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Island distillery gets a tonic from gin thanks to Ugly Betty

On a Hebridean island where making malt whisky is a way of life, distilling gin may seem like a break from tradition.

Islay’s first gin, however, is as firmly rooted in its past as the water of life.

The Bruichladdich Distillery, famed for its smoky and peaty malts, is to craft a gin after discovering old recipes and an experimental still.

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The distillation will begin next week using botanicals from around the island. The distillery researched historical methods and found that botanticals were used to flavour “usquebaugh” in the middle ages.

Mark Reynier, chief executive of Bruichladdich, said: “Research we did showed that in medieval times what we know as whisky was very often flavoured with local botanicals. That’s partly because they were very bad at distilling and they were trying to make it taste better.

“They flavoured it with whatever was at hand and we found old documents which showed that juniper was used, and bog myrtle and heather tops.

“Having researched it, we found that here on Islay there are more than 20 different botanticals that we can use.”

Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s production director, will be responsible for the distillation of the first gin to be made on the island, after learning the process from a firm in England. He said: “I created a recipe which I think is going to be superb: fresh, citrus flavours and an easy, effervescent drink.

“I wanted to bring in the beautiful flavours of Islay.”

Working with local botanist Dr Richard Galliver for the last year, McEwan has been harvesting and drying flowers from around the island. The gin will use more than 20 different local plants in addition to the traditional flavours of gin such as juniper, orange and cinnamon.

“We have harvested 21 plants and flowers which we think have aromatics and flavours that would add to this gin, so it’s going to be a Hebridean-style gin,” said McEwan.

The idea for experimental distillation came after the company rescued a rare Lomond still from the old Inverleven distillery and decided to restore it.

When McEwan took the still from the scrapheap it looked so dilapidated he named in Ugly Betty. He said: “She was so ugly you kind of fell in love with her. She has been inspirational.”

Lomond stills, as opposed to traditional pot stills, were an experimental design created in the 1950s to provide more versatility in malt production and meet rising demand for blends. They went out of use in the 1980s as tastes changed.

McEwan said: “There is a wee bit of apprehension because myself and Ugly Betty haven’t danced together yet but I’m confident we can pull it off. You form relationships with stills because they all perform differently – some are cantankerous and others are really easy.”

The distillery will use botanticals that are available seasonally to create what Reynier described as “a very artisanal gin” and, using Ugly Betty, will only make a few thousand bottles.

Reynier added: “Instead of being scrapped, we’ve been able to renovate and improve this still. I think that is very much in keeping with our philosophy.

“We put two and two together; our progressive Hebridean distiller credentials and this Lomond still with special adaptations – and we like the idea of making a gin, especially with this historical relevance. It is how clandestine distilling started.”

Three-time distiller of the year McEwan starts the first batch on Tuesday and said it will be ready for tasting at the island’s argicultural show the following week.

Medicine that became a classic cocktail ingredient

Gin is a shortening of genever – Dutch for juniper.

The spirit was invented by Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius in the early 1600s and used as a medicine to treat various ailments.

It was introduced to Britain in the 17th century by soldiers returning from war in Holland and Germany. They said it gave them “Dutch courage”.

The popularity of gin in 18th-century London, where there were an estimated 7000 distilleries, led to the spirit being blamed for a culture of drunkenness. Satirist William Hogarth’s cartoon, Gin Lane, depicts women neglecting their children under the drink’s influence, leading to it being dubbed Mother’s Ruin.

The world’s best-selling gin is San Miguel in the Philippines which accounts for 43% of global sales. Diageo, which owns the Tanqueray and Gordon’s labels, is the second largest producer.

The most expensive gin is Bombay Sapphire Revelation – sold in a hand-made crystal bottle with a sapphire stopper for £128,000. Only five bottles were produced.

Gin is the main ingredient in three of the most classic cocktails – gin and tonic, dry martini (gin mixed with a dash of vermouth and served straight up) and Tom Collins (gin, fresh lemon juice and sugar, mixed and topped with soda over ice).

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