Glasgow-based smoked salt producer Hawkhead Whisky Smoked has recently added to its collection of award wins and repackaged its products to make them more accessible to the convenience retailing market.
by Antony Begley
With interest is locally, regionally and nationally sourced products arguably at an all time high in Scotland after the year that changed everything, there is a strong argument for growing your range of interesting, high quality Scottish products to meet this increased consumer demand.
One company worth a look at is Hawkhead Whisky Smoked, a multi-award winning business that recently added another gong to its heaving mantelpiece by collecting a Scottish Retail Food & Drink Award. Additionally, the company has recently reformulated its packaging to both improve its sustainability credentials and allow it to significantly lower its price point, making it of even more interest to convenience retailers looking for something to add a little something special to their range.
Using only aged whisky casks from Scottish distilleries in their smokery, Glasgow-based Hawkhead has created a range of unique and extremely tasty products.
“I suppose it all really began when we were exhibiting at a BBC Good Food Show in 2018,” says Chris Perry-Jones, co-founder of Paisley-based Hawkhead Whisky Smoked. “At that point we had a range of smoked salt and cashew products but when we looked around the exhibition hall, we realised that we weren’t really doing anything that stood out for the crowd. There are a lot of smokeries in Scotland.”
As luck would have it, fate intervened, as Chris explains: “Shortly after that we were exhibiting at a whisky show, and for that event I had ordered some Scottish whisky barrels to burn in the smokery to make some products just for that show. That was the moment when we knew we were onto something.”
Founded in 2017, the company had originally been called Hawkhead Kitchen and had set out in life as, essentially, a BBQ business. “I had been a chef in France then moved to Glasgow and ended up as Head Chef at Bar Soba, moving around the country to work at the chain’s various outlets across Scotland. I was doing silly hours and we decided that, if we were putting in so many hours and so much effort, we should really be doing it for our own benefit, so we set up Hawkhead Kitchen.”
The initial plan was to focus on smoking salmon as well as producing a range of smoked cashews and salt. “We quickly realised that smoked salmon was a busy marketplace to be in, with an enormous amount of competition,” he says. “And we also began to realise that the salt and cashews, which were really just planned as a sideshow, were the products gaining most interest.
Finding the sweet spot
Which takes us, more or less, to the fateful whisky exhibition. “We had been smoking using oak up until that point,” says Chris. “But when we first tried the salt smoked with the whisky barrels, we knew straight away we’d found our USP. The richness and sweetness from the barrels gave the salt a flavour profile that was just sensational.”
The company promptly rebranded as Hawkhead Whisky Smoked and has never looked back.
An interesting element of the production process is what could be termed ‘barrel blending’, as Chris explains: “All of our barrels are Scottish whisky barrels but, obviously, depending upon what the barrels have been used for, they have very different characteristics. Barrels used to age Islay whiskies have completely different flavour profiles to barrels used in, say, Speyside. So, to guarantee a consistency of flavour in the end product, we blend barrels when we burn them.”
Chris also decided to lift the smoked salt even further with the addition of black garlic which adds extra depth and complexity.
The fruit of Chris’s efforts have been rewarded with no fewer than nine industry awards, including a Scottish Retail Food & Drink Award, and the company is going from strength to strength.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however, as Chris readily admits: “The Covid pandemic had a huge impact on us but, in hindsight, it’s actually had a lot of positive effects for us. It caused huge problems, make no mistake. We launched a new catering range of products early last year for the first time – and within weeks there was no longer a catering industry to sell to! But the last year also allowed us to take a breath, take stock and properly audit every aspect of our business for the first time.”
One major consequence of that enforced pause was the decision to rationalise the company’s range to focus on the best-selling products and the ones with most potential. “I could produce new products every day of the week, and we had been doing that for a while,” he says, “but we decided over the last year to focus on the key range. So now we have three cashew products and three salt products and that’s where our focus is now.”
A further consequence of having a lot of thinking time in 2020 was the decision to radically change the packaging of the salt range. “We had been using glass jars but, after doing a lot of research into more sustainable packaging, we have chosen to move to cardboard boxes with liners. It will have a dramatic impact on our carbon emissions; it reduces our total transportation fuel costs by two-thirds for instance. We used to sell 125g of salt in a glass jar with a total weight of 340g. We will now sell 80g of salt in a cardboard box with a total weight of just 91g. That has a major impact on our costs – and it also provides us with the additional benefit of being able to help retailers significantly reduce the cost of the product to consumers. Whereas it was around £5 a jar, it’s now £3.50. That should open up a whole new audience for us.”
So successful have Hawkhead’s sustainability improvements been that Chris expects the company to be carbon negative by next year, a remarkable achievement.
The company is on a high at the moment, having only recently launched a new commercial bulk range for the re-opening catering and hospitality industry and having secured great success in wholesale, notably through Cress.
“It’s been a year of reflection,” concludes Chris, “but it has been a year full of opportunity too and I think it will ultimately prove to have been a very important year for us. We have a lot to look forward to – and we’re excited about sharing our Scottish Retail Food & Drink Award-winning product with a much wider range of retailers and consumers.”
For more information, visit whiskysmoked.com or give Chris a call on 07762 042 145.