Hills and Harbour Gin – Crafty Distillery
A couple of years ago, we got a little parcel in the post. Now, given that we’re a gin reviewing site, this came as no surprise. Mystery mail is both our burden and our prize – an often delicious cross to bear. This one was small and brown, with three tiny bottles inside and a handful of stickers and three options poised to take our tongues on wild adventures.
The gins were all but forgotten as the years passed, but something about the sender – Crafty Distillery – remained lodged in our heads. When we got an email through asking us to review Hills and Harbour Gin (so named for the mountain and sea surrounds of its Galloway home) that little bell of familiarity started tinkling. That little long ago delivery, it seemed, had become something much, much bigger.
Hills and Harbour Gin is a grain to glass slice of wonder that leads drinkers on an adventure through all that the earth has to offer. With botanicals plucked from the Galloway Hills and pulled from the Scottish sea, we were curious to try it just as soon as we heard of it, a look at their cool packaging confirmed this but it wasn’t until we heard a little slice of the story that we became desperate to get hold of a bottle. Reader, let us tell you the story of Crafty Distillery…
Back in 2013, Graham Taylor noticed that a small whisky distillery was for sale and he got a tad over excited. He and his brother, Stephen, had grown up under the Scotch-loving tutelage of their dad, so it had been instilled in them from a drinking age that Whisky was a formidable spirit, one that stood far above the rest. He joked (or rather, wished) that it would be great to buy the place and get into the industry, but his money wasn’t going to stretch that far. Still, the seed of an idea had been planted, and after watching the rise of craft spirits in the UK and the US, he decided it was time to force his way in.
A year later, in 2014, he’d come up with a brand strategy. If he was to make, he would make from scratch. Gin had really taken off, but the majority were making it from a bought in neutral spirit. “I saw an opportunity to create a distillery known for its craft process and inclusivity,” Graham said. “To do our approach justice we needed to create a grain to glass craft distillery that could make any spirit from scratch, with the main aim of putting the graft back in craft.”
He was getting ahead of himself at this point, though, as he didn’t yet have a distillery, nor even the land on which to build one. Before too long, though, that was sorted. Graham’s dad, Billy, is a builder, and a pretty good one at that. He’d spotted a piece of land offering uninterrupted views of the Galloway Hills that just so happened to fit into the budget. It was theirs for the taking, so they set to work designing a distillery, making sure it was one that didn’t just respect the land, but took full advantage of it, offering gorgeous, never-ending countryside views.
It seemed pretty pointless to design the space around that glorious landscape if the views weren’t going to be shared with anyone but the distilling team, so Crafty Distillery was always designed to be a destination – something people drove out of their way to see. As such, the tasting room is expansive and inclusive – all chrome and copper on one side, trees and mountains on the other.
While many distilleries offer tours, there are very few that nail it quite as well as the Hills & Harbour Gin team, a fact that has seen it scoop awards for it’s tourist offering. Crafty Distillery has a pretty standard offering, with a tour of the kit and a G&T, but they also offer elaborate picnics for those so inclined, as well as the quite brilliant sounding Galloway Gin Escape – a foraging trip through the hills and down to the coast that ends with a handful of cocktails and a distillery tour.
With Our job as a Scottish tourist information centre done for now, we’re going to move onto the grain to glass side of business. We talk about grain to glass a lot, so we’re sure you’re pretty au fait with the notion, but to summarise quickly: grain to glass means that the distillery makes the vodka/ base spirit from which then it makes its gin (or sells it as vodka, too, but who drinks that these days?).
Legally speaking, the ethanol is supposed to have been distilled to a minimum of 96%, which wipes out most traces of the matter from which it’s made. Still, there’s something about craft vodka that seems to betray this. At the smaller end of the scale, it always seems to carry a trace of the agricultural origin it is derived from. Be it grain, potato, sugar cane or wheat – it’ll cary through onto the final flavour and texture and no grain to glass spirit ever truly has a neutral base. Therein lies the magic of them, the added texture. When you drink a gin that has been made upon an in-house base, you almost always know straight away. There’s an undercurrent that murmurs gently beneath the surface. We, as nerds, will always prefer the added dimension it gives and love exploring how much the distiller has allow it to permeate into the end product, or neutralised it as best they can.
To make their base spirit, Crafty Distillery start with Scottish wheat, mill the grain, mash and ferment it, before loading their still. The distillation begins with with a massive 1000L I-Still that performs as a wash still (essentially stripping all the alcohol from the wheat based wash), raising it to a decent ABV in the process. This is then transferred over to a Genio still where it distilled once more to hit the 96% ABV required and in doing the dual process on these highly technical high performance (if a little ugly) stills, they produce a cracking base with enough character to add depth, but not enough personality to interfere with the real stars of the show – the botanicals.
Base done, we’re onto the gin itself. That little parcel mentioned right at the top of this article was sent out to 400 people. After 14 months of trial distillations and with 90 different recipes trialled, Crafty Distillery decided they needed the input of the general public. The gin pack sent out had three different styles of gin within it – one heavy, one modern and light and one sweet. From the feedback received, the distilling team set to work shaping the final product, creating a gin developed in conjunction with those they hoped would be drinking it.
The final botanical line up is a wild one, with juniper, bladderwrack seaweed, noble fir and mango amongst the 11-strong total.
What does Hills and Harbour Gin taste like?
On the nose, the first impressions are quite vegetal and savoury – as if the seaweed was flaring out and yet if you linger for just a second, you’ll notice the soft citrus underneath as well as something more woody. Layered and intriguing.
To taste, it is a complete and utter flavour explosion, dragging the tongue across the forest (juniper and pine) as it makes its way down to the sea (that seaweed once more). In the process the strong, bitter pine joined becomes ever more saline up to the point where there is a calamitous, but marvellous, umami sensation that emerges. While that’s the big sensory action lashing at your taste buds, once familiar with it, it’s easy to spot how the sweet, tropical fruit stops it from ever becoming too much of something brutal; it might rolls like the sea, but its calmed quickly by the rest of the botanicals. The finish is satisfyingly dry too, leaving you with an enduring sense of pine. We love returning to it again and again as it seems to shout Gin to us, yet does so in a way that’s altogether unique.
There’s nothing about Hills & Harbour that we don’t like in fact. Putting the graft in craft may sound like a cheesy slogan, but there’s no denying that Graham and his team have done this. Making your own spirit base is one thing, but the transparency with which Crafty Distillery seem to operate and the enthusiasm they show for inviting people into the distillery (and, back then, the process) is a rare thing of beauty and should be embraced, admired and celebrated. They’ve understood what it is to have provenance, yet have done so in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s solely the geography that’s been captured.
The gin is in many ways also a celebration of the people and the process it is created by – all of which packaged in a really mesmerising bottle. The matt finished blueish green bottle has a texture in hand and an ever changing hue that’s as ephemeral as the landscape it seeks to represent. We love the modern look they’ve got going in the graphics and directly printed onto the bottle here, namely as it’s been backed by old school manufacturing where every detail mattered and a 360 look at what it takes to be great in this day an age of gin.
We see a huge future here, we want to be part of it and we urge you to also jump on this bandwagon and give them a helping hand where you can. There’s something more than just a little special about it all, that’s for certain and we hope they can continue to grow and evolve to be an established player in the UK industry.
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