotypes are all too prevalent but progress is definitely being made in the right direction.
— What do you think can/should be done to encourage more women to choose STEM careers and “men’s jobs”?
Kirsty: Research always points to role models and there are an increasing number of women leading distilleries in Scotland and beyond. Highlighting these role models in the media helps youngsters discover the numerous opportunities in STEM careers.