Embracing gin with the Masonic Arms

SLTN Award-winner has made the spirit core to the offer at their historic Kirkcudbright pub

2022 SLTN Awards Gin Bar of the Year winners
We are the champions: LJ and Simon at the 2022 SLTN Awards

IT’LL be 25 years this year since husband and wife Simon and LJ Jackson took over the Masonic Arms in Kirkcudbright, and they haven’t stopped developing the place since.

The former Masonic lodge, which dates back to 1790, had previously been run by LJ’s late father and was taken over by the couple when he passed away.

Having extensively refurbed and developed the pub in the following years, the couple made the biggest change in 2018 when they transformed the pub’s lounge bar area into a dedicated gin bar.

Later that year the Masonic Arms was Highly Commended in the Gin Bar of the Year category at the SLTN Awards for the first time, making the final three again in 2019 and 2021 before taking the title at the 2022 awards.

“We saw the gin craze coming up around 2015 and just started buying bottles of gin then,” Simon told SLTN.

“We had about 50 or 60 bottles at the time. Then about 2017 it really kicked off and I said to LJ about doing the lounge bar, which we converted into a gin bar.”

Gin has been so big in the licensed trade in recent years that it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way. While some gin bars were already popping up in Scottish cities in the 2010s – Edinburgh’s 56 North being one of the first – the spirit hadn’t exploded into the mainstream quite yet.

In Kirkcudbright, LJ was unconvinced about the popularity of gin with the Masonic Arms customer-base.

“There were more and more gins coming out,” recalled Simon.

“You could see it coming. And the trade press just had a bit more emphasis on gin. I thought ‘something is going to happen here’.

“Me being a gin drinker myself I just started buying them, much to LJ’s disappointment. At one point we had 50 different bottles on the shelf. She was saying ‘Simon, these aren’t shifting’ and I said ‘just bear with me’.

“Come 2016 it started really kicking off. Summer 2016 and 2017 it just went mental.”

Today, the Masonic Arms’ gin bar stocks around 260 gins – 200 of which are from Scottish distilleries – with gin accounting for 30% of the pub’s revenue. Tastings are hosted with nearby distillers including Crafty Distillery and Dark Arts and the pub is preparing to introduce a Friday Gin Club, where customers can pay a flat fee of £20 to sample four new gins (with mixers).

Every gin on the back-bar is listed in the pub’s ‘Gin Bible’, along with suggested serves, and staff are regularly trained up on new additions to the range.

Offering customers something new or different is core to the experience, and Simon said he is careful to choose bottles customers aren’t likely to get their hands on during the weekly shop. Keeping a close eye on press and social media accounts to find new launches, he then sources gins from suppliers including Inverarity Morton, Master of Malt, Huffmans and Matthew Clark, as well as dealing with distilleries directly.

“We try to avoid most of the gins that are sold in supermarkets,” he explained.

“We try to be a bit more exclusive. And being that bit more exclusive you can charge that wee bit extra.

Some of the recent additions to the back-bar.

“We have over 200 different types of Scottish gin. We’re choosing something that has won something like the World Spirits Awards, World Gin Awards, Scottish Gin Awards. You try and get the award winners.”

That approach has led the pub to stock a wide range of weird and wonderful gins, with recent additions including a smoked salmon-flavoured gin and one flavoured with miso and black cardamom.

“The market used to be for gin liqueurs, then it went onto pink gin,” said Simon. “That craze was there for a while, and we still get people asking us for pink gins. But we’ve moved on from that and we’re going a bit more experimental in terms of sourcing random flavours.

“I don’t just do orange or raspberry flavours anymore. We stock haggis flavoured gin. I’ve just got a parsnip and passionfruit gin delivered last week.

“I’m trying to tantalise people’s tastebuds a wee bit now with some really random flavours.”

That level of experimentation isn’t happening in a vacuum; it’s about distillers catering to an increasingly adventurous market. Simon said customers have become much more knowledgeable about the spirit and are keen to try new and unusual gins whenever they can.

“The knowledge level has changed massively,” he said.

“I think over the years, and especially since lockdown, people have become fairly well educated. And you’ve got these shows and things like that, where you can go and sample so many gins and the distillers are all there.

“Customers come in and say ‘I’ve had that one at such and such a show so I’d like something similar to that’. They are knowledgeable about what they actually want or how they want to pair it.”

And Simon is confident that gin will continue to be a feature of back-bars moving forward.
“Gin’s always going to remain quite prominent on spirits shelves,” he said.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to lose that now. There was a bit of a vodka trend a couple of years ago, with the flavoured vodkas, but it just didn’t seem to take off in the same way as the gin.

“It’s such a versatile spirit that you can just do whatever you want with it. And they’re experimenting that little bit more now. People are pushing the boundaries that little bit more and I think it’s great.”