Gin takes the high road

20 April, 2017

Scotland may be best known for its whisky, but it’s no slouch when it comes to producing gin either. Hamish Smith hears the pipes a-calling

Lochs, glens, bagpipes and whisky – this, in all its stereotyped glory, is how much of the world views Scotland. Now throw this into the picture: Scotland produces 70% of the UK’s gin – a category worth £1bn. As strange as it may sound, gin is more Scottish than English.

Scotland has actually been producing gin in high volume for decades. Their owners might not shout about it, but two of the biggest gin brands are produced north of the border. There’s the largest international gin brand in the world, Diageo’s Gordon’s (4.4m 9-litre cases in 2015) and Tanqueray (2.1m). Hendricks, owned by whisky distiller William Grant & Sons, also doesn’t play on its Scottishness but it is a born and bred Scottish brand. Then there is the new breed. In 2015, 11 new distilleries opened and the past few years have seen the emergence of dozens of Scottish gin brands.

Somehow gin production doesn’t fit the tartan picture. But the interesting thing is, it should. The precursor to scotch, ‘uisge beatha’ (water of life) was commonly a new-make spirit flavoured with local botanicals. Indeed, going back a few centuries, there was one particular botanical that was abundant in Scotland – juniper. One of the reasons the plant is so scarce now is its overuse by distillers (for flavouring and fuelling stills). This famous spirit of Scotland’s past is sounding a lot more like gin than scotch – the flavour of which is dependent on oak maturation.

“The first reference to wood-aged scotch isn’t until the Glenlivet in 1822,” says Carl Reavey of the Bruichladdich Distillery, which also produces the Botanist gin. “Before that uisge beatha was produced all over the highlands – there were 40,000 illegal distilleries producing uisge beatha in the 18th century.”

Others have drawn further links to Scotland’s gin association. Adam Hunter, commercial manager of Arbikie, a farm-to-bottle operation in the east of Scotland, says: “Scotland has had a long association with gin. In the era of genever, Scotland was one of the main suppliers of juniper berries to the Dutch.

“Before the explosion of small craft gin brands it was relatively unknown that Hendrick’s, Gordon’s and Tanqueray are all made in Scotland. I would say that the boom is new in the sense of the diversity of products but in some respects it is a return to tradition.”

Emma Hooper, brand manager of Darnley’s View, which has been in operation since 2010, throws this out there: “Gin is rivalling scotch as the national spirit.”

Scottish gin may be a trend in terms of volume and emerging brands, but not in terms of a distinguishable style. This is an industry of big old-timers and fledgling brands, thus very different business models producing gins to varying styles.

There are brands produced by scotch companies (take Darnley’s View, sister to Wemyss Malts), those that exist purely to fund scotch production (few admit to this), and there are those producing their own local spirit exclusively as gin (Pickering’s to name just one).

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