A brainwave in a New York bar sent David Stirling back to his Angus roots to set up a distillery with a difference
Growing up on the Arbikie Highland Estate, David Stirling had what he calls “a Famous Five” childhood. In fact, there were six of them (five boys, one girl) tumbling around the farm, spilling down to the sea shore, learning about farming and whether they liked it or not.
“We lived the adventures that most kids dream about,” he recalls. “What is now the Arbikie Highland Distillery was my childhood home, less than a mile from the Angus coast, above Lunan Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland.
“Our imagination would run wild as we explored the crumbling ruins of the 12th-century Red Castle, built to repel Viking marauders. We were brought up listening to great tales of smuggling and ships being lured onto the cliffs. Local stories were all about hidden tunnels and smugglers and wreckers who used secret caves to hide their plunder.”
It wasn’t all derring-do, picnics and lashings of ginger beer. These kids were expected to join in with the family business. “Growing up, we all worked on the farm,” he says. “We drove the combines and tractors, learned 140 varieties of potato so we could do our own inspections, and milked the cows at 3am. It was very hands-on and long hours.”
The charms of rural Angus paled as David grew older. After studying history and politics at Dundee University, then taking an accelerated law degree, he headed for Manhattan. He did not forget the old country, though, using his roots to build a concierge business, tailoring the very best Scottish experiences for discerning travellers. He also invested in Highlands, a successful Scottish gastropub in New York’s West Village. In fact, the idea for Arbikie Vodka, the first potato-based spirit to be distilled in Scotland, was born over a few late-night libations in that very establishment.
“My brothers and I, having enjoyed a few drams one evening, were inspired to bring the concept of ‘farm to bottle’ to reality,” he recalls. And unlike many of the splendid ideas that emerge over a saloon bar table at Glenmorangie o’clock, this bunch of dreamers – as part of a family that owns a 2,000-acre potato, barley and wheat farm – could actually make this one come true.
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Words Anna Burnside
Photography Neale Smith
Art Direction Gillian Welsh