A FEW quick palate-cleansing facts before we begin: an aperitif, you might say. Forty million bottles of gin were bought in Britain last year, breaking the £1 billion barrier for the first time and outmuscling sales growth in beer and sparkling wine. Gin sales are forecast to hit £1.37bn by 2020 as the so-called “gin-naissance” picks up speed.

The demand for artisan gin helps explain why the number of UK distilleries increased by 19 per cent in the last year. And, despite being a new body, the Scottish Craft Distillers Association already has 20 actively producing members (and the same number in the pipeline); their gin bottles bear such names as McQueen Chocolate Mint Gin, Makar Glasgow Gin and Strathearn Heather Rose Gin.

“Five years ago, artisan gin was a relatively unknown product, but now it’s very common to see five or 10 different premium gins on the menu or on a supermarket shelf. Premium gins often retail at about £30 a bottle, making it a high-margin industry.”

The words belong to James Simmonds, head of the drinks sector group at chartered accountants UHY Hacker Young, which published the distilleries research.

A couple of miles from Glasgow Airport, at Hillington Park, Armagh-born Liam Hughes, 50, is conducting a quick tour of the distilling operation at Glasgow Distillery, the company he co-founded with Mike Hayward, 49, a fellow drinks-industry veteran, and Ian McDougall, 45, finance director. Three large copper stills, all rather beautiful, and all built in Germany, are where the magic happens.

They have names, too. “This one is Annie, named after Mike’s great-grandmother, who introduced him to gin”, Hughes is saying. “She was an entrepreneur in Wales and she made her own distinctive gin, experimenting with a range of herbs, spices and fruit, and that was where Mike’s lifelong passion for gin came from. Over there is Mhairi, which is named after Ian’s daughter, and the furthest one is Tara, which is named after my daughter.”

One of the distillery’s 20 workers, Gary, is getting ready to do a Makar run [Makar Glasgow Gin was the company’s first gin, launched almost exactly three years ago]. “If you look through the window,” says Hughes, “you’ll see it hasn’t been fired up yet. In there are the juniper berries and some of the other botanicals and what Gary is putting in at the top are some of the more fragile botanicals. If you put them in the body of the still, you’d kill the flavour.” The botanicals give you an idea of the complexities of the gin’s flavour: coriander seed, angelica root, cassia bark, black pepper, liquorice, lemon peel and fresh rosemary.

Makar Gin, a premium offering, is pot-distilled no fewer than seven times, a fact reflected in its heptagonal-shaped bottle. It comes in limited-edition versions, too: Makar Oak Aged and Makar Mulberry Aged, in which the gin is stored for 10 weeks in virgin oak or mulberry casks for a minimum of 10 weeks. The drinks’ distinctive colouring and flavouring are exclusively down to the wood. “These casks,” says Hughes, nodding to an array of casks a few feet from Annie, “are specifically handmade for us in eastern Europe. And most of these ones are nearly ready now.”

Around the large table in the meeting room next door sit all three co-founders – something of a rare event, you gather. On a window ledge stand their products – the various gins, and Prometheus whisky, a 27-year-old Speyside single malt bought from another distillery and bottled and sold by the Glasgow Distillery (retail price on the website: £499). For a company that launched its first product only in October 2014, it has done rather well, scooping medal after medal at the Global Spirits Masters Awards, the 10th Annual Spirits Tasting at Vintners’ Hall in London, and last month’s inaugural Scottish Gin Awards.

Hughes and Hayward have been business partners for 15 years. McDougall was the accountant at their previous businesses, “and he stupidly agreed to get involved when we set up this distillery,” Hughes says. “The original concept was just to do gin, on Mike’s side, as there’s nothing he doesn’t know about the subject, but my big passion is whisky. Actually, 90 per cent of the production capabilities here are geared towards whisky, and next year we will launch the first single malt out of Glasgow since 1902, and that is almost incredible. Every time I say it, I think it can’t even be possible that Scotland’s biggest city has not had a single-malt distillery since 1902, but it is actually true, and bizarrely it will end up having three over the next few years.” [The original Glasgow Distillery, after which the company is named, was opened at Dundashill in 1770 and was closed in 1902 and demolished the following year]

Why did they go with gin in the first place? “We were very aware how consumers were bored with big [drinks] brands and we were also aware how changes in legislation in the US had led to, basically, an explosion of small distilleries on the back of what happened there 25 years ago with an explosion in the number of craft breweries. As Mike and I were looking at what we thought the market was going to do next, it was obvious to us that with recent changes in legislation by HMRC that there was almost certainly going to be an explosion in distilleries in the UK.

“When we formulated our plan there were … what, 75 gins in the UK?” He glances at Hayward, who says, “About that, yes. Now there are close to 600. It literally goes up, day by day. Most of the gin at that [earlier] time was controlled by the big distilleries like Diageo and the Ricards of the world.” Hendrick’s and Sipsmith helped to break the mould. “For me,” he adds, “gin is my spirit of choice, which is something that goes back through my family. I’d noticed a lot of excitement around craft distilling now being possible within the UK. This is what you can do. It was a chance to say, this is a fantastic opportunity to create our own brand from Glasgow, and to go on from there.”

Hughes remembers distinctly the day he and Hayward “were wandering around London and said, ‘Let’s do this’, and it very quickly moved from ‘let’s build a gin distillery’ to ‘let’s build a spirits company with a company that made high-quality, premium spirits in Glasgow’.” The pair studied Glasgow’s distilling history, and Hughes, who had lived here for 20 years, admits that he hadn’t appreciated how long it was since a single malt had been made here. “We had an immense desire to bring single malt back to Glasgow,” he says.

As Hughes talks about gin, McDougall asks whether the spirit has been made in the city before.

“Not that we can find in any records,” Hughes says. “The last three years have been fascinating”, he adds. “Three years ago, it was literally me and an empty warehouse that didn’t exist. We had just employed our first distiller.

“Now we have 20 staff and a fully-functioning operation capable of a full repertoire of spirits, and we have a whole range of new products on the way. The gin renaissance has been astonishing. We’re one of the founding members of the SCDA. We’ve been in at the beginning in terms of how the Scottish distilling element has led the revolution. There are fantastic companies down south and in Ireland but in per capita terms Scotland has almost been unbelievable.”

So popular are the distillery’s gins that hundreds of enquiries come in every week, requesting tours of the distillery; a tour has just been launched, taking in not only this distillery but also Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery. Hughes and his colleagues are pleased that the company is already in profit and that turnover has increased by 40 per cent in each of the last two years.

It’s interesting to see how gin has become more and more popular, as people discover a taste for new brands and innovative cocktails. The Glasgow Distillery’s main market is the UK and the EU but it is also trading with North America and has just sent its first shipment to Australia. Hughes says they hope, early next year, to be one of the first new Scottish companies to export to India. Plans are also in hand to launch in its closest market, Ireland.

All of this, plus the whisky coming on stream next year. Annie, Mhairi and Tara, already working round the clock, are going to be kept exceptionally busy for years to come.