Tom Chisholm and Rupert Waites, the owners of wild drinks company Buck & Birch, were recently in Gifford, tapping birches for their sap.
One of the trees was giving them about five litres every time, but the others weren’t providing.
“This lady who works for us, Lee, is a witch”, says Chisholm. “She said it’s because we didn’t ask them. She went round and asked them all, and every single tree started pouring five litres, they were top performing. It’s like talking to your houseplant”.
This is one of the duo’s many tales, which you can hear as part of Buck & Birch’s new hour-long tour, The Tasting Room. The comparatively low-fi experience involves a relaxed chat with the owners, where you can discover more about their foraging skills, the company’s background and their products, which are used in bars including The Mondrian in London and Edinburgh’s Panda & Sons and the Johnnie Walker 1820 Rooftop Bar. You’re also given samples of their drinks, including the most recent launches: botanical spirit, Birch, and wild spiced sipping rum, Rum and Cake, along with matching nibbles. It all takes place at their East Lothian headquarters, which has an unconventional location.
“I always say it’s like Narnia, when you come off an industrial estate into a little birch forest with a bar in it, which is very much the intention, it’s a little bit unexpected”, says Chisholm.
There’s also a rustic kitchen table, and the walls are lined with Kilner jars, carboys of foraged finds and a mise en place sketch that alludes to the supper clubs that they did together, from 2008 onwards. It was back then that a neighbour, who was having dinner with them, asked if they could buy the deep purple drink that Waites had whipped up to accompany the food. That planted the seed for their first alcoholic drink, Aelder Eilixir, a wild elderberry liqueur that was launched in 2012.
“It took years for the idea to click, but people kept asking where they could buy it at the dinners”, says Chisholm, who met chef Waites when they worked together in Edinburgh restaurant, Browns. “We thought rather than upsetting our families by never being there at weekends and not bringing any money back from the supper clubs, we should look into making this a product”.
On the distillery tour, after an Espresso MartAna containing Ana liqueur, coffee, birch and woodruff vodka and espresso liqueur, I try their original Aelder Elixir, while the designated driver gets a pungent herbal tea. We both eat a slice of wild venison, impaled on a twig, and a couple of amazingly punchy dandelion capers.
Waites introduced Chisholm to these flavour bombs at the beginning of their business relationship, and they “blew his mind”.
It seems that the duo were way ahead of the curve when it came to foraging and using wild foods, which has boomed during lockdown while we were forced into the great outdoors. For Buck & Birch, it was always a passion project, with Chisholm growing up in Norway, and Waites on the island of Canna, where they foraged respectively for wild blueberries or whelks.
“The love of that is what brought us together,” says Chisholm, who studied painting at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. “We as a brand are more relevant as a consequence of the last few months. Quite a lot of the stuff we’re seeing now, we were doing ten years ago. So birch sap has become very trendy and hipster-y. We weren’t the first to do that, but it’s been part of our journey for a long time”.
I sip Birch, which contains 60 per cent of this tree’s sap and steeped catkins and twigs. There’s even one of them in the bottle, like a tequila worm. Meanwhile, my teetotal chauffeur samples a half teaspoon of neat birch syrup - “like maple syrup on steroids with soy sauce thrown in”, says Chisholm. It’s also very precious, with litres of sap needed for one tiny bottle.
We get a plateful of nibbles alongside this drink. Each of us has wild mushroom gougeres, as well as creations that are topped with wild garlic pesto and pickled mushrooms, or cream cheese, wild leek pearls and pepper dulse. There are lots of other magical-sounding ingredients that I don’t recognise, and we also get to try some of their dried hogseed, flowering currant blossom, sweet woodruff and meadowsweet.
My favourite of their drinks is the rosehip rum liquor, Amarosa, though I completely understand the festive appeal of their newest launch, Rum and Cake, which is like the forager's alternative to Baileys. As part of the tour, it’s served with a chunk of hogseed parkin, and some jelly ear mushrooms. Waites tells me that these are dehydrated, then rehydrated in Aelder for a week before being coated in dark chocolate. They are, indeed, like Turkish delight.
“In Scotland, if you had a cough, people used to boil them in milk then gargle the liquid. The Chinese go through a million and a half tons of them a year”, says Waites.
We overstay our designated hour. It’s hard to leave, when the owners are so enthusiastic and fun.
As part of the tour, you’re also allowed access to limited editions and new releases in the shop. I leave with a bottle of their rosehip syrup, for making cocktails, and some of their Wild Elderberry Liqueur, which they made in conjunction with Edinburgh herbalist, Napiers, and is traditionally used to boost immunity.
I also vow to talk nicely to a few of my favourite trees once I get home.
Tickets are £10, which is redeemable against purchases of £50 or more on the day, book at www.buckandbirch.com
Tours run Wednesday to Saturday, from 12-1pm and 3-4pm.