The people of Scotland are an imaginative bunch who like a drink or two (no more mind). It’s the only place where I have been to an inflatable pub in horizontal rain on a remote island. The feature picture is of my Brother-in-law Iain and I enjoying the Northton Festival on the Isle of Harris.
When most people think of drinking and Scotland, the first thing that comes to mind is Whisky. Distilleries have been warming the hearts the world over since the late 18th century. However, more recently Scotland has also been making a name for itself as a hot bed of fabulous, independent gin makers. From Shetland in the far north right down to North Berwick along the coast from Edinburgh there are some amazing people combining local ingredients with a passion for perfection. In this article, I’m featuring 10 wonderful Scottish gin makers. In true “From Real People” tradition, it’s not just about the products but also about the fantastic people that are the heart and soul of each gin.
Isle of Harris Gin
First on the list is the fantastic Isle of Harris gin. The distillery is based in the picturesque surroundings of Tarbert and it defines itself as a Social Distillery that has the local community at it’s very heart. It’s founders were a group of local men and women called the Tarbert Ten who are at the centre of day-to-day life at the distillery. As the distillery grows, more and more members of the tight knit local Harris community become involved in working there. Despite it’s considerable beauty and summer tourists, economic-life on the island is always a challenge. This means that every bottle that is sold helps to benefit real people at the heart of their local community and ensures the continued success of the Distillery.
The distillery is by the shore of East Loch Tarbert (to the left of the picture). In the summer you can take a tour and it’s also well worth a visit to their fantastic canteen and distillery shop as well, where you buy all sorts of wonderful things. The gin itself is the embraces island life. Even the amazing design of the bottle evokes a feeling of the sea and the amazing beaches for which Harris is so famous. You can also buy some fantastic glasses with the same design as the bottle. We have some at home and I just love them.
Isle of Harris gin tastes just like the sea, which is thanks to the inclusion of local Sugar kelp. This is hand harvested by local diver Lewis Mackenzie from the deep underwater forests of the Outer Hebrides. It is combined with eight other carefully chosen botanicals ensuring a perfect balance between the bitter juniper and pine with sweet fruit flavours of mango, grapefruit and orange. This gives the Isle of Harris gin a wonderful fruity flavour coupled with a dry, flinty taste. The five distillers are all local men, from crofters to former joiners. They definitely produce a spirit worthy of representing the island and it’s fabulously resourceful people.
If you can’t get to the distillery in person, you can buy their gin through their online shop here. They even have a click and collect service that enables you to pick up their gin from various locations across Scotland, which are each hand-picked as representatives of the island and the wonderful gin it produces. I also recommend signing up for their email updates so that you can read the stories they tell behind the locals who work at the distillery and ensure that it stays firmly embedded in their community.
Shetland Reel Gin
Next we feature Shetland Reel gin from the UK’s most northerly inhabited island of Unst in the Shetland Islands. The distillery has its home in a place called Saxa Vord which until 2006 hosted an RAF radar station that formed a key part of the defence of the UK. At the heart of the story behind Shetland Reel is a group of four Unst islanders trying to ensure that their fragile community could survive the closure of the RAF Station and the loss of the jobs that went with it. Frank and Debbie Strang have spent recent years regenerating the former RAF radar site into an award winning tourist resort. Stuart and Wilma Nickerson own and run the Malt Whisky Company which sells a range of independently bottled single malt Scotch whiskies. Stuart has over 30 years experience of managing distilleries, Stuart also works as a consultant in the industry. Meanwhile, their daughter Jennifer (aka the Mistress of Malt) is making waves in Ireland with the Tipperary Boutique Whisky Distillery.
At Shetland Reel the size of their still makes them one of the smallest commercial gin distilleries in the UK. They produce small batches and have quite an impressive range. Their standard gin is made with 9 different botanicals that has a wonderfully subtle mix of spices and citrus. which leaves it with a clean and fresh finish. They also have their Ocean Scent gin, made with specially harvested bladderwrack seaweed. This adds a great depth of flavour that makes it great for using in cocktails. Their Simmer gin has a wonderful orange flavour whilst their Holly Days special for Christmas 2016 has a bit more juniper, spice and citrus to give it an unforgettable flavour. Their graduate distiller Marc Watson was the mastermind behind their our limited edition cask-aged Up Helly Aa gin. This adds notes of wood and spices to give an extra spark and is a perfect match for the famous Shetland Festival that it is named after.
You can find out where to lay your hands on some Shetland Reel using their website’s interactive map. They also have an online shop as well, at the link here! When you buy some Shetland Reel gin you are helping to ensure the long term sustainability of the most northerly island in the UK. Knowing that makes it taste even more wonderful, honest.
Dunnet Bay Distillers – Rock Rose Gin
For the next gin we head back to the mainland and the wonderful Rock Rose gin that comes from the spectacular Dunnet Bay distillery. It’s the most northerly distillery in mainland Britain that lies mid-way between John O’Groats and Thurso. It’s rural location in the very North of Scotland and another place where it’s as much about the community as the gin itself.
Rock Rose is brainchild of husband and wife team Martin (the brains) and Claire Murray (the common sense). From the beginning of their first ideas, they were ably supported by their dog George. He kept watch as Martin and Claire experimented in their garage. He also monitored them as they first used their bottling and labelling equipment. Sadly George is no longer with them but his memory lives on in the amazing gin distilled in Dunnet Bay.
There are also five key members of the Rock Rose production team some of whom have their own signature method of sealing the wax on the top of each bottle of gin. Claire’s mum Margaret seals her bottles at an angle while Martin’s dad Rab puts his wax seals bang on straight. Right at the start of the process Dr Hanna is the one who can be found growing weird and wonderful things in the geodome she built at the distillery. There is also Laura, whose main role is to spread the word about how awesome Rock Rose is, she also provides a great tour of the distillery. With the other members of the team, Carol, Libby and Sarah, it really is both a family and a community based business.
Rock Rose is distilled in Margaret, their copper still. The gin is named after “Rhodiola rosea”, one of the 18 different botanicals that makes Rock Rose such a special gin. The Rock Rose is famed for its health benefits and was once sought after by the Vikings for its strength and vitality. Together the various ingredients combine beautifully to create a really amazing gin with great citrus notes. As well as the standard Rock Rose, they also produce a number of different specials including some amazing seasonal variations. You can buy Rock Rose is shops all over the world.
When you are faced with a wall of gin and don’t know what to choose, going for an independent brand like Rock Rose means that you are also supporting a family and a community at the same time. If you can’t find their gin in a shop near you, there is also their online shop. If you enjoy Vodka, they also have the delicate and fresh Holy Grass Vodka.
Crossbill Gin – Inshriach Distillery Aviemore
For the next gin we travel to Aviemore, a town within the Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands. Crossbill is the result of the efforts of Walter Micklethwait, his girlfriend Lizzy Westman and their business partner Jonathan Engels. They have transformed a run-down hen house at Inshriach House into an amazing project that was named Shed of the Year 2015. The shed houses not just the distillery, but also features a farm shop selling vintage clothing, food, postcards and hand-carved items, a ‘ladies’ waiting room’ complete with piano and comfy armchairs and a Wild West-themed saloon bar.
Inshriach House was built in 1906 as a shooting lodge for a Glasgow publishing family. Today, the Crossbill distillery is just one of the projects that has helped to create a community project that helps ensure that both the house and the 200 acre estate contribute in a sustainable way to the local community and beyond. In the woods, there is Tom’s wood shop that houses Woodentom and his green woodworking and carving operation. The squash court hosts Jon Panniers’ guitar workshop. There are also a fantastic range of interesting and novel camping options for the adventurous tourists amongst you seeking something a little bit different. You can find out more about the House and Estate here.
The Crossbill Gin uses a simple botanical selection that combines local Scottish juniper berries and rosehip. Walter and Lizzy take a very simple approach to their distilling to create a really tasty gin that is full of pine notes that is balanced perfectly with sweeter, slightly fruity touches of rosehip. Crossbill is named after the Crossbill, which is a small bird which has an unusually shaped beak to help it get at the seeds of conifer cones. Their gin is made in small batches, which sells quickly but keep an eye on their webshop and snap one up when they come on sale.
Heading south from Aviemore towards Dundee the Gin Bothy is a distillery located at Peel Farm in Angus. Gin Bothy is a one-woman led by the fantastic Kim (in the photo below). She describes herself as the “Accidental Gin Maker.” Originally it started out as The Jam Bothy, which even won a World Jampionship competition for some good old fashioned tasty jam! During the process of jam-making with local berries there was an excess of fresh berry juice. After some time experimenting with the infusion process using gin. The Gin Bothy was born.
A few years ago, Kim began sampling her creations 3 years ago at Peel Farm’s gift shop and various local shows. From that point, she hasn’t looked back. She creates a standard gin, but her main speciality involves using whole fresh local fruits to create a range of very special flavoured gins. The process involves a great deal of manual labour to hand turn the fruit, taking an awful lot of time and effort. The result is something very special indeed. Kim is passionate about recycling, so if you bring your empty bottle back to the Bothy you’ll get money off your next purchase.
The Gin Bothy’s original gin is handmade in small batches. It infuses the finest botanicals, including heather, milk thistle, Scottish pine needles, hawthorn root and rosemary. Together they combine to create a beautifully refreshing gin. Some of Kim other special gin varieties include the Gunshot gin that is infused with cinnamon, cloves and mixed spices. It tastes especially good with ginger ale or even heated straight on a cold day. You can buy Kim’s Gin Bothy creations in person at the Farm or via the webshop here.