Despite being officially dubbed one of the happiest places to live in the UK, the Isle of Harris off the northwest coast of Scotland is battling a serious buzz kill. That is to say, there are fewer and fewer people living there to enjoy all that happiness these days.
The population has halved over the last 50 years, shrinking to less than 2,000 residents. But…why?
Because, despite producing the renowned Harris Tweed, employment opportunities in the isolated Outer Hebrides are scarcer than the remaining hairs on Sean Connery’s head.
So, what are these industrious islanders doing to kick-start this party, y’all? Opening a distillery entirely staffed by locals and brewing some hooch, of course.
Naturally, you might assume that by hooch, I mean “Scotch,” this being Scotland and all. While that is indeed part of the long-term plan, Scotch whisky must age at least three years in oak barrels by law.
That’s why Isle of Harris Distillers has taken their initial step into the spirit world with Isle of Harris gin.
The distillery officially debuted their first born in London this week, simultaneously announcing their search for a “Harris Ambassador to London” – an individual with a steely liver and a keen taste for gin — to help promote the brand.
Their gin has already been quietly gaining traction around Scotland since the inaugural bottles were released in late 2015. The Gin Foundry described it as no less than “a standard bearer for new gins and a benchmark for inspiration.”
Naturally, as a serious journalist, I feel duty-bound to carry out my own intensive investigation. If that means drinking two gin and tonics and a martini at the London launch, then so be it. I’ll throw myself upon the sword…or the cocktail stick, as the case may be.
Here’s what I discovered. While there are plenty of excellent new gins on the market, Isle of Harris possesses two key qualities that should make your taste buds tingle in anticipation.
Firstly, this 45% ABV spirit is distilled to its purest form, which we’ll delve into more in a moment.
Secondly, it’s infused with kelp sugar harvested in the Hebrides, giving it a vaguely savoury “umami” flavour with a faint taste of the sea.
To put it another way, “There’s almost that ‘ozone, water-crashing-on-the-rocks’ feel about it,” observes Douglas Blyde, the Evening Standard’s Drinks Columnist and cocktail mix-master for the London fete at Scotland House. “It makes me think of going to the shore and picking winkles as a child.”
To allow us to experience the gin in its truest state, Blyde whips up a batch of deliciously lethal martinis, skipping the vermouth entirely and adding just a few drops of sugar kelp aromatic water produced especially for the distillery.
He slips in a twist of lemon, and that’s it.
The result is dangerously smooth and as icy cold as the Atlantic in winter. Halfway through my martini, I feel the ground fall away, and I’m sailing across the salty sea – three sheets to the wind, as it were. (Given the sign—and Blyde’s sly smile—greeting me on the way in, I should have been forewarned.)
Isle of Harris gin owes its silky finish to the extravagance of the distillers, who discard the heads and tails (the less desirable ethanols), saving only the unadulterated heart.
“It costs us 30 percent of our alcohol, but it gives a very clean, fresh taste,” explains production manager Kenny Maclean, a former IT professional and Harris native who credits Scotch distillers with helping him learn his new skills.
“The sugar kelp brings all the flavours together,” says Maclean, explaining that the sea weed is harvested by a lone local diver. “It has to belong to Harris,” he insists. “It has to be real.”
The ultimate goal, according to managing director Simon Erlanger, formerly of Glenmorangie, is to whet tourists’ appetite for the island itself.
“If we can distill and bottle the essence of the Isle of Harris and send it out to the world,” he says, “we hope we can spread the word and encourage more visitors and more tourists and create long-term, sustainable employment.”
How to get it:
You can only purchase Isle of Harris gin, along with their sugar kelp aromatic water and apothecary range of beauty products, at the distillery itself or on-line. In London, you can also stop in for a sip at The Soho Hotel in London, which stocks it in their bar.