Think spirits and Scotland and you come up with Scotch whisky.
That's correct, of course, but now a new generation of craft distillers are defying convention with a wave of exciting artisanal gins that proudly exploit their Highland heritage.
In fact, there's a reasonable case to be made that the touch paper for the current explosion of boutique spirits was lit by William Grant & Sons with their Hendrick's
Gin. First launched in 1999, if it were a single malt it would only now be approaching a decent maturity. But in those 14 short years it has revitalized a category that looked moribund and helped inspire a bunch of new start-ups.
The Scottish connection comes from the fact that William Grant, apart from being a family-owned Scottish company, makes Hendricks at its Girvan distillery on Scotland's West Coast (for golf fans, it's near the famous Turnberry course). That may be a huge complex making both grain and single malt whisky but, in a surprisingly modest building, it also houses the two highly-distinctive and venerable stills that make the Hendrick's spirit, which is then infused with cucumber and rose petal essence.
While still technically "small batch" (Hendricks' prepare just 450 liters at a time), the brand has been so successful that global sales now exceed half a million cases. During 2013 in the U.S., Hendricks saw the continuation of their Voyages into the Unusual program, a large-scale experiential event series that featured in seven markets: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.
But nothing stands still in the world of gin right now and, in search of distinctive new flavors, Hendrick's Master Distiller Lesley Gracie recently completed a perilous botanical quest through the Venezuelan rainforest. There, armed with a tiny ten-liter alembic still, Lesley made a number of distillates from promising plant species. The winning botanical, selected because of a flavor that she describes as "nothing she'd ever experienced before," is called Scorpion Tail, which will be incorporated into a very rare new edition of Hendrick's later this year. It's certainly one to look out for.
But with gin mavens seeking ever greater variety, and Hendricks becoming almost mainstream, other Scottish gins are breaking out. What's particularly exciting is that, for the most part, these are actually distilled by the proprietor rather than being simply a branding exercise-as unfortunately has been the case with some "boutique spirits."
A great example of a home-grown Scottish gin, conceived, distilled and bottled in Scotland is The Botanist (SRP $39.99) from Bruichladdich. Created by legendary Master Distiller Jim McEwan using unique botanicals that naturally grow abundantly on the island of Islay, the product was created and launched shortly before the company was sold to Rémy Cointreau. They wanted the single malt, of course, but I suspect they got lucky with The Botanist.
Distilled in Bruichladdich's unique Lomond still, fondly known as "Ugly Betty," The Botanist is a clean, highly aromatic gin reminiscent of its Hebridean island home. Recently repackaged in an elegant new bottle, Remy USA has taken over its distribution from January 1st and, right now, are part way through a launch program that includes bar and liquor store activity in Texas, Illinois, Southern California, Washington, Georgia, New York, Northern California, New Jersey, Florida, Connecticut, Colorado and Massachusetts. By April 1st, all of the U.S. will be able to enjoy this distinctive, stylish and truly hand-produced gin.
North Berwick is about as far to the east as Islay is to the west but, in this small town noted for the huge seabird colonies of the Bass Rock (an island remnant of an extinct volcano that lies just off the town's harbor on the Firth of Forth), husband and wife team Steve and Viv Muir have established their own tiny distillery. Using just eight botanicals (The Botanist employs 22) the Muirs have created a well-balanced, smooth and sophisticated spirit that has impressed experienced judges. I loved the citrus hints and notes of orange zest in this small-batch product that worked especially well in a classic Negroni but refreshed delightfully in a simple gin and tonic (I used Fever-Tree).
North Berwick Gin does not yet have a U.S. distributor and the austere packaging may need some work to stand out in the increasingly crowded premium gin category, but there's no doubting its potential and product quality. If the Muirs can combine sales and marketing savvy with their undoubted distilling skill North Berwick Gin may soar just as far, high and wide as the gannets and puffins to be found on its doorstep. More at www.nbgin.com.
Also distilling in Scotland are the folks at Balmenach distillery in Speyside (it's part of the Inver House group) who make Caorunn (say it
ka-roon). That's the Gaelic for the Rowan tree, the berries of which lie at the heart of this rapidly-growing brand. Also found in Caorunn's botanical basket are dandelion (more normally thought of by gardeners as a pernicious weed), bog myrtle, heather and the ancient Coul Blush apple variety, along with six classic gin botanicals such as juniper and coriander.
Already the recipient of a hatful of prestigious awards, the handsomely-presented Caorunn (RRP $40) is widely distributed in the U.S., mainly through Southern Wine & Spirits I was initially taken aback by the serving recommendation of a slice of red apple in place of the more normal lime or lemon but soon recognized the impact on the palate and—as we say here in the U.K.—"an apple a day keeps the doctor away!" (We say that here, too, laddie! -Ed.)
You can't keep a good man down, or so they say, and when it comes to Alex Nicol, of Sheep Dip Whisky fame, it's hard to even get a word in edgeways. Alex and wife Jane (another husband-and-wife partnership) couldn't stop telling me about Edinburgh's great gin distilling traditions. Up until the early 1900s, as many as 40 stills made gin in Scotland's capital, and with his Edinburgh Gin, Alex plans to recreate that heritage with a range of historically-inspired gins in his new distillery and visitor center.
Alex Nicol with his piglets.
Located right in the heart of the capital, the $500k investment—slated to open in May this year—will incorporate two copper gin stills, a cocktail bar, a private dining room and a visitor center with a gin lab to allow visitors to make their own gin. With demand growing from consumers eager to visit the distillery, Edinburgh Gin production will return to its spiritual home, and the company plan to create a centre of excellence in gin distillation in collaboration with the local Heriot-Watt University's renowned School of Brewing & Distilling. First up will be a new high strength 60abv "cannonball" Edinburgh Gin to follow the company's raspberry and elderflower flavored styles. The U.S. importer is Frederick Wildman & Sons.
Finally, just room to mention Darnley's View (SRP $30) from Wemyss Malts, available through Domaine Select Wine Estates' Classic & Vintage division. This classic London dry style gin, with notable elderflower and citrus flavors, is named for Mary Queen of Scots' husband Lord Darnley. Quite why that matters I don't really know but, with Wemyss busy building their own distillery near to the famed St Andrews Royal and Ancient Golf Club course, it can't be too long before this stylish and refreshing gin makes it home.
Gin and golf—this is where we came in. Clearly, Scotland's quite the tonic for gin drinkers and golfers. It must be something in the air.
Ian Buxton began work in the Scotch whisky industry in 1987 and, since 1991 when he was also elected a Keeper of the Quaich, has run his own consultancy business. He is also a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Distillers. As well as continuing his consultancy work, he may be found giving lectures, presentations and tastings on whisky, and writing regular columns for a number of international whisky magazines and websites.
His latest book, 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die,
was published in July 2012.