If you have heard of Islay, it is most likely you know about this island because of its historic whisky making tradition.
The Hebrides is an archipelago comprising hundreds of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. Divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides groups, they are lands of rugged landscapes, fishing villages and remote Gaelic-speaking communities. Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, home to many famed whisky brands including Bruichladdich.
In 2011 the Bruichladdich brand on Islay launched a small-batch gin, inspired by the numerous wild botanicals growing on the island. The recipe, along with the nine classic gin aromatics, includes 22 botanicals, each chosen for their varying flavours and qualities. The gin is carefully distilled over 17 hours to produce a complex and distinctive final product. The Botanist Gin is the only gin made on Islay and, in the last five years has become just as well known as the company’s whisky.
Remote and beautiful, Islay is not very accessible, but daily flights do fly from Glasgow, dependant on weather. The island has just over 3000 inhabitants and plenty of beautiful wildlife. Flying in over the sea to the island airport was a wonderful opportunity to admire the beautiful island from the sky.
The Bruichladdich / Botanist distillery sits opposite the western shore of Loch Indaal on Islay with the rugged beach just steps from the building. On arrival we were shown round the boutique shop before going on a tour round the working factory. This extraordinary gin was first made by the former head distiller Jim McEwan in the affectionately named ‘Ugly Betty’ Lomond pot-still, a wonderful piece of salvaged equipment which is still in use today.
Next we visited a natural spring, which, after being rediscovered, began to be used as a diluter for the Bruichladdich whisky. We collected our own glasses of pure cold water, the freshest drink you could imagine tasting. It was also a lovely opportunity to soak up some clean island air and admire our new, unspoilt surroundings.
After a quick lunchbreak it was back to the factory where we met original botanical collectors Dr. Richard and Mavis Gulliver who explained the qualities of each of the 22 botanicals and why they were selected for the final Botanist recipe. Richard and Mavis are incredibly knowledgeable and answered all our questions about the story of The Botanist Gin. As well as common botanicals like Chamomile and Heather, the gin also contains unusual flavours of Tansy, White Clover, Mugwort and Creeping Thistle, among many others.
The second day of our trip began nice and early. After a wholesome ‘Full Scottish’ breakfast we were up and out of the house, head to toe in waterproofs, thanks to the unpredictably wet weather. Expert forager Mark Williams met us in the garden before we began our foraging walk round the area to see some of The Botanist Gin 22 botanicals in their natural habitat.
It was fascinating to learn about the abundance of edible plants and herbs on the island. Mark was a wonderful teacher, pointing out poisonous species and edible leaves as we went. At every stop he produced a bottle or container from his foraging rucksack containing a herbaceous syrup or plant-flavoured cake he’d made, all from ingredients on the island.
We tasted delicious sorrel, smelt sweet meadowsweet and discovered hollow Angelica stem, which makes ideal straws for cocktails!
After a tiring but exhilarating morning of foraging in the rain we took shelter in a disused (and naturally distressed old barn) for a lovely lunch of island treats. Mark whipped up some whisky soaked mushrooms and offered round local cheeses and leaves, while Botanist brand ambassador Abigail Clephane made us all a warming gin hot toddy. It was a beautiful and equally comforting meal.
For our final evening we were treated to a meal by Craig Grozier, a brilliant Scottish chef and regular Botanist Gin collaborator. The meal, matched with Abigail’s cocktails, was a triumph of seasonal Islay produce with a clear emphasis on the flavours of foraging. Particularly memorable was the homemade bread and whipped butter and the floral and inventive dessert of Rosaceae, Milk, Kingsville Honey and Oats.
The Botanist Gin is a traditional but innovative spirit, delicious served straight or as part of a cocktail recipe. After experiencing the magical island of Islay, picking the botanicals myself, I can completely understand why The Botanist is such a special, unique and flavoursome gin.
More information about The Botanist Gin here.