Meet our Forager Kate Hannett

IN

Kate has been working as a Forager alongside James Donaldson for a little over a year now. They are in charge of the sustainable sourcing of our 22 Islay botanicals. But she has been part of the Bruichladdich family for years, working in a number of different roles across the distillery.

Opportunities

She grew up on Islay and has always had a keen interest in the natural world around her.

Like many of our team – including her brother Adam, now our Head Distiller, she started working in the distillery shop, then became a tour guide. The family connection illustrates how personal each batch of our gin is, from end to end.

From 2012, she was involved in setting up a new education programme at Bruichladdich distillery, designed to immerse visitors in the story of our spirits. It’s not just how we make things and meeting the people behind them, it’s understanding the distillery’s importance to the island’s economy and community.

She’s a good example of the new opportunities created by the approach we have had as a business over the last 20 years, to seed as many reciprocal benefits of the spirits boom back into the local community as we can. It’s made us a major local employer; a hub for local young talent, and for people who move over to Islay from elsewhere so we can bring their skills into the business. She says herself, “At 17 I left for university and was never coming back to Islay! I feel incredibly privileged to do the job here, to do it on my home patch. I never thought it would be possible.”

Kate and James compare heather pickings last summer

Before this Forager opportunity came up, Kate left Bruichladdich for a while. She travelled and worked freelance, supplying our websites and others’ with photography, video, and writing. She still supports the local lifeboat charity with their press and PR and is a volunteer coastguard. In 2019, Allan Logan – distillery manager and the coastguard’s Deputy Station Officer – who knew her knowledge of the island and its wild plants, approached her about working alongside James.

Sustainability

She says seeking out The Botanist’s 22 local botanicals has taken her into parts of the island she has never stepped before, despite growing up here and loving the outdoors.

“We’re still producing The Botanist to the same recipe there has always been but we have expanded across the whole island. A lot of our job is scouting new areas and keeping an eye on populations. All the plants in The Botanist are abundant, but we purposefully pick a little from a lot of places so that you can’t see a difference before and after. If we go somewhere you can be pretty confident the only sign we’ve been there will be marks on the grass where we have stood,” she says.

Whole new level

What’s it really like?

“We bring the botanicals in fresh – a day’s picking – and lay them out on the shelves to dry. Something like birch leaves, we strip the leaves off and they just go on the shelf. Something like the Elderflower we want every individual tiny flower, but not the stalk. You can fill a bucket in 10 minutes, of Elderflower, but the rule is don’t get more than a bucketful because you’ll be here all night stripping them all!

“It’s not as idyllic as you think,” she laughs, “but James and I are both quite happy with repetitive tasks, I’ll be honest! We’re not very trendy foragers! But we are probably more in tune with the seasons than many other jobs…”

Mapping the Year

Picking can start in late March or April if the gorse is early and goes right through to August and September when the honeyed heather and aromatic bog myrtle need to be selected. In the winter that’s the time for planning, researching and mapping.

They are in the process of digitally mapping where the botanicals can be found. They’ll build up a database of the different species and be able to monitor population health over time. It’s easy to see how this knowledge might also link into a bigger picture, a wider information-gathering effort about our ecosystem and how it compares with other islands or locales.

Kate’s degree was in Geography; the academic and the practical come together in this role. “It is varied, what we do. You go from picking, to communicating about what we do, to research and development. You’re outside, and you can just get on with it… I think I’ll be picking leaves to the end of my days!”

Further Reading

Check out some of Kate’s articles for The Botanist here:

Islay Roots >

Wild Rosehip Syrup >

The Machair >

 

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