SCOTLAND may be synonymous with whisky but there's another spirit hot on its heels.

We now produce 70% of the UK's gin, with three of the world's best selling gins made in Scotland – Hendrick's, Gordon's and Tanqueray.

With an estimated 160 distilleries – and more under construction – the Scottish gin scene is booming fuelled by the rise in small, craft distilleries and the arrival of whisky companies into the gin market.

According to the latest Wine and Spirit Trade Association report, 66 million bottles were sold in Britain in 2018, up 19 million from the year before.

And with gin sales predicted to outstrip whisky by 2020, there's no better time to try some of Scotland's finest.

Gin expert Matthew Simpson, who did a masters in brewing at Heriot-Watt University, now works for Blend Works with St Andrews-based gin producer Eden Mill.

Gin has never been so popular: Here's our Cool List of Scotland's best tipples

It offers gin masterclasses at its distillery and last year opened its doors in Princes Square, in Glasgow, for a more intimate experience.

He recommends pairing grapefruit with an original gin, to give it "pithiness".

How best to taste gin:

Get your gin to room temperature before you start (21-23°C) as the flavours and aromas can be affected if it’s too hot or cold.

"It's all about using your eyes, nose and then taste," Matthew explains.

"You don't need a lot of air in the mix – unlike when tasting wine. You also don't put your nose in and breathe too deeply or that would numb your olfactory system because of the higher ABV (alcohol by volume).

"The best way is short and sharp, holding your glass two to three centimetres from your nose."

Ideally, the glass should be shaped like a whisky tumbler, the curved side will help you "nose" the gin. The small bowl allows you to better swirl the gin and unleash the aromas.

With the first sniff, you could still pick up a lot of alcohol, so breathe gently and try to pick up aromas.

Briefly sniff the gin (neat), a couple of times to identify any base notes.

To taste, you "chew" the gin, he says.

"You take a sip and hold it at the back of your throat, swirl round and breathe out of your nose," he says.

"See if you can detect the same flavours that you did when nosing the gin."

Let the spirit rest on the tongue, then swirl it around the mouth "chewing it" to detect any other aromas, like citrus, liquorice, cinnamon, aniseed or herbs.

Swallow the gin and pause to detect which tastes linger.

What is gin?

Gin has to be 37.5% alcohol distilled with juniper berries and typically with one of four body spirits – either floral, sweet, citrus or spice – and up to six botanicals. These can be from a huge range and include fruits such as lemon and orange peel, and herbs including coriander, elderflower and basil.

If you use six botanicals, the gin is more balanced and has hints of all six. To create a more flavoured gin, you would use six measures of one botanical, such as elderflower, for example, to create an elderflower flavoured gin.

I used a citrus body spirit, and lemon peel, orange peel, coriander, basil and elderflower botanicals to create a zesty gin with strong citrus notes.

Why so popular?

Essentially, a change in the law in 2009 lit the touchpaper for the small, craft distilling industry.

Prior to that, no distillery under a 400 gallon capacity would be granted a licence to try and stop small-scale hooch makers.

But then HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), at the urging of Sipsmith Gin, changed its policy to allow small, craft distillers "as long as they had good business reasons and strong security could be evidenced to protect excised duty revenues".

The number of stills rocketed. HMRC says there are currently 419 licensed distilleries in the UK; in 2009 there were just 113.

History of gin

Gin is first recorded in 1495 when a juniper spirit was referenced in a cookbook from an estate auction of a Dutch merchant. It was then very much for the upper classes but got more democratised in the next 200 years.

A malt spirit with juniper and botanicals became used for medicinal purposes in the mid-17th century and was used to treat kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. Soldiers going "over the top" in the Anglo-Dutch wars in the mid-1600s were given it – hence the phrase Dutch courage.

Gin has never been so popular: Here's our Cool List of Scotland's best tipples

In the late 1600s, William III – the Dutchman originally known as William of Orange –became King of England, Ireland and Scotland and introduced protectionist-style tactics against France, with heavy taxes on French wine and Cognac in an attempt to weaken their economy.

The Corn Laws in England also provided tax breaks on spirit production, resulting in what has been described as “a distilling free-for-all”.

This led to a period in England that is often dubbed the Gin Craze, when a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer.

"The average consumption was two pints per person per day in London," said Matthew.

The government eventually realised the country had a problem on its hands and a distiller's licence was introduced, with an exorbitant £50 price tag, and the industry collapsed. Just two licences were issued in the next seven years.

The first reports of gin in Scotland were back in the 1700s when the first bottles of fiery Dutch Jenever were traded into the Port of Leith in Edinburgh.

Leith's dockside location allowed for easy access to raw materials and exotic spices, as the Scots traded with the Dutch in exchange for wool and other supplies.

The Gin Act of 1751 made licences more difficult to come by and, in the early 1800s, gin was now more expensive than beer for the first time in more than 100 years.

Around this time, sailors in the Royal Navy took quinine rations on their trips to far flung destinations to help protect against malaria. It tasted so awful Schweppes produced an Indian tonic water to accompany it. London dry gin also accompanied the sailors on the their travels – as beer spoiled more quickly – and the iconic G&T ensued (with a touch of lime to protect against scurvy). And so, gin's fate was sealed.

THE chairman of the Scottish Gin Awards said the diversity of gin in Scotland is one of the reasons it is so popular.

Alex Bruce, managing director of Adelphi, said the botanicals specific to certain areas of the country meant producers can create their own unique gins using locally sourced ingredients.

“Gin is relatively quick to make so distillers are experimental, creating seasonal expressions and using local botanicals which are specific to each region,” he said.

“This makes trying out so many new gins exciting because the diversity in Scotland is wonderful. The demand for Scottish gin seems to show no sign of slowing down with sales on an upward trajectory.

“We are seeing much more investment from distilling companies in developing flavoured gin-styled products which is currently accounting for much of the growth.”

He said demand for premium crafted gin and whisky was at “an all time high.”

“The Scottish gin industry is thriving with the range of gins and gin-related products such as flavoured spirits and liqueurs continuing to make their presence known in retailers across the UK and abroad,” he said.

“This comes from our unique heritage and history as a world leading distilling nation, founded in the Scotch whisky industry over centuries.”

Gin has never been so popular: Here's our Cool List of Scotland's best tipples

The Scottish Gin Awards, which will take place in October for the third year, will sample more than 170 products, he added.

“Judging the Scottish Gin Awards is very tough. There are a number of taste categories which are clearly defined and the panel will be expected to mark each sample blind over a number of metrics,” he explained.

“The judging panel consists of some of the UK’s most experienced distillers and gin tasters. They can be trusted for picking up and grading quality in aroma, flavour and taste. The highest scoring gins from previous years’ competitions such as Eden Mill Original Dry Gin and Verdant Spirits Dry Gin come with the best recommendation imaginable.”

The Scottish Gin Awards take place in Glasgow on October 10. See