Roots

IN

Kate Hannett is an Islay-raised, well-travelled, Geography graduate, who started writing for us freelance in 2017. She is a dab hand with a camera, and knows her plants, so her workload has evolved to include both all things audio visual, and assisting James with the collection and preparation of the island botanicals we need to make each batch of gin. She is no stranger to the distillery, having formerly had a full time job doing tours and tastings; she also has family on the inside.
Here’s her perspective these days on the place she calls home.

Islay. It’s where I was born and grew up. We lived out in the sticks and played in the mud, under bridges and down the fields in ‘the big puddle’. The hills and the seashore were ours to rule; picking posies of flowers and staining lips with blackberries was part of the deal. But it can be hard at times growing up on an island, it seems so very, very small; your business is everyone else’s. Part of me couldn’t wait to leave.

So, I stretched my wings out across the globe –  with the caveat that I always needed to be near the sea. The city was fine for a bit but it felt uncomfortable, itchy.  Unknowingly, the deep connection I had forged with the island growing up just pulled me back in later on.

My foraging roots don’t stem from a deep botanical background. More from having graduated to ‘overly keen amateur’ status. That and, I guess, a knowledge of the island and its quirks alongside a scattered education on the geographical and environmental make-up of the west of Scotland. It means when I see a patch of a certain rocky outcrop I can think to myself – that’s gneiss but I also bet that’s a good spot for wild thyme. Or I know there’s a nice spot of gorse up that way, a patch of clover down that track. It’s part intuition, part scrambling about the island for years, and part luck.

These days, I’ve had to re-tune and power up my knowledge of parts of the island a little bit. It is no longer a case of just going out for a walk. Sometimes going out for a walk with me is like we’re conducting a forensic search. My eyes are constantly glancing beyond the peripheries of the path and if I haven’t stopped to photograph something I’ve probably stopped to try and identify it. Or eat it. All stop-start distractions on a would-be enjoyable walk for others, it probably becomes quite tiresome.

But then some people enjoy golf.

Remapping for ‘the 22’

I would say I had absorbed a pretty solid knowledge of the 22 Islay botanicals before I began to pick them but it suddenly accelerates your relationship with them and the rest of the plantlife when you have to first plan where you are going to forage. It might be somewhere James knows, the Gulliver’s went or maybe be a new spot you’ve wandered past and clocked earlier in the season. There have been places in my home island I’ve never stepped foot on until going in search of the 22.

Then you have to get there; even on an island, half a morning can be spent getting to a place. Once you have arrived, you instinctively create a mental line of attack. My driving instructor echoes in my head, telling me to look down the road as far as I can, to see what is coming. Then sometimes you spot a prime patch ahead but you slowly and methodically make your picking path towards it. You’ll get there eventually, the reward.

It is the little games like this that bizarrely keep us going – it is inherent in this game, for sanity and gratification. When you’re out picking the same thing for an entire day you need the little victories. We have endured the gorse pricks, the birch blisters, heather delirium, midges and the acquisition of many, many ticks in doing it. It’s a lot less ‘Instagramable’ and ‘Folklife’ than people imagine.

An unconscious reaction to scan a back bar and look for the familiarity of home

When you hear someone say The Botanist is their favourite gin it gives you a wee tingle of pride. If you’ve had a bit of a hand in making it, it’s nice to know someone is appreciating it at the other end. It is similar to when you see a bottle of an Islay whisky on the other side of the world. It’s an islander’s unconscious reaction to scan a back bar and look for the familiarity of home.

When the first botanicals I had helped pick went to the still, I joined Adam in the stillhouse. It was a dark winter’s 4 am when I got there. He had already started up Ugly Betty after steeping her the day before and then placed the botanical bag in the basket. I was merely there to bring the breakfast rolls and the coffee. We sat in the stillhouse and, as the spirit was tested off the still, I was tasked with reading the distiller’s alcohol tables to determine how the spirit was running off – easy, once you get it. And very gratifying to see something tangible produced from a job you started.

For me, what makes The Botanist is that it is a gin made by islanders, new and old. It’s an idea born on Islay by a number of influences. Like me, it was forged on Islay and it is a nod to the islander’s hardy nature and deeply rooted determination for self-sufficiency as well as a celebration of the island’s plantlife. It’s a bit of Islay out there in the world; the not-always-romantic Hebridean dream, shared with someone who opens a bottle and knows that that gin has taken time and care to pass through our hands to get there.

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