The Botanist Gin is a small-batch, artisanal Islay gin combining nine classic gin botanicals with a further twenty two others that are local to the island. With 31 botanicals, one could easily think that the gin might be a confusing mess, but thankfully – it is anything but.
As the name suggests, discussing the Botanist is first and foremost a discussion around the botanicals they use and how they distil them. To begin with, the team source 9 classic botanicals (juniper berries, angelica root, cassia bark, cinnamon bark, coriander seed, lemon peel, orange peel, liquorice root and orris root) from around the world. They then bring together a further 22 locally sourced botanicals, hand picked by foragers who search across the hills, bogs and shores of Islay to find apple mint birch leaves, bog myrtle leaves, chamomile, creeping thistle flowers, elderflower, gorse flowers, heather flowers, hawthorn flowers, juniper (prostrate) berries, Lady’s Bedstraw flowers, lemon balm, meadowsweet, peppermint leaves, mugwort leaves, red clover flowers, sweet cicely leaves, tansy, thyme leaves, water mint leaves, white clover, wood sage leaves.
Most notable in this incredible mix of botanicals are the local juniper berries, the chamomile, meadowsweet and peppermint leaves which we feel, all leave their mark on the gin and are discernable from the crowd.
The 31 botanicals are placed into a low pressure Lomond pot-still, affectionately named ‘Ugly Betty’ and then distilled in a process that takes around three times longer than the traditional gin production process (due to the low pressures they are operating at). According to Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s master distiller, the distillation takes around 17 hours to complete!
The still was designed by Chemical Engineer Alistair Cunningham and Draftsman Arthur Warren in 1955 as a way to create a variety of whisky styles. Key to the design was the thick, column-like neck that could have three extra removable sections inserted for flexibility imitating the effect of different still “neck” lengths.
One section housed three rectifying plates that increased or decreased the reflux action. The plates, like Roman blinds, could be opened in varying degrees from a horizontal to the vertical position. Correspondingly, the removable neck sections could lengthen or shorten the height of the neck, thus varying the angle of the lyne arm – upward for a slightly lighter whisky, downward for a heavier one. To create The Botanist the Bruichladdich team created a bespoke botanical basket to it, further adding to the elaborate set up. The Lomond still (the last in existence) may be a bit of a beast, but there’s also a charm about this brute and while she may take a while to distil the gin, it’s well worth the wait.
At 46% ABV The Botanist has a floral nose with a distinct sweet juniper hit. On the palate it is rich but mellow, perhaps even a little creamy and finishes with a zesty but gentle spice. There is a lot going on and overall floral notes balance out a clear juniper. Is it possible to say what all 31 botanicals bring to the gin? Probably not, but they will all bring something and it may well also be because of how well it’s balanced.
It’s a highly distinctive, complex, floral gin which, with some Schweppes, works impeccably in a Gin and Tonic. On a peniquety note, the “non-chill-filtered” term used on occasion in communications is always something we’ve thought of as an “in” joke from the team, playing on their whisky background where the topic can often lead to heated debates (chill filtering is a process of chilling a liquid to remove impurities before bottling). In that light, we have always found it amusing when we’ve seen it. However, for the many gin fans that have e-mailed to ask – no it is not something that we know happens in other distilleries, it’s mainly for whisky and really not a practice that is that common in Gin (we have never heard of anyone doing it). We would also like to point out that the old fashioned marketing stand of “older is always better” in whisky seems to be something that could easily be translated here with “the more botanicals are better” logic concluded from it. This is plainly not the case for gin (no comment on the whisky!) and while it is not something that the Bruichladdich team have been saying, (probably saying the opposite actually) is also something that seems to arise when talking about The Botanist in our inbox. Suffice to say it is possible to create a great gin with 4 botanicals, and a great gin with 31.
With only 15,000 bottles of The Botanist released in 2010 and a huge response to the liquid, it looks likely that the success will lead to yearly versions. It will be interesting to see if they manage to create the same liquid year after year or if they take a similar approach to Blackwoods Vintage gins and work with the local botanicals to create slightly different variations depending on the seasonal effects on the crops. Both would add more fascination to this gin that in our books is fast becoming a cult product.
The fact that The Botanist is owned by the Bruichladdich distillery based in Islay further adds to the spirits’ story. To say that the distillery is well known for their whisky is an understatement, as many fans of the darker spirit will know them now for their forward-thinking, adventurous and progressive approach, as well as have heard all about the many years of its checkered past (with mergers, acquisitions and sales nearly closing the distillery many times). It is a long story that we can’t do justice yet here at The Gin Blog (still reading up on all the years in a book by Stuart Rivens!) but we’ll update this post when we know a little more.
On the face of it, it may seem unusual to see Bruichladdich enter the gin market with The Botanist, but with a little more thought, it seems like a perfect move in many ways. Although slightly obscured by the passing of time and history, there is perhaps a historical relevance to gin in Islay. Before the days of whisky, illicit distillers of the past would often flavour their spirit – uisgebaugh (Water of life) with plants in an attempt to improve the flavour. One plant that would have been used was juniper, the major constituent of gin, which grows widely on Islay. It is then not so much of a leap to then imagine that the spirit distilled by these keen amateurs probably tasted more like gin than whisky as we know it today.
Also, history aside, with the length of time and financial commitment it takes to create whisky, it makes financial sense for a distillery to seek income by diversifying their portfolio. This is nothing new either, many big names have done this in the past, nor is it something that should be frowned at. So long as both the gin is of high quality and the integrity with which the distillery tries to produce it – i.e. that they try and create a genuinely unique and interesting product – it is something that gin fans should be pleased by. On both accounts Bruichladdich stand strong and should be applauded.
We hope to see a lot more of The Botanist in years to come, as not only is the gin a real treat, the Bruichladdich’s progressive attitude towards distilling have pushed the whisky world in new directions. If anyone could do the same for gin while also respecting the category’s heritage and integrity; it is most definitely them.