We must admit to having a slight air of the proud, if un-intended, parent about us as we review Colonsay Gin, because its founder, Finlay Geekie, has been on a journey that we’ve seen evolve from enthusiast all the way to ginsmith, with his path intercrossing ours on various occasions.
It all began when he and his wife, Eileen, moved to the island of Colonsay in 2016. “Our childhoods in Scotland were filled with regular holiday trips to the Western Isles and we did the same with our own children, so we always held a dream about returning to live and work on a Scottish island at some point,” Finlay told us. “We were just never certain on which one, or when!”
They Geekies got a bit of a clue as to what they could do when they got hold of the 14/15 Gin Annual. Devouring it cover to cover, he realised that there was much more to Gin than meets the eye. The adventure began… he started picking up new, never-seen-before bottles of gin, tasting, comparing, discussing and enjoying them. “We were hooked on all things Gin,” said Finlay.
The obsession grew deeper when he and Elaine attended Junipalooza in 2015. “We met Martin & Claire [Murray] from Rock Rose and thought… we could do that! What fun we had, chatting to all those ginsmiths, all those people who – before they found Gin – were just like us. Since then it’s been a journey of discovery and research on how to actually do it.”
Another Junipalooza attended and a day at Gin Foundry’s How to Open a Distillery workshop later, Finlay was sufficiently convinced with the notion that he too was capable enough to take the leap of faith. He could make a Gin! He and Elaine registered Wild Thyme Spirits as a business and set to work creating their vision.
The Geekies spent 12 months researching the finer details of the Gin industry, evolving their wider business proposition and a further five months designing the recipe itself. It’s easy to think that this steady, considered approach meant they missed a lot of the early gin wave and are joining the category’s ranks at a time where it has evolved into an even more exceptionally busy market than when they first had their interest peeked. That they’ve made it harder on themselves.
However, it could have been much longer too and regular readers will have seen numerous stories of 3 – 5 year “gestations”, so as always, getting it right is more important than getting it done… Their careful analysis hasn’t placed them behind the wave, but in a position to truly understand how and what they wanted to achieve, in order to fulfil a long term vision and go about making it a reality. Thankfully, their prudent steps were (gladly) sped up by their decision to work with well established and extraordinarily well-practised craft distillers on the other side of the country.
Colonsay Gin was designed by Tony Reeman-Clarke of Strathearn Distillery. The Geekies gave him the flavour profile they wanted to achieve and he set to work. Their first attempt was close, their second closer, the third was banging at the door and the fourth was perfect. While the Gin beat its pretty feet across the UK, the distilling remained at Strathean, but in Spring 2018, with momentum in full swing and licensing in place, Wild Thyme took all of their distilling in house.
The botanicals that form the recipe for Colonsay Gin are: juniper, angelica root, calamus root, coriander, liquorice, orange peel and orris. These botanicals are added to a grain neutral spirit that has been cut down to an ABV in the high 40’s% and left to macerate inside Strathearn’s 100l copper sill for half an hour.
After this brief soak, the still is very gently heated, with the final heart pouring from the still around six hours later. The final spirit is held in a holding tank for four to five days, then the gin is cut to its bottling strength of 47% ABV and left to rest. Each run produces enough liquid for 160 50cl bottles.
Colonsay Gin to taste…
This is a classic gin in many ways. There’s big, booming juniper pine throughout (and in particular upfront). There’s no mistaking this as a juniper forward gin, flanked by an earthy root sweetness. There’s depth too: the coriander seed brings warmth, while the orange peel gives a subtle breath of citrus and the calamus brings a fiery ginger-like rootiness. The gin lives on long after the final sip and the lasting finish is that of sweet roots.
With tonic, a savoury aroma settles across Colonsay Gin, while the quinine bitterness runs riot with the calamus root. Juniper asserts itself confidently, coating the mouth with a waxy, fir-tree like pine, and the earthier nature of the roots seems louder, imbuing the drinker with that deep sense of calm that only comes from sticking ones hands in cool, dark soil.
For those that like a progressive gin, it’s an unchallenging tipple in an age of strawberry/pear/coconut infusions, but therein lies all of its strengths. Gin has been deeply rooted in the heart of drinkers for centuries because of its specifically juniper-led taste. While New Wave, mad-as-a-box-of-frogs spirits are more than welcome in this world, it’s really nice to taste something classic and juniper forward that will work across a spectrum of cocktails. Not just as a direct comparison given their similar botanical line ups, there is a flavour similarity with Fair Gin here. For those of you unconvinced by the fair trade gin’s profile, don’t worry, this is probably what they were aiming for, as it much more successful at delivering a bright juniper and backing it with characterful depth.
In a G&T we’d line it up Fever-Tree Elderflower Tonic and a wedge of grapefruit to add some citrus into the mix (alternatively, classic tonic with a wedge of orange), though really we’d like to try it out in a Gimlet, sticking to that sea-fairing, island mentality by stirring it into a Navy classic.
Back when the Gin was released, Finlay told us of his plans to create a work force on the island.. “We intend to bring young qualified people to not only help us with our business, but also to boost the population [at present the island only has around 135 inhabitants]… and bring down the average age! Hopefully they’ll fall in love with the place and stay for a very long time.”
We can’t help but think he’ll stand by that; they certainly seems to have been busy over the past few months. A new edition, the far more wintry Colonsay Bramble Liqueur, was released just in time for Autumn 2018, and it’s an absolute wonder as far as we’re concerned.
Made from a mix of locally foraged island blackberries and those procured from some commercial growers in Speyside, the Bramble Liqueur is an incredibly fruity, lightly tart take on a Sloe Gin.
To make it, Wild Thyme Spirits adds the regular Colonsay Gin to blackberry juice, sugar and water, before pressing the fruit and adding that into the tank. It is left to macerate for a week, before going through a four times filtration process and bottled at 20% ABV. At every festival Colonsay intends, Finlay informs us, the Bramble is the first to run out. We are not at all surprised.
Colonsay Bramble Liqueur to taste…
Rich and resplendent colours swirl in the glass with the Bramble Liqueur – it’s the kind of colour that’s hard not to feel festive about too and on the nose, it translates exactly as one might assume; bright and vivid berries. It’s not overtly complex, nor particularly layered as an aroma, just a blackberry mix with a slight verdant depth, should you care to linger long enough to find out.
To taste, the first notable factor is that Colonsay Bramble Liqueur is not that sweet at all. Almost surprisingly so given it’s supposed to be a liqueur. As a result, the liquid lacks the customary enveloping mouthfeel and the impression is the exact opposite of the colour – it’s not luxurious in the slightest. Fans of traditional Sloe Gin as a genre would be disappointed here, especially as the gin that underpins it all has lost its way and doesn’t seem to holding it’s own. However it must be said that the berries bring their usual plump and somewhat tangy nature and so, the bottling would be a good addition to a glass of bubbly for those looking for a fruity twist. Neat, we were not convinced, but it’s precisely that dryer edge that makes it considerably more user friendly in a G&T (go for Elderflower Tonic if you do).
A lot of Celtic mythology surrounds Colonsay Gin. The island house the Geekies purchased back in 2007 is called Tign na Uruisg, which translates to Home of the Spirit; a fortuitous coincidence, but an encouraging one. They built a character and a story around this, naming their spirit Alva. She’s “a long-haired supernatural helper who’s lived here [Colonsay] since the 9th Century.”
According to legend, Alva was delivered to the island by Viking Norsemen. Though they didn’t survive the journey, she was said to have clambered up the island’s jagged rocks and stumbled through darkness until she came to a group of buildings – the very ones the Geekies live in today. If you stay at their guest-house-come-retreat, you may want to avoid reading that story before tucking yourself in…
Colonsay Gin’s blue black and silver-foiled label depicts this Alva standing calm against the waves that delivered her to the island. It’s an eye-catching design, drawn on a paper label that spreads across a long, thin bottle. It’s not something we’d immediately pick out as a gin, though, so those who reach for the classic emerald green bottles of yore might be a bit blindsided by it. That would be a shame, as this is a gin pretty much designed with them in mind.
Wild Thyme Spirits isn’t stopping at Colonsay Gin. The Geekies next edition will be a Navy Strength, but they’re also making room for a Sloe Gin, a vodka, a rum and maybe even a whisky. They also plan to explore botanicals growing across the island so that they can show of more of that Colonsay magic to the world. New liquid aside, in a move that will please many who like to try new gins and sample their way around the category, they plan to release a 10cl sample size version over the summer of 2017 too.
The Geekies’ set out to make a gin because the time was right and they’d fallen for it hard. Along the way, though, they’ve unearthed a reason to love it even more, and it’s one we hear again and again at Gin Foundry. “It’s a very social thing,” Finlay explains. “Not just in the sense that people drink it in a social context, but because the majority of industry people are really nice and are always willing to help, or to chat about a shared passion.”
It’s not been without its challenges (“fighting off all the IP attacks, domain squatting, cease and desist threats and social media trolling”) and some of the difficulties have really hammered home just how crowded the Gin market has become in recent years. For example, while Colonsay may have only 135 residents, it has two gins.
Both have a base on the island, too, with Wild Island Botanic Gin resting up at the Colonsay Brewery and Colonsay Gin currently calling the Geekies Gin Experience guest house, home. The guest house, incidentally, is a well-stocked gin paradise, with over 200 bottles available for guests to sample so if you are on the island and in need of a a refreshment, you know where to head…
Both gins are third party distilled currently, so it would come as little surprise that the race is on to become the first gin to be made on Colonsay and thereafter the battle for pride that is being the answer to the question: which is most known as “the island’s spirit”?
Regardless of the neighbourly competition when looks further at their prospects for a minute, success in 2017/18 will rely on expanding far beyond even the bigger island across the water (the UK) to in order to make it in today’s market, let alone thrive.
Canadian export looks likely for the Geekies and plans are afoot for bottles to make their way far and wide already. Having sold over 1000 bottles since their launch just 6 weeks ago and with the next batches on order already, it’s been a positive start for Colonsay Gin. Hopefully permission for their licences to distil in-house will be granted soon, but with numerous factors to consider and all of the hoops to jump through, it may take a while longer for HMRC to cast their decision…
As the adage goes, all will be revealed in time and while there is a temptation to wonder which island gin is going to “win” this mini-race and what the future holds, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a competition. Two gins spurring each other on to the next level can only be a good thing for both drinkers and them as businesses. While elbows are sharpening across the category, in this case, it is a great opportunity for Colonsay as a destination to place itself on the map for all the right reasons. Watching on once more from a distance, as we have been during a lot of the Geekies journey, we hope this sense remains prevalent and that it acts as a catalyst for a prosperous future for them.
For more information about Colonsay Gin visit the website: wildthymespirits.com
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