How The Botanist Came to Be – Part 1

IN

The Botanist was born of a mixture of strong personalities, skillsets, and inspiration in the crucible of a small community. A legendary engineer (Duncan), experienced distillers, practical and talented young apprentices, plants-people knowledgeable about the local flora, and a charismatic flavour-maker from world of whisky (Jim)… Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay was the hub.

Simon Coughlin is one of the company founders. “We did it the wrong way round, compared to what’s happening currently in the Scottish gin boom. They start with gin while they wait for the whisky to mature. We’d been making fabulous experimental whisky for ten years, when we first thought about trying to make a gin.”  

 

Duncan MacGillivray (engineer) and Simon Coughlin (founder) pictured in 2010

There wasn’t any capital to invest behind the idea of making gin – it was resourcefulness and iconoclasm that gave the enterprise momentuum. They had Victorian equipment that couldn’t be operated by a computer – it was salvaged from a previous era and relied on judgement by touch, ear, eye. The key ingredients weren’t concocted in a laboratory – they were hand-picked where they were growing wild on the island. As a start-up, the company chose to bottle everything on the island as a commitment to employment in the community. There was absolute conviction that being true to our place in the island community and giving due attention to nature’s raw ingredients would result in diversity and subtlety in the end spirits. Those are the forces still propelling our bottles out into the world to this day.

Islay botanicals

A belief in elevating ingredients and staying true to our roots

In 2003, word reached a cash-strapped Bruichladdich that a 1930s distillery called Inverleven near Glasgow was going to be demolished. Engineer Duncan had already bartered barrels of whisky to get a generator, an engine, a truck. Whisky sealed the deal with the salvage from Dumbarton. He and a gang from Islay headed out to the Scottish mainland to a strip the red-brick building. It was a race against time to dismantle the place bolt by bolt ahead of the scrap metal merchants. It resulted in a lorry loaded with pipes, pumps, valves and other distilling hardward, and two barges on the river Clyde ready to be floated around the West Coast of Scotland. On board amid tanks and timbers was an extraordinary, fat-necked, modular-designed pot still.

Installing the still – known originally as “the ugly beast” and then “Ugly Betty”

This was one of the only existing “Lomond” stills in the world. It didn’t compare well to the curvy tall stills classically used for making whisky, but it was copper, it was flexible, and it turned out to be an absolute powerhouse. Duncan customised it so it could deal with all types of ingredients, from very tough barks and seeds bubbling away in the base, to delicate flowers that would only be touched by the lightest vapours.

“Everything was an adventure” Allan Logan

Allan Logan, now the distillery’s Production Director, recalls being in Duncan’s salvage gang.

“Duncan and Jim were great leaders. They had great enthusiasm, there was a can-do attitude, to take on tasks like dismantling a whole old distillery ourselves. Everything was an adventure. We’re very kind of honoured to have gone through that because we started from nothing; inch by inch we made it a success.”

Jim McEwan in September 2011

“Islay means everything to me, I’m just in love with it.” Now retired, Jim McEwan was a leading light in Islay whisky, although privately he says that creating The Botanist was an emotional highlight of his life. He was a football coach and massively influential in the lives of a lot of young people in Islay too, many of whom have ended up working at the distillery.

His entire career had been working with a spirit, whisky, which is made from one ingredient – barley – and the flavours which can be conjured afterwards through its ageing process. With a the style of gin known as a London Dry, everything happens at the distillation.   The means of capturing all the flavours from the botanical ingredients in gin is highly alcoholic neutral grain spirit, which is made in distilleries “the size of Bowmore” (Islay’s main village) using wheat. Bruichladdich had not been designed with that in mind. He put himself in the position of pupil at a specialist distillers in England to glean everything he could about the ingredients and the process and nuances of gin-making.

Once he felt he’d got it, Jim returned home, knowing exactly what direction he wanted to take. With the connections he’d established, he could take the base materials and flavour-layering techniques, add Islay water, add the distilling knowledge he and his colleagues had gained from a lifetime in the industry and make a shining example of a clear spirit – an Islay dry gin.

Jim McEwan with the next generation of distillers – a young Adam Hannett

They were ecstatic about the results of the first distillation. They realised that making such an exceptional gin was a game-changer for the whole distillery project.

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Read Part Two of How The Botanist Came to be >>

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