Scotland's craft distilling scene has exploded, with gin at the forefront. Clinton Cawood heads north of the border to take a look
Think of gin's traditional heartland and you probably picture London. In part, we've got Hogarth's Gin Lane to thank for that, and the fact that London lends its name to the most prevalent style certainly helps.
That said, Scotland's been no slouch when it comes to gin production. Gin giants Gordon's and Tanqueray are produced there, after all, and it’s home to Hendrick's Gin, one of the brands responsible for making gin the hottest spirit on the back bar in recent times.
But something has been happening in Scotland recently – a revolution in distilling that is decidedly juniper flavoured. Craft brands have been emerging at a furious pace, to the extent that there's hardly a Scottish region now that doesn’t have a craft gin to call its own.
There's a real synergy developing between the whisky and gin industries
'All the gins coming out around the world are pretty special,' says Leon Back of Panda & Sons in Edinburgh. 'But it's the quality, quantity and the rate that's coming from Scotland, all at the same time. Like it's a race, and we have to win it.'
But why Scotland? 'We have an astonishing variety of landscapes to interpret, and a rich tradition of using these interpretations to inform our culinary arts,' explains Michael Cameron from Glaswegian hospitality school Liquid Academy. 'From the salt-bitten coasts, over the mountains and down into the heart of the urban sprawl… natural botanicals are abundant and revered.'
Cameron's point about botanicals is a particularly pertinent one. A regular feature of the new wave of Scottish gins is their use of foraged local botanicals – contemporary craft gin gold.
'Newer gins from the south are increasingly looking at history,' says 10 Dollar Shake in Aberdeen's Andy Stewart. 'Scottish gins are also tapping into history and locality, but it's mainly about botanicals'.
Caorunn Gin, one of the pioneers of this new wave of Scottish gins from Scotland, was ahead of the foraged-botanical curve, incorporating five local botanicals including rowan berries and Coul Blush apples. ‘Our five local ingredients can all be found within walking distance of our distillery,’ says the brand’s Sian Buchan.
Of course, there's a more practical consideration that makes Scotland a fertile breeding ground for gin distillation: Scotch whisky. This is a country with not only all of the distilling heritage and expertise you could want, but a good number of whisky distillers cooling their heels while their whisky matures.
'The ability to use whisky distilleries to distil gin means that Scotland has ample resources and great knowledge of the distillation process,' says Buchan.
This distilling expertise often has its source at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University and its International Centre for Brewing and Distilling.
'A lot of creativity comes from Heriot-Watt University,' confirms Adam Hunter of Arbikie Highland Estate. 'It's maybe Scottish gin's uniting factor,' he adds, listing alumni actively involved in the category, including Arbikie's own master distiller, Kirsty Black.
'I trained as a distiller in Scotland,' says Daffy's MD Chris Molyneaux,' and there are few countries in the world with such distilling heritage, pedigree and national pride for distilled spirits.' Daffy's might be distilled in the Midlands, from botanicals sourced around the world, but it's based in Scotland. 'We're proud to identify as Scottish,' Molyneaux adds.
Scotland in the mix
50ml Caorunn Gin
Glass: Whisky tumbler
40ml Hendrick's Gin
Part of the Botanical Summer menu created in partnership with Hendrick's Gin.
Edinburgh Gin (which, at six years old, is another veteran of the contemporary Scottish gin scene) has formalised its relationship with Heriot-Watt. This 'knowledge transfer partnership' with the university has most notably resulted in the distillery's latest expression, Seaside Gin. 'This unique partnership allows us to share expertise with students and the teaching staff at the university,' says the brand's Alex Nicol.
Hunter also acknowledges the practical motivation for Scottish distillers to produce gin. 'For a lot of producers, it's a way of creating revenue whilst they wait for their whisky to mature,' he says. 'We've got whisky laid down, but won't release it for 15 years. You've got to generate some income to support that operation. While whisky will be one of our main products, we'll always be a gin and vodka producer.'
While Hendrick's isn't exactly keeping its parent company – William Grant & Sons – afloat while its whisky matures, UK brand ambassador Ally Martin nevertheless acknowledges the links between the gin and this whisky distilling heritage, as well as this relationship within the industry in general. 'One reason for the sheer number of distilleries popping up is that some of the new distilleries are also producing whisky, and the gin is providing them with useful funds while they wait for their spirit to age,' Martin explains.
Cameron also acknowledges this symbiotic relationship. 'There's a real synergy between the whisky and gin industries. Wonderful gin producers are laying down their first barley spirits just as so many established whisky labels are now turning their heads and hands to a bit of nuanced botanical artistry.'
Rock Rose Gin, produced in the northernmost distillery in mainland UK, is an exception to this. 'We decided that we wanted gin to be everything for us, although I can see why you'd want to make whisky,' says founder Martin Murray. 'It used to be that gin was seen only as a way to get money back while making whisky, but the distilleries in Scotland have done a good job of not just seeing it that way, and making outstanding gin.'
Whatever the motivation might be for producing it, local gin certainly has the support of its local bartenders.
'Scottish bars are 100% on board. Bars have dedicated gin lists, with tasting notes, regional trivia and the type of historical pomp generally reserved for the post-prandial cognac trolley, while some cocktail menus are entirely structured around home expressions,' Cameron explains. At Liquid Academy, training programmes now include a full section on Scottish gin.
Stewart makes his allegiances clear on the back bar. 'It's arranged with the Scottish gins at the front, with interesting, classic British styles of gin behind those. The international ones go in the back.'
Bartenders are even getting in on the action when it comes to production, as in the case of Porter's Gin, created by Benjamin Iravani and Alex Lawrence while both were working at late-night cocktail bar Orchid in Aberdeen.
'We like using good-quality spirits whether they're Scottish or not,' concludes Back, 'but it feels good to be using good Scottish products in particular.'
Scotland's light side
Dip your toe into the Scottish gin scene with this selection of the country's finest
Arbikie Kirsty's Gin
Distillery Arbikie started out with its potato vodka, but the call of the juniper spirits is strong, and it unveiled its own last year, named after its master distiller Kirsty Black. The vodka serves as its base, and there are three Scottish botanicals in the mix: kelp, carline thistle and blaeberries. The result is a gin with gentle anise aromas at first, followed by sweet citrus – like lime sherbet – as well as musk and perfume on the palate. It finishes cleanly with a moderate juniper kick.
43% abv, £35/70cl, Gordon & MacPhail, 01343 554801
Edinburgh Seaside Gin
Inspired by the Scottish shoreline, this is the result of a collaboration between Edinburgh Gin and students of Heriot-Watt University's MSc in Brewing and Distilling. To capture this unique place, they've incorporated a number of botanicals such as foraged seaweed and scurvy grass. The result is a gin with a really appealing salty, savoury note upfront, followed by a rich, slightly vegetal palate, all lifted by some ripe citrus, and with some peppery juniper notes towards the finish.
43% abv, £35/70cl, Spencerfield Spirit, 01383 412144
Pickering's Oak-Aged Gin
The trend for oak-aged gin couldn’t be better suited to Scotland, and Pickering’s is taking full advantage, with its recently launched whisky-cask-aged gins. There are five in the range, each aged in a cask from a different Scotch region. The five are Islay, Island, Highland, Speyside and Lowland. The nose on the Island cask is gin and leathery whisky in equal measure, with a saline note and a serious juniper hit. The Highland is no less fascinating, with rounder, sweeter vanilla notes, not to mention dried stone fruit, interacting with some serious spiciness from the gin.
47% abv, £36/35cl, Summerhall Distillery, 0131 290 2901
Rock Rose Summer Edition
Dunnet Bay has the distinction of being Britain's most northerly distillery. Following on the success of its flagship gin, as well as its Holy Grass Vodka, the distillery is tapping into a big craft spirit trend: seasonality. The first release in the range was Rock Rose Spring Edition, followed by this Summer Edition, with meadowsweet, elderflower, lemon balm and clover. It's certainly fresh, with green, vegetal notes on the nose – celery, grass and pink peppercorns – along with plenty of bright citrus aromas. The palate follows suit, with more fresh lemon and lime, as well as some peppery vegetal flavours, all leading to a fresh finish.
41.5% abv, £37.50/70cl, Instil Drinks, 0207 449 1685
Illustration: Jon Berkeley