Despite having grown up on Islay, I was never one to take an interest in the wildlife around me – something that became a regret after I left home. Finishing up at university for the summer led me to moving back to Islay for a couple of months, and I was offered a place as an intern in the Communications Department at the distillery.
Upon being introduced to the world of The Botanist on my first day, I quickly realised something – there is A LOT of plant chat involved. I was completely stumped – what on earth was this pineappleweed I was hearing about!? I had to confess to the fact that my garnishing abilities didn’t stray very far from the usual lemon or lime – not that there was anything wrong with that, of course!
A few weeks on, I’d caught on to a few names and terms being thrown around. Nonetheless, I was still none-the-wiser about what any of it actually was. So, when I was given the opportunity to do a “beginners experiment” of sorts, I realised it was a chance for me to finally understand foraging.
Identifying the plants
The plan was to make a range of tinctures, that we could use as cocktail bitters, using four different plants; hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and cleavers (Galium aparine) – I was already lost. So, I was taken on a walk around the distillery perimeter first of all to encounter them in person.
Straight away, we came across some pineappleweed; it turns out, the very one that perplexed me all along was the same one that has been growing in my car driveway all these years. I was told to rub the yellow bud and then see what it smelled of – surprisingly enough, it had a really lovely pineapple smell to it!
Next up was the cleavers. This one probably surprised me the most; this was the stuff we used to chase each other with in primary school! I had no idea it was edible, but it turned out that it has a really fresh, mild scent and taste to it – almost like cucumber.
Venturing further up the road, we then came across green hogweed seed. This was a very interesting taste experience, which I can only descirbe as going from a slight spice, to pickled, to tasting like soap. Not exactly a favourite, but it was intriguing to say the least!
After a bit of a search, we sourced some yarrow to try. This one really tripped me up – I started off thinking it tasted a bit like mint leaves, but it then changed into something else completely. It reminds me of some sort of herb added to food – parsley, maybe? Not sure if that’s a normal tasting note!
After learning a bit more about what I was working with, I started setting up the tinctures, which turned out to be relatively straightforward.
How to make the tinctures
Each plant was first of all cut up into little pieces, and put into its own jar (note: green hogweed seeds are not the easiest things to try and control!)
Equal measures of new-make spirit, made from organic barley here in the whisky side of the distillery at a strength of 69%, was then added to each jar, covering the plants.
The jars were then watched over the week to observe any changes to their appearance and colour. This was the result a day later.
As the week went on, each jar became a different shade of luminous green…
… However, we checked up on them around five days later and realised that they were slowly turning a darker colour. To stop any further degradation of the green leaf material, we decided to filter them.
And that was it, simple! The finished products all tasted great (even the green hogweed seed, surprisingly!), and have done well as additions to an experimental foraged absinthe, and in cocktails created for the gin tours at the distillery. Proof that foraging can be easy enough!