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Scottish Gin Is Having a Moment

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When it comes to booze, Scotland is most commonly associated with its namesake brown spirit, Scotch — specifically single malt Scotch, which is defined as a spirit made at one distillery using only malted barley. But, perhaps surprising to some, gin has been made alongside whisky in Scotland for centuries, and the country is known for producing some excellent expressions.

Historically, many whisky producers have relied on gin, an unaged spirit, to turn a quick profit and subsidize a distillery’s brown spirit business; dark booze, like whisky, often spends years in barrels before it’s ready to be released. This practice continues to hold true in Scotland, and elsewhere around the world.

Over the past few years thanks in part of the worldwide proliferation of craft cocktail culture, and a general interest in old liquors made in new ways micro gin distilleries have sprung up in Scotland, offering an alternative to venerated English gin giants like Beefeater and Plymouth. Brands like these long ago popularized the juniper-forward London dry style of gin, but recently Scottish upstarts distilleries have begun to experiment with botanicals, both indigenous and exotic, to create more complex, floral spirits.

What Is Gin?

Recently, Scottish distilleries have begun to experiment with botanicals to create more complex, floral gins.

Simply put, gin is flavored vodka. Gin is distilled from a neutral grain spirit (it can be distilled from things like grapes, potatoes, and sugar cane) that is infused, flavored, or re-distilled with botanicals. As of 2008, European Union regulations mandate that gin must be predominantly flavored with juniper, but beyond that distilleries are free to experiment with various flavor profiles (it remains to be seen whether Brexit will affect this as the UK may no longer be bound to these rules). Some of the best known UK brands, like Tanqueray and Gordon’s, are actually produced in Scotland, even though they are considered London dry gin. In fact, London dry is really a description of style, not an indicator of origin — London dry gin can be made anywhere in the world as long as it adheres to specific regulations, which include prohibiting the addition of any artificial flavoring or color pre or post-distillation. Other gin styles recognized by the EU are Gin, which is defined by flavor added through steeping botanicals in a neutral grain spirit, as opposed to Distilled Gin, where, after the initial distillation, the neutral spirit is re-distilled with botanicals to add flavor.

A gin and tonic. [Image via Shutterstock/Angel Simon]

Scottish gin can fall into any of these three categories, and does indeed incorporate juniper as the primary botanical. But Scottish gins’ flavor profiles often go well beyond with a focus on locally sourced herbs, berries, and bark that bring to mind the Scottish landscape, from the rugged islands of Islay to the pastoral hills of the Highlands. In general, Scottish gin tastes more floral than its British counterparts, with a few exceptions.

The History of Scottish Gin

Scotland-based Hendrick’s Gin, released in 1999 and owned by behemoth William Grant & Sons, is a perfect example of a more floral, nuanced gin, imbued with notes of cucumber. According to master distiller Lesley Gracie, the history of Scottish gin dates back to the 17th century when Dutch genever was imported into Scotland. Back then, genever was used by the Dutch medicinally to treat ailments such as gout and gallstones. Soldiers returning to the UK after fighting in the Thirty Years War brought a taste for the spirit back with them, which was flavored with juniper to make it more palatable.

Mike Hayward, company director of Scotland’s three-year-old The Glasgow Distillery, which makes Makar Glasgow Gin, points to a circular relationship between Scotland and Holland in those early years, as Scotland grew and exported much of the juniper used to make Dutch genever. Ultimately, this relationship helped to lay the foundation for Scotland's gin industry.

Gin has developed alongside Scotland’s whisky business since early distilleries like Lochrin and Canonmills opened in Edinburgh during the 1780s, two of the first on record that operated within the city limits, explains Ewan Angus, brand ambassador of Edinburgh’s The Spencerfield Spirit Company, producer of Edinburgh Gin.

Hayward notes that in 1777, whisky distilling dynasties like the Steins and the Haigs began to supply neutral spirits to London, that would subsequently be rectified into gin.

During the 19th century, Scottish whisky producers switched from distilling with traditional pot stills to distilling with column stills, which "allowed for the production of spirit in a more efficient and faster manner … and could use grains other than malt barley," explains Hayward. "This enabled the production of vast quantities of neutral grain spirit, much of which was initially exported to England for gin production," he adds. There, the spirit would be infused with botanicals — predominantly juniper, of course — and sold as gin.

Throughout the 1900s gin continued to be distilled in Scotland, although British-produced dry style brands dominated the market, especially as the martini gained popularity in the latter half of the century. Around the year 2000, as mixology and cocktail culture started to take hold in bars and restaurants in major cities around the world, the demand for new craft spirits and variations on classics began to grow. This set the stage for Scottish gins like Hendrick's to carve out their own niche within the gin category, which has subsequently inspired startup distillers to try their hand at creating a spirit that both pays homage to its history and showcases native Scottish flavors.

Scottish Gin on the Rise

Scottish gin has markedly increased in popularity over the past few years, as whisky brands continue to release gin expressions, new gin-dedicated producers launch, and interest in cocktail culture grows even more. In fact, the UK’s Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) says that 2015 was one of the best years for the spirit, with 11 new gin distilleries opening in Scotland alone, an increase in ten percent from the year prior, that makes gin the third most consumed spirit there after scotch and vodka. "No micro-distilleries opened in Scotland between 2008 and 2011, and just five in the UK," says Gin Club Scotland’s tasting director Chrissie Fairclough. "Now there are over 84 Scottish gin expressions, making the craft distilling movement one of the most exciting trends to emerge from the category in recent years." From January 2015 to January 2016, sales of gin reached over 400 million pounds, an increase of 10 percent from the previous year, with volume sold up about eight percent. The Glasgow Distillery’s Hayward states that Scotland now produces around 70 percent of the gin sold in the United Kingdom, much of which is also exported around the world.

Clockwise from top left: Elderflowers, mugwort, white clover, and wood sage — four of the 22 botanicals that flavor The Botanist. [Images via Facebook]

Scotland now produces around 70 percent of the gin sold in the United Kingdom.

Hendrick’s is one of the largest brands that specifically identifies as being a Scottish gin, and from inception, the company has set out to differentiate itself through its flavor profile. "[It] was … a radical creation when it was developed, as the post-distillation addition of its distinctive cucumber and Bulgarian rose could not survive the standard distilling process," says master distiller Gracie. "So this was a gin deliberately launched as a gin, but without the worldwide style brand ‘London Dry.’"

Now though, plenty of smaller distilleries are making gins that use locally sourced botanicals to add a distinctive Scottish flavor. "It is one of the beautiful things about the category," Gracie explains. "There is no limit on the number and type of botanicals that can be used in the production of gin, as long as the predominant flavor is juniper."

The Botanist, a gin produced by the Bruichladdich whisky distillery, is overseen by head distiller Adam Hannett, who strongly believes in the concept of terroir, specifically that of the Islay region where the gin is produced. The Botanist "is totally rooted in its sense of place," he says, "but that ‘place’ is primarily the Hebridean island of Islay, and the environmental implication that identity carries." To that end, The Botanist is distilled from 22 locally foraged Islay botanicals, berries, and barks, including creeping thistle, downy birch, heather flowers, and wood sage, giving it an invigoratingly floral character.

Meanwhile, smaller producers like Caorunn, distilled in the Highlands, uses botanicals like rowan berries and bramble to infuse flavor into the spirit. Indian Summer from historic Huntly (north of Aberdeen in the east) touts its use of saffron, in addition to more commonly used botanicals, as the key to its flavor, and its "golden-yellow" hue. Edinburgh's Daffy’s bucks the column still trend, distilling its gin which tastes of Lebanese mint with pot stills. And Blackwoods, which is based in London, keeps things distinctly Scottish, sourcing botanicals like coriander and juniper from the Shetland Islands (northeast of Great Britain), as well as using the more exotic ingredient (at least for Scotland) of lime.

With a rich history of distilling, and indeed a national identity that celebrates this, it’s no surprise that Scotland is the leader in the resurgent interest in one of the world’s oldest spirits.

Editor: Kat Odell

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