Scotland's Islay: Go for the whisky, stay for the gin

A celebrated whiskey distiller on the island is splashing out into gin, writes Andy Lynes

25 August 2019 - 00:01 By Andy Lynes
The ruins of Finlaggan Castle on the island of Eilean Mor in Loch Finlaggan, itself within the island of Islay.
The ruins of Finlaggan Castle on the island of Eilean Mor in Loch Finlaggan, itself within the island of Islay.
Image: wikicommons/MSeses

Getting to Islay, 45 minutes in an alarmingly small twin-propeller plane from Glasgow, feels like arriving at the edge of the world.

In a way I have; head due west from the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and the next time you'll hit land will be 3,200-odd kilometres away in Newfoundland. With just 3,000 or so inhabitants scattered across 619 kilometres square, there's a lot of open space. Every direction you look offers a photo opportunity of rugged landscape dotted with free-roaming cattle and sheep or dramatic coastal views.

I'd been invited to stay at Bruichladdich in the whitewashed village of Port Charlotte on the shores of Loch Indaal, one of nine distilleries on the island world-famous for their whisky, with its distinctive smoky flavour derived from barley dried over fires made with peat, an abundant resource.

But not one drop of the hard stuff passed my lips. Instead, the point of my trip was to find out about The Botanist gin, made at the distillery and flavoured with 22 varieties of the wild plants and herbs that grow on Islay in all that peat.

James Donaldson, Bruichladdich's full-time forager, was my guide to the island's flora. He runs foraging trips for the public at the RSPB's Loch Gruinart reserve in the north-west of the island, but we headed to the scenic Bridgend woods, a 10-minute drive from the distillery.

With a degree in botany, and years of experience as a tour guide, Donaldson is an engaging presence. On the virtues of nettles, he is entertaining and educative. ("They've more vitamin C than oranges, more protein than soya and more iron than spinach. Don't eat them raw, though; the little hairs on the leaves are like hypodermics full of formic acid, but nettle and parsnip soup is delicious.")

We picnic at tables in the adjoining Islay House Community Garden, where you can pick fruit and veg including broad beans, fennel and strawberries and leave payment in an honesty box. We sip gin cocktails with home-made nettle cordial and rosemary sprigs cut there and then in the garden.

James Donaldson runs foraging trips at Loch Gruinart on Islay.
James Donaldson runs foraging trips at Loch Gruinart on Islay.
Image: thebotanist.com

Back at the distillery, I take a tour and get a look at Ugly Betty, a rare 15,500-litre copper "Lomond" still, built in 1959 and originally intended for whisky but now used to make gin. It's a beautiful piece of engineering with a steampunk style that wouldn't look out of place in the engine room of Captain Nemo's Nautilus.

For each distillation, Donaldson prepares sacks of the carefully dried foraged plants and herbs including apple mint, camomile and creeping thistle that act like giant herbal tea bags, infusing the vapours of the heated neutral grain spirit that form the base of the gin with complex flavours and aromas. The resulting syrupy concentrate is mixed with pure spring water from nearby Octomore and more neutral spirit to make the finished gin.

I end my trip with gin and tonics and plates of local seafood in the cosy, welcoming bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel with views out over the loch. Undoubtably, tourists will continue to be drawn to Islay (and to neighbouring Jura) for the whisky, but they'll be missing a trick if they don't stay for the gin.

© The Sunday Telegraph

• Tours of the Bruichladdich distillery are available throughout the year and cost between £5 (R92) and £25 (R464) per person. See bruichladdich.com.