Diversifying is often the way small businesses survive, adapting to meet customer demand. In the case of Bruichladdich, the journey from whisky to gin began with the distillery’s commitment to make do and mend, and ended with the creation of the iconic Botanist gin.
Bruichladdich’s gin journey started in 2010 with a search for spare parts to keep the original kit used in the distillery for the production of premium Scottish whisky going. It was part of the philosophy of Bruichladdich to base their whisky production in traditional techniques and equipment that they had inherited – but of course, well loved equipment can’t just be patched up with ‘new’ spare parts. As whisky production continued, it became clear that some of the old kit needed serious attention. Duncan McGill, Bruichladdich’s talented engineer took up the challenge and scoured Scotland for alternatives to buying new. It was this journey which inadvertently led to the distillery making gin as well as whisky.
A new lease of life for ‘Ugly Betty’
In his search for spares, Duncan received intelligence that the Inverleven distillery on the Scottish mainland was being demolished. Ever resourceful, he got in touch and went over with Jim McEwen to salvage what they could use at Bruichladdich: Valves, pipes, copper from the distillery, chairs, tables, glass cabinets from the visitor centre. It took 25 days to strip the distillery. During the time they were there, they were won over by Ugly Betty, an old still dating back to 1959. Only 4 were ever made and there are only 2 such stills left in Scotland, the other one up on Orkney is used as a wash mill. ‘Ugly’ in comparison to the swan necked stills used in Bruichladdich’s whisky production, nevertheless, Duncan and Jim felt reluctant to leave Ugly Betty to be broken up for spares or demolished. As they fell for her ungainly curves, an idea formed in their mind – why not take her back to Bruichladdich and make Islay’s first gin?
Gin is a great companion spirit for whisky making. In purely economic terms, with no need for lengthy maturation, a good gin can ensure cash flow while whisky is taking its time to reach peak condition. The idea certainly had legs, but a key issue was the logistics of getting Ugly Betty back to Islay. There was no way she was going to fit into the transit van that was at Duncan’s disposal. In the end, Ugly Betty left Dumbarton afloat – it took a barge to make the journey along the River Clyde to collect the her and then deliver it back, around the coast, to Port Charlotte.
Islay botanicals for a unique gin
Distillation didn’t start straight away at Bruichladdich. With Ugly Betty safely on Islay, Jim McEwen headed to the Langley distiller outside Birmingham where they make mature grain spirit, to learn as much as he could about gin making.
Understanding the distillation process and the use of botanicals was the starting point. Jim returned to Islay determined to use native botanicals as far as possible in the new gin. Enter Richard and Mavis Gulliver, friends of Jim and coincidentally, retired botanists, who were commissioned to round up as many wild botanicals that Islay could provide. Out of the 30+ they came up with, 22 made the cut. Although other botanicals are also used – and only limited amounts of native Islay juniper are available, Bruichladdich now has its own forager who spends his time collecting the native botanicals that give The Botanist its distinctive flavour and mouth feel.
The fact that The Botanist uses 22 native botanicals alongside more traditional lemon and orange peels, cassia, cinnamon, liquorice, angelica and juniper means that production doesn’t take place all year round – there simply isn’t the volume of flora on Islay to support it. Every couple of months, may be every 6 weeks, around a quarter of a million bottles are distilled. While the ‘traditional’ botanicals are placed in the bottom of the still, the native botanicals are dried and then used like a giant tea bag in the top of the still. As the alcohol vapours rise during the process, they push through this tea bag and become infused with the flavours from the bag! The distillation process for The Botanist takes 15-17 hours, and the gin is ready to hit the shelves in 5 days.
The fourth best-selling gin in the world
We love how this story proves that great innovation can come without huge investment, but with imagination. Duncan and Jim’s commitment to doing what they could to repair the existing equipment that had been inherited at Bruichladdich led the distillery down an unexpected – but hugely successful path. The Botanist gin is now the 4th best-selling gin in the world, yet it honours its birthplace, taking flavour from Islay while respecting the natural balance of the local flora in the production cycle.
It’s an approach that we are mindful of here In the Welsh Wind. While we are keen to make our own way in the world of distilling, there are many lessons we can learn from the past, and of course, a thrifty approach coupled with respect, drive, determination and creativity can reap many rewards.
The Bruichladdich journey continues to inspire us as we tread our path.