Isle of Harris Gin
The first thing you’ll notice about Isle of Harris Gin is its packaging. It comes in what is very possibly the most attractive bottle we’ve ever seen, so much so that merely thinking about it makes us blush… We’ve wanted to review it for some time, but given that the distillery’s headlines last year centred around gin rationing (heaven forbid!), we thought we’d give the team a chance to get more bottles under their belt before pilfering from the stash.
The distillery, founded by former musicologist Anderson Bakewell, is a huge undertaking that has already won over £10m in funding. Money has come from local investors (including a £1.5m investment by the Scottish Venture Fund), as well as those from Asia, America and Europe.
US born Bakewell is not the most obvious choice for a craft distiller. He hasn’t come from a booze background and while he enjoys whisky, he doesn’t revere it. What he loves, though, and what he loves madly, is the Isle of Harris. The rugged, sand strewn Scottish island is Bakewell’s spiritual home, and has pulled at his heart since his first visit in the 1960s.
With 1916 residents and an economy that relies on tourism, fishing and the production of tweed, Harris’ commerce can be as rocky as its beaches. Bakewell wanted to sturdy the island without ruining it. He wanted to create a viable business that would neither neuter nor dilute its unique charms, but celebrate them. A shrewd businessman, he decided to tap into the £4bn Scotch industry and create a distillery for the island, one that would bring upwards of 20 jobs with it…
Whisky, as we know, is an expensive undertaking; not only is a vast amount of start up needed to get a distillery functioning, but cash flow gets all tied up in resting spirit, so any Scotch producer has at least a three year wait before selling a bottle. Distillers, keen not only to get a bit of money rolling in, but to begin building trust, brand and a following straight away, turn to Gin in droves. After all, though the spirit can be a complex one, it can still be made in a matter of days.
With such investment behind it, Isle of Harris Distillery didn’t have a desperate need to bring a massive amount of cash flow in, but it made sense to begin building the brand as early as possible, so the team started to work on creating their flagship gin. The product, as the distillery’s first bottling, needed to be perfect, so it took two years in total to get from inception to production, with an incredible amount of thought going into the recipe.
The first step was to add real, genuine provenance to Isle of Harris Gin. The distillery’s Managing Director, Simon Erlanger, knew it was important to celebrate local plant life, but he wanted to do in a way that wouldn’t leave the land bereft. “We worked with an ethnobotanist recommended to us by our Chairman’s daughter, who we commissioned to explore our island’s flora, to see what is sustainable to harvest and what sort of properties they might bring to our gin,” explained Erlanger. “After looking on land, she finally turned to the sea and that’s where we found our answers.”
That answer was sugar kelp, the long, wavy strands of seaweed that float up from the sand to wrap themselves around your arms and fingers and toes and make us city folk scream our nervous lungs up. The sugar kelp is harvested in lochs in the Outer Hebrides by Isle of Harris’ diver, Lewis Mackenzie. Its uniqueness as a botanical, as you might imagine, threw up some challenges.
“We worked on the recipe with the help of the distilling department at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. The sugar kelp was such an unusual ingredient, never used in gin distilling until now, that we went through a great deal of experimentation regarding quantities and techniques until we were happy,” Erlanger explained. Keen to get it right, Isle of Harris Distillery relied on many voices, including Gordon Steele, who has been Director of Research at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh for over twenty years. “He helped us ensure the final recipe tasted beautiful and continues to support us today.”
Isle of Harris Distillery has five distillers working across their operations: the four locals who were there from the off and a newbie recruited to keep up with the gin’s fierce demand. All of the distillers were trained from scratch.
To make Isle of Harris Gin, the distillers add juniper, coriander, angelica, orris, cubeb, bitter orange peel, liquorice, cassia bark and sugar kelp to a bought in grain neutral spirit and leave the mix to infuse. After this process, the sugar kelp is removed (so as not to overwhelm), and the rest of the botanicals and spirit are added to distillery’s pot still, named The Dottach “after a feisty wee local lady,” and distilled slowly.
Isle of Harris Gin to taste…
From the nose, it seems as though Isle of Harris Gin has played it safe. It’s a gin that smells like gin; juniper and coriander seed in the lead, supported by light spice to one side and bright citrus to the other. It has a real workhorse vibe, coming across as a gin that will mix quite perfectly into any classic cocktail.
To sip, it’s soft and sweet, with the liquorice and sugar kelp bringing a sugary, but green and slightly herbal taste to the front. The spices are gentle, with cubeb and cassia delivering warmth to the sip but never dominating the mouth, while juniper hums pleasantly throughout, really coming into its own at the end, wherein the mouth is given a waxy, piny coating with a perfect amount of warming spice to endure over a long finish.
With tonic, that safe feel starts to slip away as a hint of Harris leaps into the mouth. The sugar kelp and juniper flirt with each other outrageously, each seeking to hold court at this altogether tasty party. The sugar kelp leaves a strangely shiso-esque taste in the mouth – one that is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Play-Doh. In a G&T, the liquorice sweetness is accentuated, while the bitter orange and quinine in the tonic seem to come together in a burst of tart freshness. There’s an almost rooty feel to the mouth and a hint of warmth from coriander, which prolongs the effects of the orange, carrying it right through to the end.
The sugar kelp lends an incredibly leafy quality, though never attempts to bog the gin down. The decision to remove the botanical ahead of distillation seems a wise one, as if it had remained in the still it would likely have dominated. As it is, it’s delicate and intriguing, leading one to reach for the glass again almost instantly as if to diagnose the flavour. It’s a great G&T; unchallenging and quite classic, sure, but so crisp and fresh with an undercurrent of something slightly different. Go classic on the garnish with a slice of orange, or play with the sea theme by dropping a briny olive into your glass.
Now… Let’s talk about the bottle. The distillery is the only distributor of its gin, selling it on its website or in the distillery itself. Harris is far from close to… well, anything, yet Isle of Harris Gin is blocking up our social feeds like there’s no tomorrow. Sure, it tastes great and great sells, but many gins taste fantastic. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t love it so much, right? Isle of Harris’ stand out success is hugely augmented by its Stranger & Stranger designed bottle, which is made of blue, clear glass and looks like a sun flecked whirlpool ripple in the clearest sea.
Isle of Harris Distillery invited the design agency to the island and they roamed free, exploring the land and the people and soaking up inspiration. The end packaging, says Erlanger, truly embodies the Isle of Harris. “The ephemeral light, the azure seas, the ripples of water and weave of Harris Tweed. It has lightness but weight, it fits naturally in the hand and looks brand new but also old and familiar. There are lots of other hidden details to discover, but really it’s just a pleasure to hold it.”
You might have gathered that we love the bottle. It’s just divine and genuinely as god as it gets – both conceptually, and from a functional, ergonomic perspective. That the liquid inside it is damn tasty will certainly help its standing, but it’s the bottle that’ll help Isle of Harris Gin gain traction initially. Imagine the crisp, changing blue-green of rock pools and the stirred chaos of the sea in a storm and you’re half way there. This is topped off with a wooden cap that’s been etched with the distillery’s name and logo, and sealed with a tag beating its co-ordinates.
The label itself (we’re sorry to go on) has been applied by hand, and is on rich, textured paper with flecks of colour adding a crafty feel to the ensemble. There is no over complication of facts; just the name, a mention of sugar kelp and the ABV.
Erlanger explained that the reason the distillery is the sole stockist of Isle of Harris Gin is because “connection is important to us and we want to make sure every purchase is tied to our home in Tarbert.” We understand (and sort of admire) the lack of compromise here. Isle of Harris wants to present you with its product personally because it wants to present it in its best light. It’s easy to think of this as a bit of a shame, as an audience that isn’t paying full attention could miss out as a result. It’s true – if you aren’t a Gin superfan you could fail to spot this one quite easily, but Isle of Harris Gin is a spirit that will appeal to many and we’ve got no doubt that in time it’ll become a staple all over the world. The sheer transcendent nature of combining good liquid, story, provenance and great looks means that global success is literally a matter of time, no matter how restrictive the owners want to be.
Truth be told however, we don’t think it’s a bad decision to be so guarded. In fact, it’s a very clever marketing strategy. Strangle the supply just enough to restrict but not withhold and you help create a more fervent demand. Let’s face it, a “gin shortage” makes for a much better headline too, especially when you can repeat it a few months later by rephrasing it as there being a need for “gin rationing”. It certainly gets more traction than saying a a well funded company has had a successful start with their impeccably conceived product anyway….
Isle of Harris Gin should be a standard bearer for newbie brands. It is the new benchmark that should be used for inspiration, the new litmus test to which many will be compared to. It shows that time, care and diligence are imperative factors when creating a new product.
It has the looks, the brains and the heart to do well. It has a story, it comes from a place of love for the Isle of Harris – both its land and its people – and it aims to give more than it takes. Erlanger sums it up well: “We have a number of core values which all of our staff hold dear, but perhaps the most important one is that the work of the distillery is by, from and for the people of Harris. Everything we do is geared toward the benefit of our island, realising its potential and securing a safe and prosperous future in the face of the economic and population challenges we face.”
It might have a long way to go before it reaches the sales volume or brand presence to back this claim; but we think that this is one of the rare, rare times where we can honestly say that all things considered, this gin has all the hallmarks to be the new Hendrick’s.
For more information about Isle of Harris Distillery visit the website: harrisdistillery.com
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