INTERVIEW: Viv and Steve Muir, NB Gin
‘I wrote on the wall ‘cracked it’ – I knew that was it’
It was going to be a night to remember. As guests at the Brit Awards it was an opportunity for Vivienne and Steve Muir to mingle with some of the biggest names in pop, and party until the music stopped.
For the couple from East Lothian, however, the wow moment had nothing to do with the performers, who included One Direction and Pharrell Williams, or the glamour associated with one of London’s biggest showpiece events.
“It was when I saw the name of our company on the brand board alongside Sony and other international names,” says Vivienne, putting her palm to her chest as if her breath was once again taken away. “It was hugely emotional.”
Her company, NB Gin had been selected as one of the brands to feature at the Brits. Not only did it make a dramatic entrance to the gig, being served to 600 guests, it was back again at this year’s bash.
“It came about because I had sent a thank you letter to a bar in London for taking our gin. One of the guys involved with the Brits was there. He tasted it, liked it, and rang me.”
There are similar stories of NB Gin’s almost accidental rise from a humble East Lothian kitchen to a place among the glitterati.
As lawyers, they had no experience of distilling, nor sales and marketing. But they have managed to sell it to bars around the world because someone in a top job has happened to taste it while in Scotland, or heard about it from a friend of a friend.
It was chosen by the Princes of Wales’ party planner Johnny Roxburgh at a series of parties organised by his eponymous firm, Johnny Roxburgh Designs.
Vivienne admits that she pinches herself that from an idea to “distil some gin and sell it around North Berwick” it has become a global phenomenon with customers in high places.
“We thought it would be great if we could get it into the bars in Edinburgh,” she says.
The Germans were the first to import it and this prompted Vivienne to think where else it could be sold. She flew to Spain, where she knew they liked gin, and booked into a trade show in Madrid. Among those who bought the spirit was the head buyer of El Corte Inglese, a department store. Orders soon followed from France, Belgium, Canada and Australia.
Husband Steve, who had initially intended to brew beer, created the distinctive flavour, reading up on how to make it while commuting to his work in Edinburgh with law firm Moody’s.
He experimented with various botanicals, turning the kitchen into a mini-laboratory and filling the air with a mix of aromas until he got what he was seeking. “I wrote on the wall ‘cracked it’. I knew that was it,” he says.
That eureka moment was in August 2013 and after taking a small industrial unit in the town to build a distillery he was put in touch with an eccentric still-maker called David Pym in London who agreed to make an unusually small still.
“Actually, he made it too big and we couldn’t get it through the door,” explains Steve, laughing when recalling how they had to dismantle and rebuild it.
He leaves day-to-day control of the business to Vivienne and her brother while continuing as a full time lawyer, a job he enjoys and has no intention of giving up.
Vivienne left her position as a regulator at ICAS and is now keen to find bigger premises to automate the production process so the company can meet rising demand, not just for the gin, but their vodka which launched last year.
“We will stay in North Berwick – we have to – though there are not many options available,” she says. “The people are lovely and so proud of us. The support has been phenomenal.”
Steve has financed the business from his share of the sale of Barrie & Hibbert to Moody’s at the end of 2011. The couple are determined that it remains self-financed. All proceeds are re-invested. Revenue is about £300,000, which they hope to triple over three years, but it has yet to turn a profit.
In the meantime, they are living the proverbial dream and admit they never expected their customers to come from such illustrious backgrounds.
“Johnny Roxburgh is an accountant and I did remind him that we had been in touch before,” says Vivienne. “I had written to him as the regulator at ICAS to tell him he was late with his self-certification.”
But there was one slight disappointment at the Brits when she met the song writer and producer Mark Ronson.
“I asked if he had tasted our gin, but he hadn’t. He said only drinks Tequila.”
Educated: Dundee University (law)
Career highlights: litigation lawyer (Balfour and Manson), moved to Australia for a year; returned and worked for the Scottish Qualifications Authority and then ICAS.
Birthplace: Windsor, grew up in Fife
Educated: Edinburgh University (law)
Career highlights: Met Viv at Balfour and Manson, moved to Australia where he “became a swimming pool cleaner; returned to work at Standard Life and then Barrie & Hibbert.
Photos: Images of Vivienne and Steve, by Terry Murden; photo of gin at RR event, contributed