Lori Anderson: A toast to our other national drink

Genever was drunk by soldiers prior to battle, so giving us the phrase 'Dutch courage'. Picture: Getty
Genever was drunk by soldiers prior to battle, so giving us the phrase 'Dutch courage'. Picture: Getty
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A surge in artisan Scottish production has seen gin sidle up behind only whisky and Irn Bru in our affections, writes Lori Anderson

Scotland’s drinks industry is feeling decidedly fruity at the moment and it’s all thanks to the juniper berry. Apple? Lime? Perhaps cucumber is your preferred modus operandi at cocktail hour? Not only can the more sophisticated social commentator now tell a man by his style of shoes and a woman by her handbag; these days one’s choice of gin garnish is as revealing as a set of tarot cards. Plump for cucumber and you are clearly a Hendrick’s drinker. Slice of apple? Why it has to be Caorunn sloshed into that highball you’re holding.

Just as a Chanel design is made instantly discernible by the addition of the waxy petals of a white camellia, so too are Scotland’s new brands of gin recognisable by their embellishments. First there was Scotland’s national drink, and then there was Scotland’s other national drink, let us now raise a glass to our other, other national drink – gin.

Frankly, I’m a little bit hesitant. I haven’t tasted the silver spirit since Rogano circa 1984 when it was my best friend’s drink of choice and tasted to me like a mouthful of perfume. While gin was borne of a physician, I prefer either the elixir invented by a man of God; Dom Pérignon, or one distilled by Baptist ministers – bourbon.

But for those who enjoy a gin and tonic or a juniper-based cocktail, there has never been a better time to sip them. In the last five years almost 30 new brands of Scottish gin have been poured onto the market and sales are steadily rising, unlike the imbiber the morning. Sales rose last year by over 12 per cent to £43.9 million, while sales of premium gin grew by 4.9 per cent to £16.1 million.

The genesis of this spirit looming in the shadows of whisky and Irn Bru was the launch in 1999 of Hendrick’s Gin, whose stylish dark bottle – in a nod to its content’s pharmaceutical origins – looks as if it has been lifted from an apothecary’s shelf. Carefully made in small batches in a distillery in Ayrshire and flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, Hendrick’s has been given a boost by the renaissance of cocktail culture that dovetailed with its inception.

The success of Hendrick’s has inspired other distillers to develop their own unique brand of gin, with Bruichladdich distillery using various ingredients native to Islay to flavour their brand, while Inver House Distillers developed Caorunn Gin with five “Celtic” botanicals – rowan berry (the Celtic word for which gives the brand its name), heather, myrtle, dandelion and apple.

The Wemyss family from Fife produce a spiced gin by the evocative name of Darnley’s View. We’ll draw a curtain over the fact that it is actually produced in London, as the name refers to the family property from which Mary, Queen of Scots first caught a glimpse of her husband-to-be, Lord Darnley. And we all know how well that union went.

In a symbol of the growing popularity and success of Scottish gin, the Spencerfield Spirit Company of Inverkeithing – makers of Edinburgh Gin – are planning to built a new distillery in the capital with a vast 300-litre copper still, a tasting room and a visitor’s centre where connoisseurs of their brands (which also include Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose whiskies), can appreciate the processes involved in their creation.

While the resulting liquid may be clear, the story of the creation of gin is distinctly cloudy. It is claimed that the man who first discovered what happens when you distill grain and flavour it with juniper berries was a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius in the middle of the 17th century. Yet genever, as it was then known, had been around for at least a few hundred years and was drunk by soldiers prior to battle, so giving us the phrase “Dutch courage”. At the time it was a medical remedy, used as a cure for all manner of stomach ailments and gallstones.

What whisky was to Scotland, gin was to the Dutch, with Amsterdam boasting almost 400 distilleries by 1663. The spirit was exported to England with the arrival of William of Orange, who had a taste for the tipple and helped introduce it to his new subjects. A nation of beer and wine drinkers were quickly seduced by its potency.

The Gin Craze of the first half of the 18th century was triggered by the government’s failure to adequately licence gin production in the same manner as other spirits, with the result that England was soon awash with gin shops selling cheap liquor to the masses.

William Hogarth threw this endemic drunkenness into sharp relief with his famed engraving Gin Lane, illustrating the wanton dissolution that accompanied the drink, with mothers dropping babies while keeping a firm grasp on their gin bottles and bony elderly men dying of starvation after spending their last pennies on drink.

What quickly became known as “mother’s ruin” was finally reined in by the introduction of the Gin Act of 1751 which forced manufacturers to sell their bottles through specially licensed premises and increased the price.

Gin, of course, eventually bequeathed the martini to the world, about which Dorothy Parker famously said: “I like to have a Martini; two at the very most. Three, I’m under the table; four, I’m under the host.”

If there was one drink that could tempt me to depart from the comforts provided by Dom and the Rev. Elijah Craig, it would be the martini. But only if prepared by the bar staff at Duke’s Hotel in London, which has the ambience of a cosy sitting room and is where Ian Fleming retired after work at The Sunday Times for his perfect dry martini – the drink, of course, he passed on to James Bond.

I may well ask for it shaken not stirred, but what I will certainly insist upon is that the gin be Scottish.