Peter Ranscombe visits the Old Curiosity distillery at the Secret Herb Garden in Edinburgh.
TO SAY that there’s been a gin explosion in Scotland is like saying Theresa May has had a tough time with Brexit – the understatement of the century.
Glance at the spirits shelf in your local bottle shop or pick up one of the growing number of gin menus in bars and restaurants and the breadth of the category is clear to see.
There are now more than 100 gin brands in Scotland, together producing in excess of 200 expressions, as well as the Scottish-made big labels like Gordon’s, Hendrick’s and Tanqueray that quietly account for the lion’s share of the market.
Yet one thing that’s always worried me about the new wave of craft gins is that so many of them don’t actually taste of gin.
To be gin, a spirit must taste of juniper. That’s all. No other complicated requirements.
It doesn’t even have to be real juniper – it can be a synthetic flavouring if money is tight.
But so many gins taste of anything but juniper.
Now, I’m all for being creative with botanicals – the spices, herbs, flowers and other ingredients that are re-distilled with the raw spirit – but not if they completely mask the core flavour.
And don’t even get me started on “flavoured” gins.
Unlocking the garden’s secrets
That’s why it was so refreshing to visit Hamish Martin for dinner at the Old Curiosity distillery at Edinburgh’s Secret Herb Garden last week to celebrate its new Christmas gin selling out.
Having missed the photoshoot at the garden for this year’s Scottish Field Christmas food feature, it was a treat to catch-up with the team behind the distillery.
Martin – who founded wine merchant Inverarity Vaults before opening his specialist herb nursery with his wife, Liberty, in 2013 – trained as a herbologist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to botanicals.
He teamed up with former South London bar owner Steve Ross to open the distillery last year.
What’s so interesting about his gins is that they are packed full of flavours from herbs and flowers grown in the garden – yet they still taste of juniper too.
Martin explained that juniper makes up just over half of the botanical content for each gin and that he’s even growing his own bushes in the garden.
He distils the herbs and flowers used in the gins separately, retaining their distinct flavours, which enhances rather than hides the juniper.
At the dinner, the cocktails created by Pop-up Geeks using his gins were not only matched with dishes by the Edinburgh School of Food & Wine but also to fragrances by Imogen Russon-Taylor’s Kingdom Scotland brand.
Because the gins taste so good, the fact that they change colour when tonic water is added to them almost passed me by – the tonic alters the acidity or alkalinity of the gin (its “pH”) causing the colour change.
No matter what colour they are, Martin’s gins are well-worth exploring.
Lavender & Echinacea (£35.95 for 500ml)
Juniper and rosemary aromas on the nose, leading into mint, mandarin and black pepper on the palate. A dry style of gin and probably the one that lends itself best to a classic gin and tonic. Pop-up Geeks’ Bees’ Knees cocktail combined it with lavender-infused honey, green apple shrub and Pignolleto sparkling wine.
Apothecary Rose (£35.95 for 500ml)
Plenty of rose aromas, accompanied by a softer mouthfeel than the Lavender & Echinacea. The juniper is still present and correct and is joined by lots of citrusy mandarin and tangerine notes. The China Rose cocktail paired it with vermouth and lychee.
Christmas Gin (£50 for 500ml)
Sadly sold out, but it’s easy to see why gin lovers snapped up this spirit – it’s got a much more savoury style, with black pepper, juniper, lemon and green apple developing into warmer flavours of cinnamon before reaching a hot finish. The Winter Wonderland cocktail married the gin with spiced blackberry, orange bitters and cranberry.
Geranium & Mallow (£50 for 500ml)
One of Old Curiosity distillery’s limited batch gins, there’s a more-forward spirit character, but also a much creamier roundness in the mouth. The heat from the spirit was nicely tempered by adding tonic, which also brought out the strawberry and tangerine flavours in the gin.
Damask Rose (£50 for 500ml)
The other limited batch gin – Damask Rose – was packed to the brim with lemon and rose Turkish delight flavours, with such intensely-pronounced floral aromas. If you could capture the essence of Gewurztraminer grapes in a gin then this would be the result.