Continuing the story of the creation of The Botanist Gin on the Isle of Islay…
To achieve his dream of creating a gin that was uniquely Islay, master distiller Jim McEwan wanted to know what wild herbs and interesting edibles were naturally present on the island. Listed under “ecological survey and advice” in the Islay telephone book, was a number for a Dr Richard Gulliver, resident in Port Ellen. Richard had got his PHD in Seed Science, and was an active plant surveyor, orchid specialist, and tutor in Ecology for the Open University. He and wife Mavis, a teacher, poet, author and remarkable gardener, had first met at a talk on grasses.
Jim introduced them to a local landowner who was on the board at the distillery; they were given free rein to pick on huge swathes of the island. They came back with a long-list of aromatic plants that might be used, and samples, and Jim’s process of matching and pairing and eliminating local wild ingredients began. It led to a special working relationship and an original recipe featuring Jim’s selection of 22 Islay botanicals.
Then after twenty years on Islay, and seven years of meticulously preparing all the foraged ingredients for The Botanist’s distillations in their home, the Gullivers decided to move away from the island. It was time to find the next generation of plants-people who could forage the botanicals and prepare them correctly for future distillations.
James Donaldson had moved to Islay the previous year, his lively mind and engaging manner having secured him the role of visitor centre manager at another distillery on the island. It wasn’t the career he had trained for, however. He had studied Biological Science.
Attracted to his “dream job” at Bruichladdich – he’d heard of the company’s revival and progressive ethos – he applies and was appointed in May 2017.
James recalls the Gullivers’ graciousness and generosity in his first 6 months in the job, during which he worked alongside them every day. “That picking season was a steep learning curve. I had to learn the intricacies of all 22, where they grew on the island, when they were at their best – the subtle nuance in aroma of a birch leaf that signalled whether it was too early to pick, just right, or too far gone. Or take thistles, which Mavis schooled me in. The flavour offered up by the female flowers, each like a chaotic pompom, is far richer and deeper than that from the male flowers, each more upright, like a guardsman’s hat.”
He is still full of respect for Richard and Mavis, their hints and tips, and carries out his own work with their precision and passion. “I am always working to a recipe which remains unchanged from the first distillations. There’s an element of ritual, of alchemy, to it all. It’s what first attracted me to the industry, the subtle interplay of science and magic, industry and craft.”
The Botanist is distilled overnight. The whole process take a long time – 23 hours from loading the still to it being cool enough to empty. In our Victorian distillery, the steam supply which heats up “Ugly Betty” is shared with the whisky stills across the room, so both cannot run at once.
Since Jim’s retirement, making the spirits has been the responsibility of Adam Hannett. He grew up on Islay and started working at the distillery as a student tour guide in our shop. “We’re making the gin slowly,” he says, “because that’s really important to the flavour, to the texture, to get the natural oils and the qualities we’re looking for.”
Being in the stillhouse over the seven or so hours that the spirit is flowing is atmospheric; the sense of being up when no-one else is and the scents of the botanicals is, to Adam, “like Christmas”. The spirit running off the still evolves as the distillation goes on. Nosing and testing, Adam describes how the citrus comes through first. Then the vapours start heating everything up, the heat rises through copper itself too, to the bag where the delicate floral ingredients wait. “The mints and the bog myrtle come through quite quickly,” he says, “the Islay botanicals start releasing their flavours.” At the same time, there is juniper. Then comes the cinnamon and cassia, coriander, “Warm coriander, which is a little bit soapy. And sweet licorice towards the end.”
During his first few distillations, when Adam was learning the set up, the minutiae of the recipe, the quirks of the still’s temperature and speeds, it was the inimitably practical Allan Logan, his peer, who was there with him. In the dark hours, they’d blether, “Put the world to rights. You don’t get much time for that in ordinary life.” Jim had passed on a handwritten recipe to the young men, and Adam reports, “Each distillation, I bring it out. Actually I’ve got a photo of it now because it’s starting to fall apart. You don’t want to make a mistake, make any assumptions…”
It’s this second generation of distillers and foragers in Islay who are The Botanist’s guarantors. But what happens to the gin once it leaves the stillhouse?
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To be continued next week… If you missed Part One of our backstory, you can catch up here >>