What makes these 21 Scottish gins so special?
This is Falstaff's definitive ranking of 21 Scottish gins from both cult and classic producers, complete with tasting notes.
The earliest documented distillation in Scotland occured in 1494 with ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’, according to tax records. Fast forward more than 500 years, and the country now boasts over 130 whisky distilleries, of which at least 90 produce gin. The following selection offers an insight into the ever expanding, big bang of juniper related brands emanating from north of the border, ranging from novel and cult producers to large and historical brands. All have been ranked by Douglas Blyde.
Most northerly distillery:
Shetland Reel Ocean Sent: 99.5 Points
Packaged in a pretty bottle which tints green its clear liquid, Ocean Sent stars native bladderwrack seaweed gathered from the shores of Unst as its core botanical. Surprisingly, the 49% strength never intrudes on the very vivid, long-lived palate. The official serve is with tonic, a wedge of pink grapefruit, and sprigs of mint and even smoked lavender, though it is complete and complex enough to savour straight-up. The Saxa Vord distillery is, incidentally, the most northerly in the UK, accessible from the Shetland mainland by two ferry journeys.
(49%, £36/70cl, Shetland Reel)
From the fringes of Harris:
Isle of Harris: 99 Points
Hand-harvested sugar kelp from the fringes of Harris, which can evoke the smell of Camembert when dried, informs this classy, energetic, handsomely packaged gin from the island famous for tweed in the Outer Hebrides. Other botanicals within the nine strong blend include menthol scented Javan pepper. An excellent martini gin, especially when pepped with a couple of dots of sugar kelp ‘aromatic water’ distilled by teetotal local resident, Amanda Saurin, which enhances its fulsome maritime notes. It also makes a fine G&T when finished with a pink grapefruit wedge - just go gentle on the tonic.
(45%, £40/70cl, Isle of Harris Distillery)
Dunnet Bay Rock Rose Original: 99 Points
An intriguing, perfumed gin from the Dunnet Bay distillery. Located 11 miles west of John O’Groats, it is the mainland’s most northerly distillery, rising up by the sand and shingle of Dunnet beach – popular with surfers and ornithologists. It is headed up by Martin Murray, a former chartered process chemical engineer in oil and gas and his wife, Clare. Botanicals are distilled in gleaming stills, Elizabeth and Margaret, with special editions made in collaboration with the gardeners at Skibo castle (Carnegie Club). Informed by Claire’s degree in hospitality and tourism, the Murrays welcome interested visitors to their former steading distillery door, "where we tell stories around a log burner," says Martin. Guests can also tour the gardens and greenhouses, where botanicals such as rock rose, known for its role in Bach flower remedies, grow.
(41.5%, £35/70cl, Dunnet Bay)
Masterfully blended in the Highlands:
Dornoch Distillery Organic Mediterranean: 98.5 Points
Following their divisive, personality rich Highland Gin with its high malt content, the Thompson Bros’ lighter Mediterranean incarnation is more consumer friendly. It was inspired by a visit Phil Thompson took to Kyoto Distillery, where fruits such as yuzu are peeled, vacuum packed then frozen to be distilled afresh when needed. Embracing European oranges and lemons skinned laboriously, lime for sherbet notes, and Phil’s beloved bergamot, joined by juniper, coriander, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and fixative, angelica, the never soapy gin is slowly diluted to 45.7%, leaving it ‘chunky enough’ to stand up to tonic. Note the attractive branding by Karen Mabon, famed for illustrating silk scarves.
(£32.50/70cl, Thompson Bros)
Purity of Focus from Edinburgh:
Height of Arrows: 98.5 Points
‘An elevated gin’ according to its motto, with juniper to the fore, created by former bartender of the year and certified beer sommelier, Nick Ravenhall. He became the first New Zealander to lead a Scottish single malt whisky distillery after he come to the rescue of Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery in January 2021. Distilled in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, juniper is joined by Isle of Skye sea salt and natural beeswax, leading to a piercingly pine scented gin with a lavish texture which excels in a classic Gibson. Also, try their new expressions, ‘Heavy’, made with roasted spices, and the prism-like ‘Bright’ which features three times the concentration of juniper as the standard edition.
(43%, £34.99, Holyrood Distillery)
Edinburgh’s Electric Spirit Co:
Achroous: 98.5 Points
Within an unmissable, pillar box red bottle, seven botanicals including Sichuan pepper for ‘zing’ and sweet fennel are woven together. The first batches were originally distilled in a ten-litre glass still within the former Dunbar lemonade factory, making the Electric Spirit Co. the first distillery in Leith for 40 years. The mind behind is James Porteous, a former service designer turned ‘craft beer nerd’, and graduate of Heriot Watt. Porteous introduced returnable five-litre stainless steel kegs for the local on-trade. He says: "each one removes the equivalent of seven bottles of packaging waste and is priced the same as a 6 x 70cl case, meaning bars get just over a bottle of gin for free as a benefit."
(41%, £34.99/70cl, Electric Spirit Co.)
Outer Hebridean Slow, Sloe Gin:
Scottish Downpour Sloe and Bramble Cask Aged: 98.5 Points
The so-called ‘slow sloe gin’ comes from a distillery established in 2019 in North Uist, its shop housed in a 13th century cottage. The founders, Kate MacDonald and Jonny Ingledew, grew up in the area, from which brambles are collected on a barter system. ‘Bring us brambles and we’ll give you gin in return,’ says MacDonald. Stones of brought-in sloes (which fail to grow in the area) bring an enchanting fragrance of marzipan to the gin which is aged in Bourbon barrels. MacDonald mentions the whisky equipment for the next chapter of the project is scheduled to arrive next summer. Try it over ice with blood orange soda and a slice of orange.
(31%, £40/70cl, North Uist Distillery)
Chef’s Palate - Angus:
Lunun by Dean Banks: 98 Points
A finalist on MasterChef The Professionals, chef Dean Banks launched Lunun in autumn 2019. Distilled in his hometown of Arbroath, its name honours the secluded Lunan Bay nearby. The sextet of botanicals refers to Banks’ Asian-inflected dishes, which often feature yuzu, miso, sesame and ponzu, hence the inclusion of potent kaffir lime leaf, sea buckthorn, subtle Sichuan pepper, kombu, ginger and brightening lemongrass. You can find it at Banks’ Edinburgh restaurants, The Pompadour by Dean Banks at the Waldorf Astoria and the new Dulse, or at Haar eatery in St. Andrews or via his online shop.
Photo credit: Grant Anderson
(£49/70cl, Lunun Gin)
From the Northern Highlands:
Theodore Pictish: 98 Points
Theodore Pictish is distilled in an antique Charentais still located within restored farm buildings in Ardross which faces the dark Loch Dubh. Its slight tint is explained by an Oolong tea infusion. Featuring armed, bare-chested Highland Picts, the supposed first settlers of Scotland, on the packaging, the 16-sided bottle is a nod to the 16 botanicals. These include damask rose, bourbon vetiver, pomelo and pine. It is best appreciated neatly chilled in an eau de vie glass or as a double ‘T&T’ (i.e. Theodore and Tonic).
(43%, £36.95/70cl, House of Malt)
Game, Set, Match from St. Andrew’s:
Eden Mill Wildcard: 96 Points
Eden Mill, which also makes a honeyberry pepped gin for Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay, began a decade ago with the aim of reviving the lost art of distilling and brewing in St. Andrews, from which botanicals such as sea buckthorn berries are found. Presented in a lightweight bottle, Wildcard highlights Eden Mill’s ascension to become the official spirit of British lawn tennis. A fine gin for balmy summertime drinking, this easily mixable rendition is relatively subtly infused with Scottish strawberries and raspberries. Try it in their suggested serve, the ‘Smash’ in which it meets raspberry sorbet, sparkling wine, lime and mint – evoking a juniper enriched sgroppino.
(40%, £35/70cl, Eden Mill)
Field to Glass - Arbroath:
Arbikie AK’s: 98 Points
Named after Alexander Kirkwood Stirling (‘AK’), the father of the Stirling brothers and their inspiration for starting Arbikie Distillery, the wheat-based AK’s is the most balanced and versatile of a trio of field-to-glass gin releases which also includes the ‘wonky’ potato-based Kirsty's, so-called after Master Distiller, Kirsty Black, and the pea-based, ‘climate positive’ Nàdar. The wheat for the base grows in the relatively dry Angus terroir. For every AK's Gin sold, £1 is donated to support people living with motor neurone disease.
(43%, £39/70cl, Arbikie)
Eight Lands: 98 Points
Glenrinnes Distillery, its plate glass windows providing a dramatic view of the landscape, is found within a 6,000-acre family-run estate betwixt the Highlands and the River Spey where cattle, sheep and deer have been raised organically for over two decades. A true London Dry with juniper to the fore, the excellent martini grade gin is complemented by estate lingonberry, also known as cowberry, and sorrel. Also worth seeking out is the covetable Muscat barrel-aged vodka, of which father and stepson team, Alasdair Locke and Alex Christou, are rightly proud. (£46%, £39/70cl, Eight Lands)
Selkirk Tilda’s Tipple: 98 Points
Wild gorse gathered by hand from the lowland hills of Selkirkshire when in flower, also known as the ‘golden flower of Thor’, joins heather and Scots Pine in the special edition, Tilda’s Tipple which features plants which the late Matilda ‘Tilda’ Jaffray would have seen on her hikes. The sister-in-law of the mind behind Selkirk Distillers, Allan Walker, died of glioblastoma, and £5 of the proceeds from each bottle sold goes towards the Brain Tumour charity.
(43%, £35/70cl, Selkirk Distillers)
Blackwoods Navy Strength 2021: 97.5 Points
The 60% strength of this gin echoes the 60-degree north line of latitude from which ingredients, which reflect a specific year like coastal kelp, water mint and sea buckthorn in this 2021 edition, are hand-harvested. Blackwoods was born on Shetland, has been distilled in England, with production now relocated to the Scottish mainland. Its final home will be at the carbon negative Ardgowan gin and whisky distillery which is under construction in Inverkip, 25 miles west of Glasgow. If you can handle its muscle and steely juniper core, I recommend deploying the bold distillate in a truly grown-up Negroni.
The Botanist Plant Conservation Edition: 97.5 Points
£5 from each bottle sold of this exclusive, limited edition which is only available direct from the Islay distillery, Bruichladdich, goes towards supporting the work of 20 botanical gardens. The label includes endangered plants which The Botanist has already contributed to saving over the last two years, including Cloud Forest orchids in Mexico and native medicinal plants in Canada. However, the contents remain the same as the standard bottle, including 22 botanicals native to Islay. These, along with a further nine international ingredients, are distilled in the true-to-her-name, ‘ugly betty’ still.
(46%, £37/70cl, The Botanist)
From Ayrshire – a gateway martini:
Hendrick’s Orbium: 97 Points
Bottled in dark blue glass, Orbium was Hendrick’s first new product since the original was released in 1999. Featuring additional extracts of quinine, wormwood and lotus blossom in addition to the core rose and cucumber, this overall savoury gin, designed like the original by a Yorkshire native whose favourite flower is apparently the blue lotus, does evoke the aroma of a G&T on the nose, and is built for slippery (vermouth heavy) martinis.
(43.4%, £39.95/70cl, Secret Bottle Shop)
Barra Atlantic: 97 Points
From Scotland’s most westerly island, Barra Atlantic gin was founded by husband-and-wife, Michael and Katie Morrison, to reinvigorate life on the island for current and future generations. Of the 17 handpicked botanicals, wild carrageen seaweed, dominates not only the slick contents, but also the packaging. Hence, the marble effect label features sheets tinted by it. The Isle of Barra Distillers Foundation sees 1% of profits returned to the community, whether it be a new play park or for cleaning up marine areas.
(46%, £29/70cl, Isle of Barra)
An Aberdeenshire Old Tom:
Porter’s Tropical Old Tom: 97 Points
Porter’s was originally made in the basement of a cocktail bar. Using cool vacuum distillation, passion fruit, guava and white tea alongside juniper contribute towards this Old Tom, which, in style is slightly sweeter than a London Dry while being drier than Dutch Jenever. This viscous version is particularly pleasing with yuzu seltzer.
(40%, £34.25/70cl, Porter's)
The original London Dry – made in Fife:
Gordon’s 47.3%: 96.5 Points
Now distilled at Cameronbridge at Windygates, Fife rather than Southwark, Gordon’s still adheres to the 250-year-old recipe by the Londoner of Scottish descent, Alexander Gordon. Being juniper led, it is the pioneer of the ‘London Dry’ style. Rather than the 37% ABV version Brits are used to drinking at home, I prefer the 47.3% yellow label in which notes of pine, zest, liquorice and white pepper are intensified.
(£32.75/litre, Whisky Exchange)
Cask character from Glasgow:
Makar Cask Aged: 96,5 Points
The first gin made in Glasgow for a century, Makar is the old Scots word for a bard. Its seven botanicals including black peppercorns, coriander, cassia, angelica and liquorice are represented by the seven-sided bottle. Produced in small batches in pot still, Annie, the result is matured in 50-litre virgin oak casks for three months leading to a textural, piquant taste which combines refreshingly with ginger ale.
(43%, £28/70cl, Glasgow Distillery)
Flavours from Speyside:
Caorunn Scottish Raspberry: 96 Points
Crafted at Balmenach Distillery in the Highlands, Perthshire raspberry joins botanicals such as dandelion, heather, coul blush apple, bog myrtle and rowan berry which are distilled within a unique Copper Berry Chamber dating from the 1920s. Enjoy over ice with fresh raspberries and red apple slices or with lemon juice, Chambord, sugar syrup and soda as a Raspberry Collins.
(41.8%, £29/70cl, Caorunn)