Why Gin Is So Popular On The Rugged Scotland Island Known For Its Whisky

Go for the whisky, stay for the gin on Scotland’s beautiful Islay, which is a botanicals goldmine, writes Andy Lynes

Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands. Photo / Supplied

Islay may be a mere 45-minute hop in an alarmingly small twin-propeller plane from Glasgow, but it feels like arriving at the edge of the world.

In a way I have; head due west from the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and the next time you’ll hit land will be 3200-odd kilometres away in Newfoundland. With just 3000 or so inhabitants scattered across 620sq km, there’s a lot of open space.

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Every direction offers a photo opportunity of rugged landscape dotted with free-roaming cattle and sheep (on more than one occasion the car was held up on the mostly deserted roads to allow a ewe to cross) or dramatic coastal views.

I’d been invited to stay at Bruichladdich in the whitewashed village of Port Charlotte on the shores of Loch Indaal, one of nine distilleries on the island world famous for their whisky, with its distinctive smoky flavour derived from barley dried over fires made with peat, an abundant resource. But not one drop of the hard stuff passed my lips. Instead, the point of my trip was to find out about The Botanist gin, made at the distillery and flavoured with 22 varieties of the plants and herbs that grow wild on Islay in all that peat.

Foraging on Islay, Scotland. Photo / Supplied

James Donaldson, Bruichladdich’s full-time forager, was my guide to the island’s flora. He runs foraging trips for the public at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Loch Gruinart reserve in the northwest of the island, but for our session we headed to the scenic Bridgend Woods, a 10-minute drive from the distillery around the top of the loch.

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With a degree in botany, years of experience as a tour guide and a wit far drier than Islay’s climate, James is an engaging presence. Standing in a field listening to someone extolling the virtues of nettles is an odd way to spend a morning, but entertaining and educative, nevertheless. (“They’ve more vitamin C than oranges, more protein than soya and more iron than spinach. Don’t eat them raw, though; the little hairs on the leaves are like hypodermics full of formic acid, but nettle and parsnip soup is delicious.”)

Bruichladdich distillery's chief forager James Donaldson. Photo / Supplied

We picnic at tables in the adjoining Islay House Community Garden, run by volunteers, where you can pick fruit and vege, including broad beans, fennel and strawberries and leave payment in an honesty box. We sip gin cocktails with homemade nettle cordial and rosemary sprigs cut there and then in the garden.

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Having identified and tasted everything from lemony wild sorrel to fruity red clover flowers, I’m feeling like a foraging authority. But when James tells me Islay is also full of hemlock water dropwort which, with its white umbel flowers, can be easily mistaken for other plants in the carrot family but can “kill you stone dead in seconds”, I decide only to forage with an expert.

Back at the distillery, I take a tour and get a look at Ugly Betty, a rare 15,500-litre copper “Lomond” still, built in 1959 and originally intended for whisky but now used to make gin. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering with a steampunk style that wouldn’t look out of place in the engine room of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

Bruichladdich distillery gin is flavoured with 22 varieties of the plants and herbs that grow wild on Islay. Photo / Supplied

For each distillation, James prepares sacks of the carefully dried foraged plants and herbs including apple mint, chamomile and creeping thistle that act like giant herbal tea bags, infusing the vapours of the heated neutral grain spirit that form the base of the gin with complex flavours and aromas. The resulting syrupy concentrate is mixed with pure spring water from nearby Octomore and more neutral spirit to make the finished gin.

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I end my trip with gin and tonics and local seafood in the cosy bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel with views out over the loch. Undoubtedly, tourists will continue to be drawn to Islay (and to neighbouring Jura) for the whisky, but they’ll be missing a trick if they don’t stay for the gin.

• Tours of the Bruichladdich distillery are available throughout the year and cost between $10 and $50 per person. For details and bookings visit Bruichladdich.com. James Donaldson will be running The Botanist — Foraging Walks at Loch Gruinart, Islay on Aug 15 and 22. The two-hour walk costs $20 per person. For bookings visit Rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events

• Follow Andy on Twitter @andylynes

— Telegraph Media Group

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