Category Archives: Gin

Mulling Kintyre

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Lydia, Leon, Su, Niall and Raymond. Crumble misbehaving as usual.

Crumble is not afraid to be seen, even if she does turn her head when the camera is on. The faithful labrador of Torrisdale Castle is never far from Niall’s side. Exclamations of ‘Crumble!’ delivered in varying pitches and intonations interrupt the quietude in this remote corner of Scotland. Kintyre feels like an island, the isthmus the only flaw in the plan. It is quirky, rugged, wild and mild, with giant flora and palm trees flourishing due to the warmth of the Gulf Stream. Fauna is also plentiful, hardy hedgehogs cross the road with little to fear as there are more cows than cars.

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Hedge-hogging the road!
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Getting acquainted with ‘Big Don’ and conducting ‘quality control’

I fell in love with Kintyre while developing the recipe for Kintyre Gin. A return visit allowed me to check on progress and catch up with the wonderful people of Beinn An Tuirc (‘Hill of the Wild Boar’ in Gaelic) Distillery. Niall and Emma, the Torrisdale tag team driving the project forward, were in good spirits. Early gin sales have exceeded expectations, so much so that Niall has purchased a ‘Boar Bus’ to keep up with gin deliveries. The former piggery buildings have been given a new lease of life producing the new spirit of the wild boar.

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The boar bus roars from coast to coast to deliver the latest batch of Kintyre Gin

This sustainable distillery has impressive green credentials, with ‘Big Don’ (the gin still) powered by the torrent of water rushing down the burn from the hills above the estate. Since its inception, the hydro scheme has generated enough electricity to power 7.5 million kettles! Beinn An Tuirc is flying the flag for sustainable craft distilling in Scotland.

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Scotland’s infamous summer ensures plentiful hydro electricity

My good friend and Head Distiller Su Black (Heriot-Watt University alumnus) has been putting big Don through his paces, distilling and filling the attractive bottles with flavoursome spirit. The clink of empty bottles at the end of the visit attested to the gin’s high drinkability. Crumble nodded her approval as she sat in her armchair. Kintyre Gin is produced by a passionate, innovative and endearing team and deserves your attention whenever mulling Kintyre.

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Bottled and ready to go!

 

Links:

http://www.kintyregin.com

http://www.torrisdalecastle.com

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The West Coast Distillery Trail

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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail

The West Coast Trail is ranked among the top hiking routes in the world. The 75km trek along the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island is a challenging proposition. The route from Gordon River to Pachena Bay includes river crossings, ladders and cable cars. Only 30 passes per day are issued for each access point during the open season, from the 1st of May until the end of September. Of the 6,000 hikers attempting the trail each year about 1 to 2% require rescue. The remote location may result in a long wait for salvation, therefore a warming island spirit is an indispensable hiking companion.

Before I embark on such an arduous mission, I will need to build up some familiarity with the land and its people, and road test the local spirits to rejuvenate aching legs. I thus ventured forth to discover the distilleries of Vancouver Island that might be able to assist in my quest.

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The beautiful Forsyth stills at Shelter Point looking rather festive

Shelter Point Distillery is a remarkable place. Nestled along the island’s eastern shore near Oyster River, Patrick Evans has converted his farm buildings into a whisky wonderland. The shiny Forsyth stills made in Scotland stand prominently in the high ceiling barn. They feast upon green barley grown right in front of the distillery. The cask strength whisky exemplifies the potential of BC to produce some of the best whisky in the world. Pure water, clean crisp air, temperate climate, the influence of the sea and wholesome grain. The landscape is like the west coast of Scotland, but with more trees!

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‘The Wee Man’ at Wayward

Wayward Distillation House in the heart of Comox valley has created a buzz in BC with its use of honey as a substrate for fermentation. This was the first time I encountered a whole distillery run on bee nectar. The honey is locally sourced and tastes divine. The distillers are honey bears in spirit and commented on how everything ‘gets so sticky… in a good way’. I also liked they way they gave their tanks personalities by naming them, e.g. ‘Wee Man’ for the small spirit receiver.

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The luscious lines of the Arbutus spirit safe

Arbutus Distillery in Nanaimo is notable for its gnarly ‘Babayaga’ absinthe and finely crafted spirits. Michael Pizzitelli, master distiller, with an MSc in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, has a background in natural sciences. This has helped him achieve a quality of spirit that will be welcome on any hike. Upon researching the etymology of ‘Babayaga’, I discovered it’s a supernatural being from Slavic folklore who appears as a demented woman flying around in a mortar and waving a pestle, who lives in a forest hut and has chicken legs… gnarly indeed!

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Spirit offerings at Sheringham Distillery

Lastly, Sheringham Distillery, is the real deal of West Coast Trail distilleries. The distillery is perched on a hill overlooking the wild Pacific in the heart of prime surfing territory near Jordan River. Jason, the founder and head distiller, combines his passion for distilling and surfing in the most sublime of locations. The production facility in a rustic wooden building is where Jason and John produce gems such as Seaside Gin, chocolate vodka and a double distilled new grain spirit. The new grain spirit is a tantalising glimpse into the whisky to follow in a few years time.

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Monkeying around at Mystic Beach

Having completed my mini west coast distillery trail there was time for a warm up hike on the Juan de Fuca trail. A 4km jaunt to Mystic Beach and back with a rope swing thrown in for good measure. As all hardy hikers know, the best part of any hike is a rewarding dram at the end!

Victoria Distillers – A new life in Canada

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A warm welcome to Sidney BC, complete with totem pole

Two and a half years ago I left the banking industry for the last time not knowing where the distilling journey would lead. All I knew was that being part of the whisky industry is something that I would enjoy every day. I had no idea that I would end up 5,000 miles away in a little place called Sidney. The number plates on local cars proclaim ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ – and they are not wrong. The  west coast of Canada is blessed with gorgeous islands, stunning coastline and an abundance of incredible wildlife. Victoria Distillers (formerly Victoria Spirits) moved from their forested location in central Saanich to the seafront in Sidney earlier this year. The new owner has grand ambitions to grow the brand in Canada and the US. With such an interesting proposition and wonderful location I jumped at the chance to join the distilling team.

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Victoria Distillers production area

Craigdarroch whisky may not be familiar to you yet, but one day I hope my contribution will bring it international recognition as a malt reflecting the character of Vancouver Island. A small batch was released a couple of years ago and sold out almost immediately. The delectable whisky has a lovely banana note. With a new seaside location I hope maturation will bring further coastal complexity to the whisky.

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The distillery has a stunning waterfront location

The new role is a great opportunity to be creative in other areas too. The existing products include Victoria Gin, Oaken Gin, Hemp Vodka, Eau de Vie and a selection of Bitters. This week we have also begun production of a chocolate liqueur and trials of a spiced rum. With all these different spirits the head bar tender has done a great job of putting together a cocktail list to suit all palates for customers in the distillery lounge.

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Laid back Sidney

The lifestyle is very laid back, which suits me perfectly. I live a a simple life with hardly any possessions. I have no car and no bike, my sole mode of transport is my skateboard. I have no TV and no bills to pay as everything is included in my minimal rent. The team at work are great, fun and friendly. I have a free gym pass at work (which I sometimes use), but most of my free time is spent socializing in the local bars or exploring my new surroundings. All in all, life is good in Beautiful British Columbia!

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Having fun at the distillery with random bloke behind me working on still

The Viking Tour (Part 2)

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Scapa Flow – Beauty and tradgedy

The institute of Brewing & Distilling expedition continued onwards to Scapa Distillery. Orcadian beauty is abundant on the shores of Scapa Flow. The bay reflects the moods of the weather. We were blessed with shimmering water in glorious sunshine. But even the brightest of days is overshadowed by the tragic events that unfolded within view of the distillery. The green buoy in the bay marks the site where the Royal Oak was sunk during the second world war with the loss of 834 lives. 70 unwanted ships were intentionally sunk to form ‘Churchill’s barriers’ in an attempt to prevent further losses for the navy stronghold. The sense of history in Orkrney provides a powerful context for the production of whisky.

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The sign that greets boaters in Scapa Flow

Scapa Distillery recently opened to visitors for the first time so we were excited to get a first peek. Of most interest for me was the Lomond still, the only one used for single malt Scotch whisky. Installed in 1959 it had three internal plates which could be varied to produce 3 different types of spirit. The plates have now been removed resulting in a more standard setup for wash distillations. The spirit still is dwarfed by the beastly Lomond still. A strange couple that work in unison to produce a wonderful spirit. Scapa was also famous for its remarkably long fermentation of 160 hours (compared to 48 hours for most). This helped impart the estery profile to Scapa 16 year old. Unfortunately, recent capacity constraints have led to a reduction in the fermentation time to 80 hours and the discontinuation of the 16 year old. We sampled the new NAS expression ‘Skiren’ at the end of the tour and boarded the bus bound for Scapa’s famous neighbour.

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The impressive entrance gate to Highland Park Distillery
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The Viking chair at Highland Park
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Malting floors at Highland Park

Highland Park is must on any distillery baggers’ hit list. Dominating the skyline on the outskirts of Kirkwall, Highland Park offers the visitor a comprehensive view of whisky production. Locally cut peat, malting floors, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, cooperage… it’s all here. As you pass through the famous gates with their intricate ironmongery you are greeted by a team proud of their whisky and Orcadian heritage. Our guide took delight in retelling the dangers of peat cutting – an unexploded bomb and axe head have been discovered. Further testament to the palimpsest of history unique to these islands. Viking strength is required to maintain the malting floors as the barley is turned every 4 to 8 hours. The result of all their hard work is 44,000 barrels on site, or 9 million litres of spirit. No wonder the entrance gates are so imposing with all those thirsty locals out.

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The ‘Tin Man’ still at Dunnet Bay
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All together at Dunnet Bay (Martin – far left)

Returning to mainland we stopped by a distillery of great contrast, but no less impressive. Dunnet Bay has only been open 18 months but such is its success in the craft gin boom that its latest seasonal gin was sold out even before it left the building. The 500L John Doe still looked like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz and is producing magical spirit. Rock Rose gin is winning many awards due to the dedication of Martin and Claire – a couple who followed their dreams and ditched their former careers. In the last year 35,000 bottles were sold, an incredible achievement for a small start-up craft distillery. Long may it continue.

Glenmorangie
The still cathedral at Glenmorangie

The final destination on our epic Viking voyage was Glenmorangie in Tain. The sense of grandeur in the still room was breathtaking. Twelve of the tallest stills (5.1m) in Scotch whisky give the impression that you were in a cathedral of distillation. Necks creek in the same way as they would in St. Giles. Also impressive was the construction of the new Anaerobic Digestion plant at a cost of over £20m. The facility will treat effluent reducing the distillery’s impact on the environment and will produce methane from stillage which can be used to offset energy bills. We finished off with a great tasting that showcased some of Glenmorangie’s more innovative offerings such as Signet, which contains chocolate malt.

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The Viking Tour – Mission Accomplished!

We successfully completed our Viking mission – 5 distilleries and 2 breweries in 3 days. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it!

Strathearn to Learn

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A selection of casks at Strathearn Distillery. The wee 50L octave casks line the back wall.

The winds of Harris seem to have followed me to central Scotland. I drove to the Forth Road Bridge in hope rather than expectation. My fears were confirmed by a row of traffic cones denying further progress. Storm Gertrude had enough huff and puff to close the bridge completely. So off I went on the long way round to Strathearn Distillery via Stirling. I was minutes away from my destination on the A822 south of Crieff when progress came to a shuddering halt. Flashing hazard lights and men in high-viz vests warned of the fallen trees blocking the road. My teeth began to clench but then I thought of Buddha’s wisdom, ‘It is better to travel well than to arrive’. A detour via Comrie led me down a winding road of dramatic barren scenery and changing light. Beams of bright sunshine shone between the dark clouds, dancing over brown and desolate moorland. One of the most vivid rainbows I have ever seen arched over the road. So despite being 40 minutes late for my appointment it was worth it to discover the delights of a path less travelled.

Upon arriving at Strathearn Distillery, Zack and Liam provided a warm welcome and introduced me to Bella the Stripper….

No, that is not what you are thinking! Bella is one of two Portuguese built Hoga stills used in the production of whisky and gin. ‘Bella’ is a wash still with 1,000L capacity while the spirit still ‘Wee Erin’ is just 500L. They are also the first Hoga stills fitted with steam coils in the pot. With such lovely small stills the production capacity of Strathearn is limited to 14,500 litres of pure alcohol per annum, making it a contender for the smallest whisky distillery in Scotland.

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‘Bella’ the Stripper, the 1,000L wash still for whisky production

Everything is done simply at Strathearn, which is refreshing having recently visited some of the more computerised distilleries in Scotland. With small scale production most items can be carried by hand, all you need is a few buckets, small casks and a strong back. The wee 50L octave casks mature rapidly due to the high wood to spirit ratio compared to larger casks. The first whisky will be released after 3 years and should taste just as good as a 10 year old according to our hosts! The distillers are not afraid to experiment with different maturation regimes and wood types. They already have 13 different expressions including virgin oak, sherry and a host of wines.

Strathearn’s gin production was also refreshingly different. Selected botanicals are infused with distilled gin for a week after distillation. This uncommon practice, similar to dry-hopping in brewing, has the unusual effect of turning the heather rose gin pink with the addition of tonic. So if you ever feel like a retro Global Hypercolour G&T then Strathearn gin will certainly please!

Having enjoyed an enlightening tour I made my way back to Edinburgh. The winds had eased allowing the Forth Road Bridge to reopen and a stress free journey back home. Rather than worry about trees falling on my head, I was able to reminisce upon a wonderfully informative visit with enthusiastic young distillers. A visit to Strathearn is a great place to learn about whisky and gin done the craft way.

Distilling on the Edge (of Europe)

Atop a sand dune at Scarister beach.
Atop a sand dune at Scarista beach with Clisham in the far distance

‘When god was resting on the seventh day (Sabbath) he suddenly discovered that he had completely forgotten to use one last handful of jewels which he had meant to place in some exotic area like the Caribbean. However, rather than break the Sabbath more than was necessary, he just opened a window in heaven and threw the jewels out without even bothering to watch where they fell. Some cynics claim that he still doesn’t know but that, in fact they strung themselves out along the north-west coast of Scotland forming the long line of islands now known as the Outer Hebrides.’ (MacDonald, Crowdie & Cream)

This legend, as recounted by Finlay MacDonald, is a wonderful story that captures the magic of the Outer Hebrides. They are indeed jewels of natural beauty with beaches and turquoise sea that would look perfectly at home in a Caribbean holiday brochure. With a warmer climate there would be a string of hotels hugging the coast line. Thankfully, the Scottish climate has prevented such a catastrophe. So it was with great interest and excitement that I landed at Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris, to start my distilling journey.

The Isle of Harris Distillery reflected in the East Loch of Tarbert
The Isle of Harris Distillery reflected in the East Loch of Tarbert

To understand the nature of distilling on the island I first had to understand the people. The people of the Western Isles were recently reported as being amongst the happiest in the UK (see link below). Reasons cited included a sense of community and security. After a few days I noticed the locals did not worry about locking their houses or cars. Crime is virtually non-existent in Harris. Since arriving I have gradually relaxed my city ways and no longer lock my house or car too.  I have left my car with keys in the ignition and wallet on display and all was in its place upon my return. The freedom not to worry about your possessions and crime certainly breeds a feeling of contentment. This is in stark contrast to the fear of crime that blights many urban areas.

Loch Seaforth, a Hebridean fjord adjacent to the community of Bowglass
Loch Seaforth, a Hebridean fjord adjacent to the community of Bowglass

Harris is a small community of 2,000 scattered around the island. Gaelic is spoken widely and the sense of humour reflects their gaelic heritage. When I asked a local why so few folk at sea learnt to swim he quickly replied with a straight face, “You don’t need to swim if you stay in the boat”. People look out for each other as many of the facilities of the mainland are absent here. The warmth, hospitality and kindness shown since my arrival have made me feel part of the community rather than an outsider or stranger. There is less busyness and a shorter list of ‘things to do’ which means more time for pints at the pub, sharing stories and contemplating the wonders of whisky making in such a unique and special place.

Bottles of Isle of Harris Gin marching off the production line
Bottles of Isle of Harris Gin marching off the production line

The Isle of Harris Distillery opened on the 24th of September. The gin I helped develop is selling extremely well with its beautiful packaging and intriguing use of sugar kelp. Bottles are only available online in the UK and Germany or at the distillery shop but already bottles are appearing in far flung places such as New York, Sydney and Cape Town.

'Eva' the spirit still on the left, wash still on the right
‘Eva’ the spirit still on the left, wash still on the right

The whisky stills are in the process of commissioning and soon the first ‘Hearach’ spirit will flow into ex-bourbon and Olorosso sherry casks. Thereafter, the casks will be transferred to their place of rest. The warehouse at Ardhasaig is in a stunning location upon a rugged peninsula, overlooked by the mighty Clisham mountain. This is where the magic of maturation will occur with all the wild Outer Hebridean elements allowed to interact with the wood and spirit. In a few years time the first bottlings will be available. Whisky from Harris will be one of the most exciting developments in the whisky world as the purity of the environment, temperate climate and rugged landscape of this new region has the potential to produce incredible results.

The warehouse at Ardhasig
The warehouse at Ardhasig

It is a privilege to be here to help the production team get up and running and I will return often in the future to witness the unfolding chapters of the Harris distilling story. A visit to the Isle of Harris will no doubt provide ample reward to any adventurous whisky traveller.

 

http://www.harrisdistillery.com/

http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/scotland-s-islands-are-happiest-places-to-live-in-uk-1-3928747