With over 70 per cent of the UK’s gin made in Scotland, we tour some of the best gin distilleries in the country
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While whisky has long been considered Scotland’s national drink, gin is close on its tail, with around 70 Scottish gin distilleries currently producing the spirit, making Scotland one of the largest exporters of gin in the world.
Some of the gins made here in Scotland are household names – Gordon’s, Tanqueray and Hendrick’s – while many are small-batch distillers. A few are even made by established whisky-makers.
But why gin and why now? UK gin exports are now worth double what they were in 2010 and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association puts this largely down to what has been dubbed the ‘ginaissance’ – the rebranding of a spirit once labelled ‘Mother’s Ruin’, which is now seen as a fashionable drink.
Craft Scottish gin distillers cropping up all over the country pull together natural botanicals such as local plants and herbs, and fuse them with base ingredients to create fresh, clear spirits, best enjoyed with a squeeze of lemon or lime and some sparkling tonic water.
The appetite for gin appears to have no bounds. In Glasgow, The Gin Spa in the Merchant City uses botanicals in its rejuvenating treatments, while on the Isle of Colonsay you can escape on a Gin Lovers’ Retreat with Wild Thyme Spirits and immerse yourself in the Hebridean scenery in between tastings.
However, quite aside from food, drink or travel trends, there is a more practical reason for the increase in gin production. Anyone can tell you that whisky takes years to age and, well, gin doesn’t.
When a new whisky distillery starts up it can be a huge financial commitment for a fledgling business with no product to sell for five, or even 10 years; gin bridges the gap until the whisky is ready.
To sample some Scottish gin on Scottish soil, here are some of the best Scottish gin distilleries to visit, whether you’re a city dweller or prefer going off the beaten track.
Edinburgh has two renowned Scottish gin distilleries: the multi-award-winning Edinburgh Gin, distilling since 2010, and the lesser-known Pickering’s Gin, which opened in 2013.
The latter is housed in Summerhall, one of Edinburgh’s cooler arts venues, which is a popular hang-out during the city’s frenetic festival season. Everything at Pickering’s is done on site, from the distilling right through to the bottling and shipping.
Set up by two friends, Marcus and Matt – the stills are named after their grandmothers, Emily and Gertrude – it’s very much a small venture that feels very welcoming and friendly.
Tours are referred to as ‘gin jollys’ due to their relaxed nature. You can sip a gin and tonic while you hear about the distillery’s original 1947 Bombay recipe in the still room, followed by further tastings in the adjoining Royal Dick pub. If you happen to visit during next year’s festival and you have tickets for the Royal Tattoo, look out for special tours that take place for ticket holders.
Not to be outdone by Edinburgh, the Glasgow Distillery Co. started distilling its Makar Original Gin in 2014, making it the first gin to be distilled in the city.
With a name that derives from the ancient Scots word for ‘the maker’ or craftsman, Makar uses seven botanicals to create a juniper-led gin. The distillery, which harks back to a time when Glasgow was home to hundreds of Scottish gin distilleries before the Temperance movement put paid to them, also makes rum, whisky and vodka.
Meanwhile, if you’re visiting St Andrews (see p14), make time to pop into the Eden Mill Distillery just outside the city centre, where you can sample a gin flavoured by hickory wood – a nod to the town’s golf credentials as it was once used to make golf clubs.
If you’re looking for a distillery in a more naturally beautiful location, then Dunnet Bay Distillery, in Caithness in the far north of Scotland, is a delight. Just a few miles south of the most northerly point on the UK mainland, Dunnet Head, it’s a perfect stop-off for anyone venturing along the North Coast 500 (don’t worry drivers, you can take your tasting home with you).
Run by husband-and-wife team, Martin and Claire Murray, who decided to turn their hobby of distilling into a business, it opened its doors to tastings of its Rock Rose Gin in 2015.
Martin and Claire include rose root in their botanicals, a native plant once used by Viking settlers on this wild coastline to give them strength and endurance for their long sea expeditions.
Talking of wild locations, when it opened in 2015, the Isle of Harris Distillery (the island is officially called Lewis & Harris), became the first gin distillery in the remote Outer Hebrides. That’s not the only first the distillery can lay claim to either: it’s also the first distillery to use sugar kelp seaweed as its defining botanical, harvesting it by hand from local sea lochs, giving the gin an authentic taste of its elemental location.
Tours, which include tastings of the distillery’s gin as well as its new-make whisky – having only opened in 2015 its Hearach (the Gaelic name for a person from Harris) single-malt whisky isn’t quite ready – begin in a small, charred-oak lined tasting room on Harris Tweed chairs. During tours you’ll also get to touch, smell and taste all the botanicals before a guided sampling of Isle of Harris Gin and Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water (a seaweed tincture that lets you customise your pour to your taste).
Founder Anderson Bakewell set up the distillery with the aim of addressing population decline on the isle, where the population has halved over the past 50 years. Opening in 2015 with 10 full-time staff, it now has almost 40, and by only selling direct (you can buy through its website too), it ensures that those jobs stay local. Of course, Bakewell also wants to inspire people to visit the Isle of Harris, which is reached by ferry from Skye.
Another isle off Skye’s shores, the Isle of Raasay, opened the doors of its distillery in 2018 and is preparing to launch its first single-malt whisky in 2020 (it started distilling elsewhere a little earlier). In the meantime, visitors can sample its Hebridean gin – the first legal spirit to come out of an isle rooted in centuries of illicit distilling.
Handcrafted right here on the isle, the Isle of Raasay Gin is distilled in a Frilli copper pot using a blend of 10 botanicals, including rhubarb root, citrus fruit peel and water from its well. After a tour of the still room, visitors can sample the gin in a stunning tasting room, with views across to Skye and the Red Cuillin. Plus, gorgeous boutique rooms upstairs mean you can have more than a nip or two before settling in for the night.
And finally,the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides isles, Islay may be better known for its whisky-making, but one distillery has been making a very good gin for years. Located on the western peninsula of the isle, Bruichladdich’s dry gin, The Botanist, uses 22 hand-foraged local botanicals, including gorse flowers and apple mint, which all go into its Lomond still, known as ‘Ugly Betty’.
The resulting gin brings together the best of Islay’s natural bounty, from its Atlantic-washed beaches to its heather-covered hills, and is a nice change for anyone who’s not so keen on whisky, which is abundant elsewhere on the isle.
Tours are available Thursdays to Sundays for £10 with occasional drop-ins available.
Visits are combined with a tour of Tennent’s Brewery. The three-hour tours cost £38.
One-hour tastings are available for £15 at the current premises five miles outside St Andrews, while a new distillery is under construction.
There are daily tours from mid-March to late November (except Sundays) at this far north distillery. They cost £15, last around an hour and include a tasting.
Guests who arrive on this Outer Hebrides isle are welcomed into the distillery by a peat fire six days a week and made to feel right at home.
With regular ferries from Sconser on Skye, it’s easier to get here than you might think. Tours start from just £10.
The two-hour Botanist tour costs £25 but it does include a cocktail class.
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