They use seeds, berries and bark to distil gin which is then thrown into wildly imaginative cocktails and brews. Christy MacFarlane shares two recipes for delicious gin cocktails, after telling us the fascinating story about how The Botanist began on the Isle of Islay…
The Botanist is created and distilled at Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay. As an independent company that prioritises employing humans over machines, and craft over efficiency, Bruichladdich sometimes struggled to make financial ends meet.
With little cash flow and a constant need for spare parts to service the old Victorian machinery, distillery managers Jim McEwan and Duncan McGillvray took advantage of a salvage opportunity at a closing distillery in Inverleven. Amongst the heap of copper, pipes, valves and gauges was an old Lomond still which had originally been built to experiment with different styles of spirit within the whisky industry.
Jim quickly recognised the opportunity to distil gin in the Lomond, now affectionately known as Ugly Betty. Back on Islay, she sat outside the stillhouse, waiting for approval from the board until one of our wash stills needed some maintenance that necessitated the stillhouse wall being removed. Jim seized the opportunity to establish Betty in her new home.
Creating a gin at a traditional whisky distillery was a sizeable risk back then. The dream was only realised due to our progressive philosophy, aptitude for experimentation and the determination of our team.
Positioning the equipment was only the beginning. Since reopening in 2001, the distillery has focussed on the concept of terroir and has ensured our spirits are inherently linked to the environment in which we make them.
Hearing of two botanical scientists living on the island, Jim began working with Dr. Richard and Mavis Gulliver to combine their expertise. The Gulliver’s foraged among the hills, bogs, shores and woodland of Islay for aromatic plants, finally presenting us with 33 island botanicals.
Jim whittled these down to the final 22 botanicals, chosen for their balance and complexity. An additional nine core botanicals are used in the base spirit while the island botanicals are held in a casket on the lyne arm of the still. This preserves the delicate flavours of the island botanicals from being overpowered by the nine core botanicals.
The Lomond was bought with other scrap in 2005 but the first official distillation didn’t take place until 2010. This was down to the fact that Jim experimented a lot before deciding on the recipe we have now.
Islanders would have used indigenous plants to flavour alcohol so we’re going back to the way our forefathers made drinks
There are currently 78 people working for the company. 66 of us work from the distillery on Islay. The majority of our staff work on the production and bottling of our whisky range and our gin, ensuring that as much of the process as possible is based on the island.
All of the bottling happens here on a single bottling line and all casks remain on the island throughout maturation. We don’t have a marketing department but we do have a communications team that run our office like a newsdesk. Essentially, we communicate current events from the distillery and the island to a wealth of loyal fans.
We also do a lot of hosting here, welcoming people to the island and opening their eyes to foraged flavours. We’re trying to encourage people to be creative with their drink garnishes or ingredients and exploring their own environments, rather than being restricted to one serve. It’s amazing how many diverse flavours are to be found when you awaken your senses and try a new approach.
Logistically speaking, running an international business from Islay is entirely impractical but the concept of terroir is at the heart of what we believe in. We believe the uisge bheatha that was once illegally distilled on Islay would have been similar to modern day gin.
Islanders would have used indigenous plants to flavour alcohol so we’re going back to the way our forefathers made drinks. They would have unconsciously created drinks that tasted of their environment and we’ve revisited that idea. It all relates to having provenance and traceability and knowing exactly where each flavour comes from. The same idea could be translated into any environment.
When Richard and Mavis Gulliver pick plants for us, they’re doing so all year round as each one has a different season and therefore an optimum picking time. Being here all year round means that they can sustainably and responsibly source our 22 botanicals and preserve them for when we are ready to distil. The island is also perfect for sourcing fresh clean spring water.
Balancing each plant’s aromatic attributes within a spirit isn’t easy, especially when we’re using so many of them
There isn’t a terribly typical day when you work for The Botanist. You could be sampling spirit, foraging for botanicals, distilling, greeting visitors or filming unicyclists in our courtyard. We are rather unconventional at Bruichladdich.
Working for this company is genuinely exciting and something the whole community can get behind. No day is the same and we try to communicate this to everyone by including the weird and the wonderful alongside the serious thought we put into making our spirits.
It’s difficult not to be in touch with nature when you live on Islay, you have to explore what’s around you. You couldn’t live here and not be impacted by the weather. Kids are never out of their welly boots, that goes for some of the adults too!
It’s important for us to understand the qualities of different plants for their flavour properties. Balancing each plant’s aromatic attributes within a spirit isn’t easy, especially when we’re using so many of them. Going back to the picking seasons, it’s important to know when the plant is in its prime so that we can extract maximum flavour and source sustainably.
During the winter months, the variety of ingredients accessible for a foraged drink might dwindle slightly. For the committed bunch, we’d recommend collecting and preserving ingredients in syrups, shrubs or tinctures to stock up for the cold months.
Ingredients still available at this time of year can be used in the following simple wild drinks:
“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crack on the kettle and brew some heather flowers for an earthy, mildly honey scented tea.
Chill the tea, the gin, the glass.
Combine the tea, The Botanist gin and vermouth into a martini. Quantities how you like.
Tiddly touch of heather honey to sweeten.
Squish some brambles over the rim of the glass. Ooze.
Late Summer Spice (Hogbot)
The brambles bring sweetness and hogweed seeds a hint of ginger, orange and cinnamon.
Simmer a few handfuls of brambles with some sugar and a dozen hogweed seeds. Strain and chill the liquid.
Drop a few brambles and some freshly chopped ginger into a glass, load with ice then add:
1 part Botanist Gin
1 part bramble & hogweed seed juice
1 part soda