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Distillery and brewery on Bute hails all-female leadership and production team as it celebrates major growth

12/04/2024

A DISTILLERY and brewery on an island off the west coast of Scotland has revealed the secret to more than doubling its revenue – a new all-female leadership team. 

Bute Brew Co. and Isle of Bute Distillery have invested in training to upskill a trio of team members to take on the brewing and distilling roles previously occupied by male colleagues. And their impact is already being felt – the company’s revenue increased by 127% this year, with online sales doubling during that time.  

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The brewery and distillery – popular with the late celebrity chef Dave Myers who visited during one of his final TV appearances – also employs a further five staff on the island, and recently launched the World’s First Oyster Gin, distilled with Loch Fyne Oyster Shells, employs a further five staff.

Co-founder Rhona Madigan-Wheatley recently returned from maternity leave. At the same time, her husband Jack (also Madigan-Wheatley) left the business to return to his law career, leaving Rhona to go it alone. 

She said: “When our previous head distiller left, we had the option to recruit, or to retain and upskill; we made the right choice. I couldn’t be more proud of our talented, committed team. We have such a good culture, and I think that’s partly because we do feel like we’re in it together in a male dominated industry.

“When I returned from maternity leave, I’d lost my confidence. Now I feel like things are moving fast and I’ve had a big part to play. I was on the sidelines for too long and I’m glad to be back with fresh confidence and fresh eyes with a fresh team. 

“My most important role is to remind the team to ignore imposter syndrome and make sure they believe in themselves.  I know how important confidence can be. I’ve really struggled with anxiety, particularly early in my career when I felt I had to cover up my dyslexia.

“Now I tell our team to do what I do – focus on what you’re good at, don’t try to be anyone else, and believe in yourself.” 

New distillery manager Iona Buick, 27, moved to the Isle of Bute, where her father lives, when Covid curtailed her camper van adventure around Australia. Having never run events before arriving back in Scotland four years ago, she’s now responsible for managing the team and running events of up to 400 people. She recently won a prestigious HIT Scotland scholarship. 

Buick said: “The faith shown in me has been phenomenal. Joining a small company has really accelerated my learning curve; I’m so lucky to now have all this experience under my belt and to be able to use it to put the distillery and the brewery on the map while helping simultaneously helping Bute bounce back to its rightful place as one of the UK’s top holiday destinations. The island is one of the most incredible places in Scotland and more people should see how it’s getting even better all the time – Bute is having a moment, and we’re proud to be part of it.”

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Imogen Holland has long had distilling on her mind, joining the company as a bar person to gain experience straight from earning a Brewing and Distilling degree at Heriot Watt University. She has now progressed to a permanent role as both a distiller and a brewer. 

Holland, whose parents have also swapped city life to join her in Bute, said: “Covid meant it was difficult to get experience, so I was willing to move anywhere for my career. This was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’d never even touched a brew kit or still and for all the theory I learned, nothing compares to learning by doing. I feel like this past year, I’ve learned more than any other year in my life. 

“We are all so hungry to learn, to improve and to prove we can do it. We are so proud of our progress and our success; we can’t wait to keep that momentum going and help the company become a major player in the drinks industry.” 

Also joining the management team is Julia Grant, who moved to the Isle of  Bute – which was named the best place to live in Scotland by the Sunday Times in 2022 –  during the pandemic during a career break from the music industry. While a massive beer fan, she had never brewed, or distilled before the move.

“I haven’t looked back”, said Grant, who turns 40 next week and will celebrate in Spain with her teammates. “I love my life here – it’s a completely different pace. I’m so lucky that after I spent so long working on one of my passions, I’m now able to focus on my other big passion in life. 

“I’ve been a beer nerd for as long as I can remember and I can’t believe it’s now my career, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be part of this amazing team.”

As well as a significant growth in online sales, the brand’s success has also been driven by  the launch of Bute Yard, a collaborative food and drink venue focusing on seasonality of which the Isle of Bute Distillery and Bute Brew Co are anchor tenants. It launched last year with the ambition to develop the Isle of Bute economy and its community through collaboration and answering the needs of the local food and drink sector for growth and expansion.

Madigan-Wheatley, a 31-year-old mother of two who previously owned and operated a successful cafe in Melbourne, Australia, said: “We are the food and drink generation. Our community of local food and drink producers is helping to bring people back to Bute and make it the place to go once more; we feel our offering of cocktails and beer brewed on-site provides something different for locals and visitors alike.

“The growth has been fantastic, but we struggle with peaks and troughs. All we can do is to continue to increase demand by doing what we love and collaborating with interesting partners to make the offering so good that there is no off-season.

Isle of Bute Distillery, 65 High Street, Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland. Isle of Bute oyster gin

“That’s a big part of our success, that our team is part of the island’s community.”

This week, the brand will launch its new line of RTD alcohol free cocktails; a project led by Buick and Holland. During one of Dave Myers final TV appearances before his death, he was seen enjoying a Bute Brew Co. beer when he came to visit the team during his time on the island. 

The company has also secured exclusivity as the beer partner at this year’s ButeFest and is set to launch an expert strategy for its world first Oyster gin, with Europe and Singapore key targets. 

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