A gin produced by an island distillery which barters bottles for ingredients has beaten brands from around the world to be named Spirit of the Year. 

The aptly-named Downpour gin from North Uist Distillery was picked as the winner by a panel of bartenders, mixologists and industry professionals at the 2023 London Spirits Competition. 

Ironically a dry gin, Downpour is distilled and bottled by a small team in an old 18th century farmhouse on Benbecula, which also hosts their shop and visitor centre.  

Heather flowers are harvested by locals and used in the distilling process, with baskets exchanged for a bottle of the gin made with the blossoms from the corresponding area.  

READ MORE: Islay whisky tops new ranking of best rated spirits

The distillery, which was set up by islander couple Kate MacDonald and Jonny Ingledew in 2017, also produces other varieties of gin, one made from sloe and bramble berries gathered by locals and swapped for a bottle of the finished product.  

More than a dozen local people are employed at the distillery, which produces around 30,000 bottles each year and was previously named Scottish Gin Distiller of the Year in 2022.

The team's next step is to distil their first whisky, using barley thought to have been brought to Britian by the Vikings.

The Herald:  Judges put the spirits to the taste test 

Ali Kerr, Project Coordinator at North Uist Distillery, said: “We’re obviously delighted to be named the best spirit at the competition. We’re a fairly small-time distillery, made up of local people who all live on North Uist, so it’s a great achievement. 

“What makes it all the more pleasing is that it’s a competition which is judged by bartenders and mixologists with the consumer in mind. It’s not just professional industry judges.  

“They look at the whole package – the spirit itself, the taste and the bottle – so it’s very pleasing to have won on the strength of that.” 

He added: “Having 13 people working here is quite a large workforce for a small distillery. But the reason we’ve gone down this route is that everything from the selecting of ingredients to the bottling and packaging, is done in-house.” 

The Herald:

The couple outside the distillery 

Ms MacDonald and Mr Ingledew grew up on the island, but left to pursue further education and opportunities on the mainland. 

They have since returned with a plan to open the distillery, and started production four years ago. 

The distillery has become a tourist attraction and provides much-needed employment in the area. 

Mr Kerr said: "The plan for both of them was always to come back and open up a business where they could employ local people." 

The distillery will take on the challenge of producing its first whisky, made from locally grown 'bere' barley, next year.

Bere is an historical barley variety traditionally grown in the Hebrides which is thought to have been brought to Britain by the Vikings in the 8th century. This connection makes it the British Isles’ oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation.

Due to the scarcity of bere barley outside of the Hebrides, there are very few whisky distilleries using it for whisky production, and none using it in their core range.

The London Spirits Competition, which took place over three days in the UK capital last month, saw experts tasting each of the products and judging them against three main criteria: quality, value and packaging.  

To be a medal winner, Spirits must show a high rating in all the three factors with the most weightage on quality. 

READ MORE: How gin is bringing a boost to Arran, Bute and Cumbrae

Downpour was awarded 98 points by the judges, who praised its "juniper, citrus and spice" notes and its “well rounded and rich texture - with hints of cardamom and liquorice towards the end.”  

A record number of entrants were in the competition this year, with about 2000 spirits brands considered from more than 80 countries.  

The 2023 Competition saw 367 entries from the Australia as the top entrant country, followed by 303 products from United Kingdom and 138 from the United States. Almost 700 gins were put before the judges.