Building a Social Business

A new Scottish distillery is making more than just whisky – it’s creating jobs for the local community, too.

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I’m sitting in the canteen at the Isle of Harris Distillery, on the northwestern edge of Scotland, scarfing down warm scones with jam. Beside me eating soup is the man who crafted the gin I just sipped in the tasting room. This on-site dining space was designed to create casual opportunities for visitors and local people to interact. And indeed at the long wooden refectory table we share, production manager Kenny MacLean and I quickly get to talking.

“Our motto here is ‘enemies of average,’” explains my tablemate, a former telecom engineer, who was recently trained from scratch in the art of distilling. It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t just another distillery. It’s a social enterprise that was created to bolster the community and the local economy. It hires locals with no experience, uses hand-dived sugar kelp in the gin and creates nosing panels using industry folks and intuitive locals.

It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t just another distillery. It’s a social enterprise that was created to bolster the community and the local economy.

The vision for this business, which has been dubbed “the Social Distillery,” was dreamed up by American musicologist and organic farmer Anderson Bakewell. He wanted to create a unique visitor experience, make a product that captured the essence of Harris and keep the local economy alive. With traditional crofting, fishing and weaving no longer sustaining islanders, younger residents have been leaving for the mainland to make a living. The future of windswept Harris – it has 1,916 residents, half what the population numbered 50 years ago – depends on young couples staying to raise their families.

Bakewell is not alone in wanting to start a business that gives back. A 2016 Social Enterprise Sector survey found that in Canada there are more than 7,000 confirmed social enterprises – businesses that use commercial strategies to benefit human or environmental well-being. The 1,350 social entrepreneurs surveyed reported more than $1.19 billion in revenues. They trained 116,000 people, provided services to over 5.4 million people, and brought on board thousands of volunteers.

Getting a start-up with a social conscience off the ground, takes a communal effort. With the help of 17 private investors and Scottish government funding, Bakewell raised $22-million. He opened the distillery last October. Ultimately, he wants to generate 20 local jobs and attract 40,000 visitors per year, creating a robust market for other new geo-tourism operations on the island. Part of their plan is to sell their drinks outside Scotland. People can already buy their gin through mail order, while the whisky, once it’s matured, will be available, too.

This social start-up is already providing opportunities – in just eight months it has hired 23 staff, more than projected and their expected busy season, summer, has yet to arrive.

As I warm my hands by the peat-burning hearth in the lobby, I wonder how the islanders on this strict Sabbath-observing isle feel about their boozy new economic stream. Predictably a friendly staff member is close at hand to answer my question. “We had a ceilidh (a Scottish social event) in the distillery with a dance band for our opening night, and we expected about 100 people,” says managing director Simon Erlanger. “Nine hundred turned up – half the population of Harris – and they danced till 1 in the morning.”

That is community spirit worth bottling.

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