Looking Back: Jim McEwan on The Botanist Gin

Following my interview with Jim McEwan on Bruichladdich back in September 2014, the Master Distiller spoke to us about the inspiration behind The Botanist Gin and the origins of the spirit that is distilled using 31 botanicals, 22 of which are native to Islay. This article is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series.

Jim McEwan on The Botanist Gin – Photo © Cocktails & Bars

Corinne Mossati: What was the inspiration for the Botanist Gin?

Jim McEwan: It was kind of a daft idea I had for a while. I had bought 3 stills from the old Interleven distillery which closed down in 2002. I bought the stills, and the mash tongue but the main attraction was the Roman still, Ugly Betty. That’s the main one I use as only 5 of these stills ever made. I discovered that the whole lot was going to get melted for scrap, so I thought, “shit, that can’t happen”. I didn’t actually see Ugly Betty at the time of going there but when I did, she was in a corner covered in pigeon shit and cobwebs and I totally fell in love with her. It is such a unique machine but it is so ugly.

Did you know at the time what Ugly Betty was destined for?

I still had no idea what we were going to do with it. We were going to open Port Charlotte distillery which we will do eventually. So I thought it could be used for making the Octomore and the Port Charlotte to give us more space at Bruichladdich for Bruichladdich.

Times got a bit hard and I thought, Islay, Queen of the Hebrides, famous for its flora and its fauna. I wondered if I could make a gin and use the flora and fauna of Islay to give a unique flavour to the gin.

Have you made gin before?

I had never made gin before. So I went down to Birmingham and there was a gentleman down there making gin in a pot still. I was with him for a week and right away, I understood what he was doing. It’s all about the botanicals.

We spent 3 days together working with botanicals and on the third day he said, “Choose some botanicals for the main body of the still”. The Islay ones are going to go into the neck of the still and in the middle of the neck, I have this botanical box where I put the dried flowers of Islay. So your main botanicals juniper, coriander, orange peel, lemon peel, aniseed and that stuff are in here. It’s boiling so as it vaporises up, it comes along to the neck of the still. Here you have this little stainless steel box and all the dried flowers of Islay are in muslin teabags. As the vapour is rising, it goes along the neck of the still and the Islay plants are vaporised. If I put them into the body of the still, the big flavours (juniper and coriander) would dominate and you would never get them. So what you get in here is like a jet engine and it strips all the flavours out of the Islay botanicals into the spirit.

Did your experience in whisky help in any way?

Yes, fortunately I’d had good training as a blender as I had trained for 3 years on my good nose and my palate. I was taking out aniseed and a little bit of this and cassia bark just rubbing and grinding and putting it all together. And I eventually come up with 10 botanicals I thought would be quite interesting, with different percentages of each one. I presented it to a botanist and he said, “I don’t think so. Too much. Too much Jim. Too many botanicals.”

“Maybe I have but some are only small percentages, like two and a half percent you know,” I said.

He agreed. So we took it to a lab and did a test distillation on it. And it’s like wow. This is shit I would never have done that this is absolutely brilliant. And I’ve still got the Islay flowers to go on top of that.

So Ugly Betty came through in the end…

That was karma. I find a still that’s unique. I save it from being melted. I find those 2 botanists living on the island of Islay. I find a guy who is prepared to help me. What are the chances of that on an island? It’s zero.

When I made it, you can imagine the excitement the first time I tried it when no one was around in case I screwed up. It came down the line and I thought the smell was incredible, and then I tasted it and I thought, “Oh Jesus this is good. How long can I dance with you Betty?”

I was asking Betty, the pot still to dance. How long can we dance, how long are you going to remain that aromatic, that flavour, for 10 minutes? We danced for about 12 hours, just trickling down the line and it never lost that flavour.

It was karma. Bruichladdich had been treated like a dog. Tied to a post and hit with a stick. It got it back. It was made to live. It’s a fairy story. It’s a movie. People were meant to have jobs and survive on that peninsula of Islay. The karma was phenomenal, it’s spiritual.

I remember standing there and the still started to boil, the aroma came down first and it started to drip. I thought, if you taste half as good as you smell… and sure enough, it was great that night. The smell went right through the still house and the people in the village could smell the gin because they were passing with their shopping. It’s a small village. They thought, “What’s Jim McEwan doing today?” and coming in. We were all excited. “Come in and try the gin”. And the word spread like wildfire.

“Jim McEwan on The Botanist Gin” is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series which takes a historical lens to key industry personalities. The article is based on an interview originally published on our sister website Gourmantic.

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