Proving the British craft distilling movement has gone all the way to the Northern tip of Scotland, Rock Rose harnesses their rationality to sublime effect.
Dunnet Bay Distillery was established in 2014 by husband and wife team, Martin and Claire Murray, along with their trusty four legged companion George. The couple had been tempted to open their own distillery for a while, having enjoyed brewing and distilling since their university days in Edinburgh (Martin studied brewing and distilling before working in the Oil industry), but they only decided to begin their adventure in late 2011.
Setting up in their hometown of Caithness – Dunnet Bay is one of Britain’s most northerly mainland distilleries. While situated in a beautiful region, the distillery’s location also added complication to their build, with the delivery of their still arriving some months overdue! As always however – good things come to those who wait…
To create Rock Rose Gin, the couple use 18 botanicals, of which 5 are grown locally. The name itself comes from one of the local botanicals they forage – the “Rhodiola rosea” which grows on the cliffs of Pentland Firth. Much like juniper, rowan berries and other botanicals that have grown in Scotland over the centuries – Rose root also has its own Celtic folklore attached to it. Over a thousand years ago, the Vikings allegedly harvested wild, exposed cliffs to gather Rhodiola rosea with the thought that it would give them the extra strength to continue on their long arduous journeys. No, they hadn’t heard of Red Bull back then. In the context of gin – and Rock Rose Gin in particular – once distilled, it adds a delicate rose aroma and a floral note to taste.
Who knows if Rose root really did add additional strength to Viking explorers, but for Martin and Claire, the local plant was just the tonic they needed and once combined with juniper, it provided a unique point of difference for their gin.
They then added blaeberries, rowan berries, cardamom, coriander seed and verbena to the ensemble, alongside sea buckthorn. For those unfamiliar with Sea Buckthorn – it is a silvery leafed shrub that grows along the coastline and produces clusters of vibrant orange berry-like fruit, soft, juicy and rich in oils. It might seem like an unusual botanical to pick for gin as the bright little orange berries are not on many food menus for good reason – their caustic, tart nature are particularly harsh to taste on their own. However, once distilled, they transform to compliment citrus beautifully. They add another dimension to the citric elements and in the case of Rock Rose, become a little more obvious in a G&T adding to the overall depth of flavour.
Dunnet Bay Distillery is one of the few craft distillers to also have a British made still, they vapour infuse all the botanicals in a steam basket at the neck of their custom made John Dore & Co beauty nicknamed Elizabeth.
Martin casts his watchful eye over the whole distilling process, discarding the heads and tails through nose, and reduces the final distillate to a bottling strength of 41.5% ABV. With rose root, sea buckthorn and Rowan berries native to the area and picked to compliment juniper, coriander seed and other traditional gin botanicals – Rock Rose is a subtle twist on classically flavoured gins. It is bright and packed with fruity berries and a delicate astringency.
On the nose, Rock Rose has a delicate bouquet of rose, mixed with deeper cardamom and a touch of citrus fused into a mouthwatering mix. Tasted neat – fruity berries merge with the floral nose to give a full-bodied, rounded gin. Bright, slightly sour notes ping as the juniper comes to the fore alongside a warming heat. There’s depth and character a plenty with all the flavours that surround the piney core working in harmony. Crisp citrus, leafy eucoliptic elements, light florals and a resinous underbelly. This is good gin.
It’s smooth to finish too. In a Gin & Tonic, the sharpness of the Sea Buckthorn emerges a little more, but once again is counterbalanced by round berries and a juniper heart. Rock Rose is recommended with a rosemary garnish but we tried it with a mint leaf garnish which brought out the freshness. On another occasion (for research purposes of course!) orange peel also worked well.
What Martin and Claire prove categorically is that with a bit of ingenuity and some careful consideration, it is possible to harness regional botanicals, national heritage and create something truly modern and unique all at the same time. Since 2010, many of the gins launched have tried to construct an identity long after the gin has been distilled and bottle design has been created. Too many have opted for pastiche representations or overtly modern interpretations not befitting the category’s heritage. Not here – Rock Rose is a gin with soul. It resonates a sense of place and the heartfelt passion of those who make it.
Combine this with a beautiful ceramic bottle and a humble yet confident team – trust us when we say that this gin is set to fly. When the couple first put their business plan together they hoped to sell 10,000 bottles in the first year, but by eight months in they had already surpassed their own target and sold 12,000, with the first batch selling out in 40 hours. The gin has since gone from strength to strength.
It’s been a firm fixture in our cabinet since we came across it and while all of the challenges of small teams, micro budgets and heavy competition will mean an uphill battle to gain long term traction in shops – once discovered, its unique and vibrant nature will appeal to many.
If you haven’t already – give this one a try as we’re sure you’ll agree with his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales during his visit to the distillery, this one’s a gem.
For more information about Rock Rose, visit their website: www.rockrosegin.co.uk
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