Gin takes the high road

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).

In production terms, most rectify neutral grain spirit (as is the norm across the gin category) bought from either inside or outside Scotland and some produce their own spirit from scratch.

Some brands are classic London Dry, some reproduce old recipes and others use locally foraged ingredients to create new blends. There are also are those that are experimenting with ageing in barrel. Then there is marketing – some have Scottish branding and others don’t.

Darnley’s View was one of the early examples of a small scotch distiller (Wemyss Malts) turning its attention to gin. “A lot of new gins are linked to their whisky operation – they are making gin while they wait for the whisky to mature. But we are not subsidising our brown spirits with our white spirits,” says Darnley’s Hooper.

Produced at Thames Distillers in London since 2010, Darnley’s View has witnessed a market evolution – something that has signalled self-reflection. Darnley’s announced it is building its own distillery in Scotland.

“Since we started in 2010, provenance has become so important. To have our gin produced in Scotland strengthens our story.” The new Darnley’s View will also be repackaged for the new age of craft Scottish gin.

As in England, very few gins in Scotland are produced from scratch – without bought-in neutral grain spirit. But Arbikie is one.

Hunter says: “We are unique, in that we operate a field-to-bottle distillery, meaning we grow, harvest, distil from scratch, mature and bottle all in the one location.

“We have our own water supply direct from the Angus hills. This approach fits in with the provenance aspect of Scottish distilling and helps us differentiate ourselves from other gin companies,” Hunter says.

“We make our own spirit from scratch, so Kirsty’s Gin uses our potato vodka, which provides a creamy and peppery taste to the gin, and our latest release, AK’s Gin, uses Viscount wheat which lends these great butterscotch notes to it.

“By distilling our own spirit we are, in effect, using the profile of these ingredients to help shape the final product above and beyond the required juniper base and additional botanicals.

“This enables Arbikie to capture the terroir of the farm in its products.”

Keith Bonnington, director and co-owner of Colonsay Beverages, which produces Wild Island Botanic Gin from its Hebrides base, says the “surge” in the number of gins is “part driven by consumer demand for premium gin” but also “new interesting ingredients”.

Bonnington sees the choice of botanicals as the best way for his gin to speak of its provenance: “We wanted to build our gin around botanicals growing wild and hand-foraged on the Isle of Colonsay, our home.

“We sought to find the best gin distillate we could in which to infuse these botanicals. The process we undertook resulted in us tailoring a high-quality premium gin around a 100% British wheat base, using 16 distinct botanicals with a lemon citrus-led character, built around our island lemon balm and distilled in Langley’s baby still [a distiller based in the Midlands, England. We cut the distillate to our bottling strength of 43.7% abv using pure Scottish water and we bottle in Scotland.

“Our vision is to distil on our island home but we will only ever release a product made entirely on the island when we can guarantee that the quality we are achieving today is met in future.”

The Botanist, the first gin from Islay, takes a similar approach – buying in neutral grain spirit but using 22 island botanicals (alongside nine more classical ones) to get across a sense of provenance.

The brand is owned by Rémy Cointreau, so, perhaps alongside Caorunn, has fast become one of the most famous Scottish gins, despite their size.

The local botanicals angle, though, is not for everyone: “I tried using Scottish botanicals such as thistles, heather and gorse, but I found these gins were too floral and heavy,” says Daffy’s distiller Chris Molyneaux. “So I went back to the drawing board.” Molyneaux ended up creating a London Dry, based on a spirit bought from Normandy, France, flavoured with botanicals from around the world. So what’s his USP? “I created a ‘pre-ageing’ distillation process. We pay a lot of attention to base spirit and storage of botanicals – we store for five years – and distil at a low steam pressure for more than 12 hours in an old Scottish whisky still.”

Over at Pickering’s, authenticity and provenance come from its distillery and recipe. “Summerhall Distillery is the first exclusive gin distillery to be established in Edinburgh for more than 150 years,” says Leah Shaw Hawkins, Pickering’s brand manager. The recipe is an “original Bombay recipe, handwritten on a fragment of paper from 1947”. Hawkins says: “Kept as a family secret for more than 66 years, it only resurfaced in 2013 when we began distilling at Summerhall.”

For Derek Mair at Firkin Gin it is not the distillation or even the rectification that excites – it’s the blending and ageing. “We get a distiller to supply us the components in liquid form then we blend it and disgorge into casks. We have whisky casks – ex-Glen Garioch, Laphroaig, a Glenmorangie port cask. Moving forward we have gin resting in octaves of PX and oloroso. Our gin is a crossover spirit – a ginsky.”

There are many approaches in this burgeoning category. But does it need more regulation? Perhaps, and the Scottish Craft Distilling Association is attempting to achieve that. To receive accreditation its 17 members have had to prove their “products have been craft distilled in Scotland”, use “quality raw materials and processes” and have “product traceability”.


Many Scottish gins don’t fit this definition and, for now, consumers probably won’t mind. With or without ‘Scottish craft’ accreditation, Scottish gin will likely prosper. That’s because when it comes to spirits, Scotland has pedigree. By association with scotch, Scottish gin is just an easy sell. “Scotland is synonymous with quality premium spirits and this forms a key part of our message to consumers,” says Arbikie’s Hunter.

Whether there is a tradition of Scottish gin or not, Scotland will play a large part in the category’s future.