True Highlands Blog
Winter is a time for whisky drinking. There is something truly special about curling up beside a peat fire, with a fine dram or a hot toddy. As midsummer approaches however, and optimistic Scots start to dream of sunshine, it’s time to pack away the single malt and investigate Scotlands other national drink.
It’s not exaggeration to say there has been a revolution in gin production in Scotland in recent years. Maybe resurgence is a better way to describe it, as historically gin has been distilled here for hundreds of years, before being overtaken and dominated by whisky production.
There is an oft repeated figure that 70% of the UKs gin is now produced north of the border. This is largely due to a number of drinks giants relocating their mass production facilities north a few years ago. The real story of Scottish gin is not to be found in huge factories owned by international conglomerates, but in tiny stills in sheds in remote parts of the highlands tended by enthusiasts and artisans. These are the true revolutionaries, defining the new taste of Scotland.
The explosion of micro-breweries in Scotland over the last few years heralded the beginning of a change in attitude. It slowly dawned on consumers that you didn’t need a massive amount of money, an enormous factory or decades of expertise to be able to make something that tasted amazing. The process of distilling gin differs significantly from whisky and so another reason for its success is its flexibility. Whereas whisky has to mature before it can be sold, gin can be drunk fresh. This means new producers do not have to wait upwards of 10 years before they can make a return on their investments, but it also means that new varieties and flavours can be incorporated into the best gins remarkably easily. If prevailing fashion dictates, then things can be added or taken away with ease, if harvests change from year to year then so can the distilled product and gin can even be tailored to suit the weather. This also makes it easy for distillers to be more experimental and take some risks.
True Highlands has always been a vocal supporter of the idea of shopping local and with the explosion of small scale producers, it has never been easier to show your support for your neighbourhood distiller. People on the Western Isles, for example, would always wonder why you would buy fish or potatoes from a supermarket, when the produce available just outside their front door was so much better. Gin drinking is no different. It’s organic, it’s good for the planet as it reduces food miles – and it supports the local community. It would be hard to be evangelical about local gins if they didn’t also stand up for themselves as quality products, but brands like Strathearn with its Oaked Highland Gin, Shetland Reel with its Ocean Scent Gin and Dunnet Bay Distillers with its Rock Rose can honestly stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best in the world. Don’t just take our word for it. Check how many international awards have been won by Scottish gin recently, the future is indeed small scale and local.
So how would you describe the taste of a country? Is it a unique spice, a rare ingredient, or a traditional technique? And more importantly, how would you bottle it? For many years whisky was marketed as a uniquely Scottish experience, and its true, whisky has an enviable reputation the world over, but it is the new batch of gin distillers that are really taking up that challenge and bringing the very essence of the Highland countryside to your cocktail glass.
Botanicals play a large part in this. These are what give the unique flavour to any gin, by using what grows around you, then you infuse the finished product with the very soul of the Highlands. Exact recipes are of course closely guarded secrets, but the Isle of Harris Distillery is quite open about what it puts in its gin. Seaweed gathered from the nearby beaches is what imparts such a distinctive flavour. The sugar kelp is hand-harvested by a local diver from the deep underwater forests of the Outer Hebrides. It is natural and sustainable and a fitting tribute to the coastal communities that ring the island.
Eden Mill in St Andrews flavours one of its gins with retired clubs from the local courses. If you were ever curious as to what golf tastes like, maybe this is your answer. El Gin (from Elgin obviously) adds oats for a bit of extra creaminess, McQueen Gin from Callendar has fun with foodie-gin infusions, coming up with flavours as eclectic as Chocolate Mint Gin and Smokey Chilli. Sweet and Nutty from Persie Distillery in Glenshee goes for vanilla and gingerbread – serve with nutmeg for a proper ‘pudding in a glass’. A more traditional flavour is juniper. Crossbill Distillery in Aviemore has taken credit for a revival in its production. Before ceasing over 200 years ago, it was a lucrative export to countries like Holland, but after no small amount of effort, Crossbill proudly boasts that it is now able to use 100% Scottish juniper and rosehip.
It doesn’t stop there, whisky snobbery dictates that only a spot of water should accompany the finest malts, gin on the other hand has no such arcane rules. Gin is for everyone, so when it comes to making it and drinking it, anything goes. There are classic cocktails galore, infusions and liqueurs to mix it with but for a real proper seasonal taste of Scotland look around you. Strawberries, rhubarb or blackcurrants make excellent accompaniments. You are only limited by your imagination.
On a more abstract level you could consider what actually makes something Scottish.
The foreign ownership of whisky distilleries is perhaps a necessary evil. Whisky would never have had the reputation, the exports and the financial clout to become such a world leader, had it not been for the investment of a small number of multinational and foreign-headquartered firms. But while the malt whisky you drink harks back to tradition and was made at least a decade ago, gin captures the essence of the here and now. Contemporary Scotland is forward looking, cosmopolitan and edgy and the success distillers have had by throwing away the rule book, demonstrate that there is an appetite for something that reflects this, both at home and abroad. Rather than supplanting the whisky industry, this new breed of progressive distillers complement it. So let’s raise a cocktail glass to the taste of New Scotland.Tags: 100% scottish, crossbill gin, gin distilleries, gin ingredients, gin shed, highland gin, isle of harris gin, oaked gin, Scotland, scottish botanicals, scottish drinks, scottish gin, sugar kelp