Whisky will forever be the king of spirits in Scotland, but a little known fact: About 70 percent of the gin produced in the United Kingdom actually comes from Scotland, too. There are more than 15 distilleries producing gin there, from the northern reaches of the Highlands to the western island of Islay and everywhere in between. Many of them are new Scottish gin distillers putting their own mark on the spirit, eschewing the typical London dry flavor in favor of signature botanical blends native to Scotland.
It’s said English soldiers first became acquainted with malty Dutch genever in the Low Countries during the Eighty Years’ War. The troops fell hard for the juniper-flavored spirit, spurring its importation into Britain, where it likely passed through the port of Leith outside Edinburgh on its way to England. English distillers started making their own versions when the government passed a heavy tax on imports, which led to the production of gin as we know it today. The resulting cheap prices were the cause for the Gin Craze in London during the 18th century, which gave way to a binge drinking epidemic and numerous associated social problems throughout the city. In in 1730 alone, 10 million gallons of gin were produced in London. Yet during these improbable heydays for gin in England—and well beyond—Scottish distillers remained focused mainly on whisky.
All that changed some 200 years later, when Hendrick’s Gin from the Scottish seaside town of Girvan appeared on the market. Released in 2000, Hendrick’s purposely rejected the London dry style in favor of an unconventional, perfumed combination of cucumber, Bulgarian rose petals, elderflower and chamomile.
That same year, a group of investors, including renowned distiller Jim McEwan along with several wine merchants from London, purchased the mothballed Bruichladdich distillery. Their goal was to make whisky in the traditional way, on the rugged island of Islay. Soon after, McEwan had the opportunity to purchase an abandoned Lomond still, of which only four were ever built. This still is a cross between a column and pot still, and McEwan thought it would give him the perfect opportunity to produce the island’s first gin.
With a goal of representing his native Islay, McEwan met with two professional botanists from the island. They introduced him to a broad range of herbs, leaves and flowers that could be sustainably foraged there. After five years spent workshopping flavor combinations, McEwan settled on 31 ingredients total, including 22 native to Islay, for his rightfully named The Botanist.
“Modern Scottish gins are far more a reflection of their local areas and of the botanicals and flavors found growing in that region,” says Craig Moffat, food and beverage operations manager at the legendary Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire, where he runs a dedicated gin bar. While traditional London dry gins are representative of the old trade routes of the British Empire, the new Scottish gins are contemporary reflections of where they come from. It’s not rare for drinkers to encounter diverse and often uniquely Scottish ingredients like bog myrtle, gorse, wild mint, kelp and thistle in addition to classic gin botanicals like juniper, citrus, angelica root and coriander.
While Gordon’s and Tanqueray, both made in the London dry style, still comprise the bulk of Scotland’s gin production, most of the country’s distillers are following the path originally forged by Hendrick’s, pursuing their own distinct bottlings. As Andrew Thompson, bar manager at Heads & Tales Gin Bar in Edinburgh says, “There is no set ‘Scottish gin,’ just lots of people experimenting.” Even Scottish gins like Makar Glasgow Gin and Edinburgh Gin Distillery’s Cannonball Gin, while juniper-heavy, are spiked with unexpected gin botanicals, like rosemary and Szechuan pepper.
Creative license is certainly playing a major role in Scotland’s current gin boom, but Moffat also points to a more pragmatic explanation: The speed and ease of gin production. “Get your distillate, some juniper berries and a few handy botanicals and shazam,” he says. “Contrast this with spending the next ten years staring at an oak cask just waiting for your whisky to mature enough to sell the damn stuff.”
It’s working so far: The BBC reports that the gin market is growing with exports from the United Kingdom increasing by 34 percent between 2010 and 2015. With the majority of it produced in Scotland, it looks like the beginnings of a Gin Craze fit for the 21st century has moved north from London.
Here, now, a look at five of the best Scottish gins.
Where it’s made: At Bruichladdich distillery on the rocky island of Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.
ABV: 46 percent
What makes it unique: Islay whiskies are famous around the world, but The Botanist is the only gin produced on the island. Using a rare Lomond Still containing three plates inside that can be cooled independently, the distillation process takes 17 hours. This gin contains 22 botanicals foraged on the island.
How it tastes: You won’t find any of those overwhelming Christmas tree flavors typical of London dry gins here. The Botanist starts with strong citrus notes that evolve into subtle herbal flavors, courtesy of apple mint, chamomile and spearmint leaves. Other wild botanicals like birch leaves and meadowsweet impart a grassiness.
Where it’s made: At Balmenach distillery in the district of Cromdale in Speyside. Founded in 1824 for whisky production, Balmenach is one of the oldest distilleries in the Scottish Highlands.
ABV: 41.8 percent
What makes it unique: Caorunn contains a mix of wild botanicals like rowan berry, heather, Coul Blush apple, dandelion and bog myrtle, alongside the more traditional juniper, coriander and orange peel.
How it tastes: This gin is fresh and lightly sweet, with a nice crisp edge, thanks to the addition of Coul Blush, a rare variety of apple from The Highlands. It has a strong citrus-infused finish.
Where it’s made: In Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula, which stretches out towards Northern Ireland on Scotland’s west coast.
ABV: Available in 46 percent (label with red lettering) and 55 percent (label with blue lettering)
What makes it unique: This gin is a tribute to Indian spirits from the colonial era that were distilled with saffron. The pricey spice imparts a delicate yellow hue to the clear spirit.
How It Tastes: It leads with juniper but ends on a gentle spicy note with a hint of sweetness.
Eden Mill Seabuckthorn Gin
Where it’s made: Along the River Eden, on the eastern coast of Scotland, right outside the historic town of St. Andrews. Eden Mill is the first combined distillery and brewery in Scotland.
ABV: 42 percent
What makes it unique: Eden Mill is perhaps the only gin in Scotland flavored with local sea buckthorn (seaberries).
How it tastes: The sea buckthorn adds notes of honey and citrus that round out more traditional botanicals like juniper berries, angelica root and coriander.
Where it’s made: At the Edinburgh Gin Distillery, within the historic Scottish capital.
ABV: 43 percent
What makes it unique: This gin is flavored with classic botanicals like juniper, coriander, angelica root and orris root, as well as Scottish ingredients like heather and milk thistle, alongside the unmistakable addition of pine needles.
How it tastes: This is a gin for those who like a strongly flavored spirit. Though not harsh, it’s slightly reminiscent of menthol, with a strong pine note.