Is Scotland the New Spiritual Home of Gin?
Stick your head through one of Ugly Betty’s portholes and you get a fragrant burst of juniper, coriander, orange and cinnamon. This bulbous copper pot still, complete with large chimney and heavy duty escape hatch, is reminiscent of an ancient time-machine or underwater sub. But Ugly Betty’s mission is to produce large quantities of gin.
A whopping 70% of British gin is now produced in Scotland. A fact I didn’t know until writing this piece and completely took me by surprise. From Edinburgh to Perth, over 70 new gin distilleries have opened in the last few years, capitalising on the recent gin boom. You can even do a tourist trail visiting Scottish gin distilleries. Ugly Betty sits proudly in a corner of the Bruichladdich distillery on the beautiful Isle of Islay in the inner Hebrides. A magical island, beloved by many whisky aficionados around the world, who tend to get all misty eyed at the very mention of Islay.
The last distillation was six weeks ago but breath deeply and Ugly Betty still has a wonderful aroma. First the base spirit and local spring water from the nearby Octomore farm is steeped in nine base botanicals for 12 hours at a lukewarm temperature. The water is filtered through Gneiss rocks that are 1.8 billion years old and only two employees know the exact recipe (which hasn’t changed since the first distillation in 2010). Both young local guys who have grown up with the distillery over the last few years. What they can divulge is that copper purifies the liquid and gives it a silky texture, so within Ugly Betty’s round belly there are networks of thin copper tubes. Then at the top of the chimney, a special casket holds the mysterious TEA BAG.
The secret to Scotland’s success? Distilleries have access to incredible local botanicals which gives their spirits a unique and very distinct terroir (to borrow a phrase from the wine world). To me all wine tastes more or less the same, I’ve never had a sophisticated enough palate to understand wine. But with gin it’s really noticeable. And can really emphasise this with garnishes, elevating the classic G&T to a thing of wonder. For example, Scottish foraging expert, Mark Williams’ perfect G&T involves adding fir-infused syrup, a dash of cocchi americano to Scottish gin and then mixing it with home-made graveyard tonic (made from dandelions, sorrel and few pinches of ladies smock foraged from an Islay graveyard). Sardonically he adds ‘Toast the residents, and thank them for their fertile bones.”
Ugly Betty’s mysterious tea bag is really a giant hessian sack stuffed with 22 dried botanicals, such as Mugwort, Tansy, Gorse, Creeping Thistle and Hawthorn flowers, hand-picked on the island by two local botanists. It infuses the vaporized alcohol before it condenses back into a liquid.
Just one 17 hour cycle will produce enough concentrated spirit to fill a quarter of a million bottles. But it’s a long, slow, ritualistic procedure done by eye and by hand. The boiler doesn’t produce enough steam to support both whisky and gin stills, so they start steeping on a Friday and distilling at 3am. There are two makeshift tools resting against the white washed walls of the hundred year old distillery: a rake made from a stainless steel pole for distributing botanicals, and a blue plastic dipping stick.
Gin is an attractive product to make because it’s ready so much faster than a single malt. On Islay, in particular, expanding the distillery is having a positive impact on the local economy, offering new job opportunities to islanders who are both proud of the gin and whisky and fiercely loyal. And as distillers are transferring their knowledge of whisky-making to gin, Scottish gin has developed a no-nonsense charm of its own. A refreshing change to the fickle London market, where a compelling backstory and an ‘authentic’ rediscovered recipe can be the basis for selling an overpriced product to hapless East London hipsters. As the Botanist’s young production manager points out, the gin industry at the moment “is like the wild west, anyone can do anything.” But they are sticking to their guns, rather than chasing trends. “For us, islay is the centre of the universe and everyone else revolves around what we do.” Which seems like an ideal attitude to take.
This post is guest-written by Victoria Ferran. A radio producer and food blogger from London. She works for Just Radio Ltd. producing documentaries for BBC Radio 2, 3, 4 and World Service. Last year, she won a Silver medal at the New York Radio Festival and is one of the Radio Academy’s current 30 Under 30.