While Scotland is caught up in a modern gin craze it is worth taking time to consider the question “What makes gin Scottish?”.
It is something I have given much thought to as I researched my book about Scottish gin, The Gin Clan.
There are more than 200 “Scottish” gins – and a steady number appearing on what sometimes feels like a daily basis.
There are more than 75 distilleries making gin in Scotland and my research for the book showed that 23 distilleries went into gin production in 2018, with at least 12 more due to come on stream this year.
So what does qualify as Scottish gin? Is it using heather, thistle or pine needles? Or water from a Highland burn? Is it making the base spirit from scratch? Does the juniper need to be picked in Scotland? Does the distiller need to be Scottish? Does the distillery need to be in Scotland?
Some people might like to have Scottish gin defined tightly – perhaps as “gin made from ingredients grown in Scotland”.
As the key ingredient of gin – juniper – is a scarce resource here, insisting on Scottish juniper would put the very thing which defines the drink at risk as makers compete for its harvest. There are many gins which use botanicals grown in Scotland – usually alongside some grown elsewhere.
We could use a definition of “a gin made from a Scottish spirit”. But in this case, we would be left with gins from a handful of distilleries – the few who are truly “field-to-glass” operations which use ingredients grown locally to make their own base spirit rather than buy in a commercial grain neutral spirit to work with.
In my book, I have side-stepped the definition dilemma by classifying the entries under the headings the “Distilling Clan” and “Kith & Kin”.
The Distilling Clan consists of the distilleries – its members have a still in Scotland and they use it to make gin.
The Kith & Kin are the rest: the gins we think of as Scottish. There are makers, creators and brand owners who have gin made for them in Scotland – and elsewhere. There are cuckoo distillers who make their gin using other people’s stills. And there are makers who use compounding techniques to create “bathtub” gins. Some are the Distilling Clan “in waiting” with a distillery in the making.
The classification is not perfect, but it is a neat reflection of the Scottish gin family in 2019.
Anyway, the joy of exploring Scottish gins is their diversity and the way they call on so many aspects of Scotland – its people, environment and history – to stand out in that booming marketplace.
This makes for an energised community of gin makers who love exploring the rich botanical world and creating enjoyable flavours.
Importantly, there are also gin drinkers who seek out new experiences, appreciating the skills of the makers and their choice of ingredients.
What I found fascinating as I researched the gins and their makers is the rich variety of reasons behind why people turn to gin making.
Some people see it as a purely commercial opportunity – perhaps for their shop or bar – while others are waiting for the spirits from their stills to turn into whisky.
There are some who are looking to diversify their business, alongside gin enthusiasts who want to have a go themselves and the professional distillers, many of whom trained at Heriot-Watt University’s highly respected International Centre of Brewing & Distilling.
Perhaps the most interesting are those who have founded distilleries to enhance their community – to invest sustainably in future generations, protecting a way of life and creating employment.
Meet five new gins which illustrate the reasons why people are making gin in Scotland
Community is the driving spirit of GlenWyvis Distillery: from the first concept – through its funding – to its sustainable approach, the greater good of the area and its people have been at its heart. The Dingwall distillery’s signature GoodWill Gin was launched last June.
Initiated by the “flying farmer” John McKenzie in 2015, the distillery has been established as a community benefit society.
Making both whisky and gin, GlenWyvis Distillery uses barley sourced locally and water from an on-site bore hole. Its power is from renewable energy. It is 100 per cent community owned with more than £3.2 million invested by 3,200 people, a share of profits will be invested in community projects and it aims to play a key role in rejuvenating the Dingwall area.
GlenWyvis hopes to help regenerate Dingwall and plans a visitor centre to attract tourists enjoying the North Coast 500 route.
James and Deborah Mackintosh are the ultimate gin fans – the ones who have made their fascination with gin into a new career.
They had been visiting gin festivals and amassing a collection of gin bottles since they moved home to settle in Angus after globetrotting with work.
As they added bottle number 50 they joked they should make their own – two years later they had done just that. Now Mackintosh Gin is made for them in small batches at Distillutions the independent micro distillery run by Lewis Scothern in Arbroath.
James and Deborah were keen to showcase the produce of the fertile lands of Angus so when it came to choosing the botanicals for Mackintosh Gin, elderflower was a no brainer as it grows not two minutes from their home.
Billington’s deli in Lenzie is a treasure trove of homemade and artisan food and drink. The only thing missing in the award-winning shop and eatery was its own gin.
So Mark and Sue Billington set about creating a gin they would be proud to sell. It took months of research to decide on the recipe for their fresh fruity gin, which is made for them at Distillutions in Arbroath.
Their lead botanicals are bilberry and cranberry which grow on Lenzie Moss, the area of peat bogs and woodland on the edge of the town.
Another six botanicals are distilled with the berries before the gin goes into a bottle adorned with a label designed by Sue.
Lind & Lime Gin
The Port of Leith Distillery team has ambitions plans to build Scotland’s “first vertical distillery” on a plot of land next to Ocean Terminal, the shopping centre beside Edinburgh’s docks.
Being alongside the Royal Yacht Britannia makes the site ideal for a visitor attraction which calls on the spirit-making heritage of Leith.
In advance of the distillery, and the malt whisky it will make, Lind & Lime Gin was launched in November.
Named after James Lind, the 19th century doctor who first noticed that citrus fruits prevented the scurvy sailors suffered from. Lemon or lime juice was soon being taken on long sea voyages – and it was in Leith that Rose’s Lime Juice was born in 1868.
Jenny and Stephen McKerr bought a small farm in the hills of Lanarkshire in 2017 and much as they were committed to rearing cattle and sheep, they knew they needed additional income.
With a passion for gin, Jenny decided to create one which celebrated Scottish farming and paid respect to the values, traditions and spirits of farmers who put food on our tables every day. In particular, she envisaged one that would drink well with a steak.
Drovers Gin from the Wee Farm Distillery is the result and the balance of citrus, thistles, heather, pink peppercorns and allspice is clean and refreshing – and pairs perfectly with beef.
Fiona Laing’s book about Scottish Gin and Distilleries, The Gin Clan, is published by Great Northern Books price £11.99. Readers of The Scotsman can save £5 and get free UK p&p when they order two copies at 200-gifts.scotsman.com or call 0131-311 7253
Fiona’s book about Scottish Gin and Distilleries, The Gin Clan, is published by Great Northern Books price £11.99. Readers of The Scotsman can save £5 and get free UK p&p when they order two copies at https://www.gnbooks.co.uk/product/the-gin-clan-sco/