The Isle of Harris lies off the far north-western coast of Scotland, separated from a distant mainland by the rough seas of The Minch. In a modern world, tradition holds fast there through a Gaelic culture of language and song. Dark peats are still cut for fuel, small crofts are worked by experienced hands, and raw wool is transformed into Harris Tweed by skilled weavers. Among this rich heritage the Isle of Harris Distillery produces spirits worthy of bearing the island’s name. Its award-winning Isle of Harris Gin possesses subtle coastal notes made possible by sugar kelp harvested by a local diver from the deep underwater forests of the Outer Hebrides. To mark the return to these pages of ‘Mother’s Ruin’, we speak to head distiller Kenny Maclean about the product stocked in Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, enjoyed by Joanna Lumley, and available via an ever-growing network of Click & Collect depositories including The Keep in Wallingford.
Describe Isle of Harris Gin.
People have said it’s a straight-up, high-quality gin. It’s not a really flavoured gin – you can get some that are very lemony or have beetroot in them – ours is a traditional London dry, but slightly sweet. You don’t need to put a mixer in it, you could quite happily drink it neat. Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes London serves it as a simple martini, with nothing much else in the glass, because he thinks the quality of the spirit shouldn’t be diluted. The special botanic is the sugar kelp without a doubt – it’s what sets us apart from everybody else.
Can you talk a bit about the distillation process?
We don’t distil the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ of the spirit run. The first and last part of the distillation process isn’t very nice, and what generally happens is that gets put through the next day’s batch, recycled so there’s no alcohol lost. We don’t do that. We discovered the sugar kelp adds a nice sweetness to our gin and makes it a very high quality, reusing the heads and tails lessened that quality. HMRC came up to visit us because they didn’t like the fact we were destroying 20 percent of the alcohol – they wanted to know why they couldn’t get duty on this 20 percent. We had to convince them from a quality point of view that it was absolutely necessary and they agreed with us in the end. Other than that we’re a very traditional London gin manufacturer, where we use a traditional copper gin still and steep the botanics in the alcohol and distil slowly over a few hours.
How do people get hold of some?
Our route to market isn’t through a wholesaler who then stocks some chain shelves. We are direct to the customer; dispatched from the distillery, in a handmade box with a handwritten card saying thank you very much. Beautifully presented, and posted from the Isle of Harris. We also have Click & Collect where if a craft shop has demonstrated alignment with our quality and ethos – whatever it is they sell, it could be flowers, we have a tea merchant in Edinburgh – they will stock our gin. I spent 15 years living in Sutton Coldfield and worked in Wellesbourne which is near Oxford, so I love to see the product spreading its wings through England.