Gin It To Win It: A Look at Scottish Craft Gin
We look at the recent explosion of Scottish craft gin with Glasgow's Good Spirits Co
Remember the good old days, when a trip to the bar for a G&T involved picking between two choices – the one with the old-timey palace guard on the bottle, or the other one? Just a few years ago gin was in many ways an afterthought, without the prestige of whisky or the excitement of rum or tequila. Nowadays you can walk into a bar or shop and the well-crafted and excitingly-titled gins are practically falling off the shelves, but just how did we get here?
First, let’s go waaaay back, to the 1700s. While whisky had been distilled in Scotland for centuries by this point, gin was having a slightly terrifying moment in the sun. The good folk of London took to the stuff like a duck to water, and by 1730 10 million gallons of gin were being produced annually; bear in mind the entire population of the country stood at around five million at the time. After a government crackdown, it took until the Victorian era for gin to really bounce back. The drink had tidied up its image, quality improved, and lavish gin palaces became the places to be seen and get stuck into a glass or two. But soon, gin lost its lustre once again.
Fast-forward to the turn of the 21st century, and to a gin landscape dominated by a host of identikit drinks without much character to them. It was a market largely controlled by a few brewing and distilling conglomerates, with many gins produced by large contract distillers – you come up with the idea, and someone with all the equipment and know-how makes the gin for you.
But by the end of the 1990s, a pair of gins came along that shook things up a tad – Martin Miller's and Hendrick's. Here were two drinks with only-slightly-eccentric back stories – Miller's was the product of collaboration between the eponymous 'bon viveur' and his two pals who just happened to be drinks industry experts and investors, while Hendrick's quirky mythos disguises the fact that it's brought to you by William Grant and Sons, one of the country's largest whisky makers. That said, the pair offered something different with iconic branding and unique serving suggestions (strawberry and black pepper for Miller's, in a teacup with some cucumber for Hendrick's), and helped change perceptions of gin. No longer was it to be resigned to the place of 'vodka's dangerous herbaceous cousin'; gin could be cool and interesting again.
The Beginnings of Scottish Craft Gin
Things really started to get going once Scotland's whisky distilleries saw the benefits of going down the 'trendy gin' route. Diversification has long been a necessity for distilleries, who can't really sit on their hands for years at a time waiting for their whiskies to be ready. They know how to sell tasty spirits, and the fact that many distilleries sit in areas rife with gin-friendly botanicals made it a no-brainer for the likes of the Bruichladdich and Balmenach distilleries to hit the market with their very own quirky and cool gins. The Botanist and Caorunn are both exquisitely packaged and offer exciting snapshots of their local plant life distilled down into quaffable form, and it's a route that's since been followed by a host of other distilleries. For example, the sea kelp-infused and beautifully packaged Isle of Harris gin is the Harris Distillery's way of keeping things ticking over while they wait for their first whisky to mature.
At this point, we feel the need to get a little bit technical about just what gin is. Gin is a neutral spirit, most often made from grain, flavoured with botanicals, the main one of which should be juniper, and that's really about it. Botanicals, in case you're wondering, is simply the name for the juniper, licorice, anise and other flavourings in gin. Unlike with Scotch Malt Whisky, where there are very strict rules about what you can and can't do, there are a whole host of grey areas when it comes to gin.
There aren't many rules around which botanicals you can and can't use, and you don't even have to do all the work yourself – you can buy in a batch of neutral spirit from a large distilling company to serve as your base, add your botanicals either by redistilling them alongside the spirit or just chucking the ingredients in to steep, and you're well on your way. With an ever-increasing selection of gins on the market, it's become hard to really tell what's what, and while many of the gins that have hit the scene in recent years are delicious and exciting, there is always the nagging question of where they've actually come from.
'Grain-to-glass' and true craft gin
Hence recent moves to focus on the providence and backstory behind each new spirit. The Scottish Craft Distillers' Association's certification scheme looks for three key elements to a 'craft gin' – it's craft distilled in Scotland, there are quality raw materials going into the gin, and everything is authentic and traceable. Their quality mark graces the likes of Pickering's, Edinburgh Gin, the Makar gins from Glasgow Distillery and the gins from Strathearn Distillery.
Making base spirit for a gin isn't always realistic so sometimes distillers need outside help; the key is that they're transparent about it and it results in a high-quality gin distilled with care and attention. Think of a bottle of gin as a nice piece of knitwear – it's lovely to receive a hand-knitted scarf, but you don't necessarily expect your gran to have gone out to shear a sheep in order for you to wear it. That said, there is another step up the gin ladder that's well worth exploring. So-called 'grain-to-glass' gin distillers do everything themselves; they distill their own base spirit from scratch, then redistill with their chosen botanicals to create true craft gin.
Hills and Harbour Gin from Crafty Distillery in Dumfries and Galloway fits the bill; they produce their own spirit, and flavour it up with local fir needles and seaweed amongst a host of botanicals. The Lone Wolf gin from Brewdog's spirit-making arm is also a fully grain-to-glass operation, with the craft beer leviathans drawing on their impressive scale and extensive brewing expertise to produce their gin and vodka. Arbikie Distillery near Arbroath goes a step further – their Kirsty's Gin is a farm-to-glass spirit, with all of the ingredients for the gin grown on the Arbikie estate before the distilling magic happens. From single-estate gins and delicious spirits produced by one-man operations to delightfully-packaged bottles that conjure up images of the furthest-flung parts of the country, there is one thing you can be absolutely certain of when it comes to gin in 2018 – there are plenty of options to choose from.
The Good Spirits Co., 23 Bath Street, Glasgow