Whisky, Schmisky: Scotland's Distilleries Are Making Serious Craft Gin
By Sarah Doyle
America and bourbon. Russia and vodka. Mexico and tequila. Scotland and gin. Wait—what? Little-known fact: Though the iconic spirit of Scotland may be Scotch whisky, Scotland is one of the world’s largest exporters of gin, thanks to Gordon’s Gin and Tanqueray. And while both spirits have been distilled in the country for hundreds of years, gin is tired of playing second fiddle. It has reinvented itself and is now reemerging from the heather-clad hills as a trendsetter and innovator.
The history of Scottish gin goes back to the 18th century, when copious amounts of fiery genever (gin's Dutch predecessor) arrived from the Netherlands through Edinburgh’s trading port of Leith. Britain's thirst for the spirit quickly became insatiable. So when parliament imposed a heavy tax on imported spirits during the war between Britain and France, British distillers began to produce their own version of genever. The new “gin” was dirt cheap, as sharp as a whip on the tongue, and readily available.
By 1734, Britain was embroiled in a period known as “The Gin Craze.” A sharp rise in crime, destitution, general mayhem, perpetual drunkenness, and rising death rates were all blamed on gin. When public outcry ensued, parliament instated the 1736 Gin Act, which put a fat tax on gin and made unlicensed distilling illegal. This put the kibosh on its distribution...momentarily. Bootleggers began to thrive, and by the 1790s, there were an estimated 400 illegal stills in Edinburgh alone.
But with the Industrial Revolution came state-of-the-art whisky distilleries, the invention of the column still (which popularized grain spirits), and the 1823 Excise Act, which sanctioned whisky distillation. While Tanqueray (launched in 1830) managed to stay afloat during this period, boutique-style gin simply fell out of fashion. Until now.
Today, Scotland is playing an integral role in the craft gin revolution, with at least seven craft-gin distilleries active from the hills of Speyside to the Shetland Islands. The revolution began, however, in the seaside village of Girvan on Scotland’s southwest coast. That's where Hendrick’s in 1999 began producing a premium gin infused with the essence of cucumbers and rose petals—meant to evoke eating a cucumber sandwich in a rose garden. Consumers and bartenders were drawn to its unique flavor profile—light, citrusy, and floral, a far cry from its juniper-heavy predecessors—and cheeky Victorian branding, making Hendrick’s one of the hottest craft gins on the market. And it's a market that continues to expand. In 2013, the premium-gin category ($17–$25 a bottle) grew by 6 percent, according to International Wine & Spirit Research, while the super-premium ($25 and up) grew by 27 percent.
Craft distillers in Scotland took note of Hendrick’s success—especially those twiddling their thumbs waiting for their whisky to mature. “It takes about eight hours to make a small batch of gin, and I can see it on the shelves within a week,” says Simon Buley, master distiller for Caorunn, a craft gin produced at Balmenach Distillery in Speyside since 2009.
"I love the fact that I can handcraft a product that’s available for people to enjoy instantly. I’ve been making whisky for 16 years and some of it still hasn’t been released on the market.”
Infused with 11 botanicals, including the caorunn (Scottish Gaelic for rowanberry), Coul Blush apple, and bog myrtle, Caorunn gin ($31.99 per 750ml) hints of wildflowers on the nose, with a palate that is both spicy and crisp. Garnishes are becoming trademarks in the craft gin industry and Caorunn’s signature is a slice of red apple, which often accompanies the gin over ice with premium tonic.
In other areas of Scotland, some whisky distilleries have begun to add premium gin to their lineup, sometimes just for sheer amusement. At Bruichladdich Distillery on the Isle of Islay, master distiller Jim McEwan has risen to icon status for his passion and progressive thinking in the Scotch whisky industry, which tends to favor the traditional. So it’s no surprise that he's responsible for Islay's first gin, The Botanist ($34.99/750ml), released in 2011. Local botanists forage the island for 22 wild herbs and flowers, which are distilled with nine other botanicals in the world’s only active Lomond pot still, known as “Ugly Betty.” The slow (14-hour) and low (“a mere simmer”) process renders a spirit that radiates terroir and is what Bruichladdich calls “a thinker’s gin” that’s designed “as much for the mind as for the palate.”
In a culture that places great value on artisanal foods and superior ingredients, it’s no wonder this appreciation has spilled into the craft spirits market. “People are looking for products with a story—something they can be evangelical about,” says Vivienne Muir, director of the new micro-distillery NB Gin, which she launched in October 2013 with her husband, Steve, in her hometown of North Berwick, 25 miles northeast of Edinburgh. “There has been buzz about our gin being produced locally, and people really like that."
Back in Edinburgh, Scottish gin distillation will finally return to its roots after a 150-year hiatus. Within the next few months, two distilleries are set to open, including Pickering’s Gin (which is also planning a gin museum and a state-of-the-art tap system) and Edinburgh Gin, from Spencerfield Spirits Company, which will also have a tasting room and visitor's center.
“Edinburgh Gin draws on a long history of distilling in the capital,” says Alex Nicol, Edinburgh Gin's managing director and former marketing director for Glenmorangie. “We hope in a small way to revive Edinburgh's fantastic distilling legacy and build upon it.”
Skilled bartenders have also had a hand in the rise of modern gin—after all, they're the ones creating and serving gin cocktails to regular consumers. At One Square bar in Edinburgh, senior barman Huge Gibb oversees the menu of more than 50 gins and leads personalized gin tastings (15–20 per week!) with expertly paired tonics. Many conventional tonic waters have large bubbles, which Gibb says “bruises your tongue,” interfering with the taste of gin. He prefers tonics such as Fentiman’s, 1724, and Fever-Tree, which is known for its delicate bubbles. For customers who say they don't like gin, Gibb lures them in with the bar’s signature cocktail, the Scotch Orchard: Caorunn gin with freshly muddled apples and pears, raspberry, and a squeeze of fresh lime.
“There are many misconceptions about the flavor of gin," says Gibb. “We’re trying to change that.”
Fortunately the Scotch whisky industry doesn’t have to worry about losing it share of the drinks market any time soon. “They are very different markets,” says Simon Buley of Caorunn.
“I don’t see gin competing with whisky, but perhaps with other long drinks and cocktails.” Mark Watt, general manager for Wm. Cadenhead, which produces Scotland’s Old Raj gin, agrees. “Whisky has always had to fight with white spirits,” he says. “I see gin potentially stealing a share of the vodka market, especially the [premium] brands.”
While Scotland has always had great respect for tradition, modernization is something the country is familiar with. “Scotland is full of innovative people,” says Lesley Gracie, master distiller for Hendrick's. “The telephone, television, and steam engine were all created by Scots, as well as its famed distilleries. So when you put two and two together, it’s little wonder that we’d get creative in formulating different drinks.”