Product of: United Kingdom
Initially resistant to the idea of distilling a gin, Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s famous head distiller, rapidly became the most enthusiastic exponent, tasting other gins on the market and looking to Islay, his native home, for the new gin’s signature botanicals. He also enthusiastically set about looking for a suitable still. Only ten years earlier, a small group of investors had reinstated Bruichladdich and due to limited funds, they did so with existing and acquired second-hand equipment. Perhaps, with this in mind, when the gin project was being developed at no time was buying a new custom made still even considered. Enter ‘Ugly Betty’.
The 11,600 litre Lomond pot-still used to distil The Botanist was rescued from the old Inverleven Distillery and due to its unshapely appearance is now known as ‘Ugly Betty’. She is the last known surviving example of an experimental cross between a Coffey still and a pot still developed after the Second World War by chemical engineer Alistair Cunningham and draftsman Arthur Warren at Hiram Walker.
The Lomond still was designed so that it could imitate the style of distillate produced by numerous other stills by adding or removing sections of its thick, column-like neck, so replicating the effect of different still “neck” lengths. One section housed three fin-like baffles which could be could be opened in varying degrees from horizontal to vertical so also varying the amount of reflux by moving the internal fins.
Built by Ramsden of London, Betty was the very first Lomond still and was installed in 1959 at Inverleven, the single malt distillery within the grounds of the huge Dumbarton grain distillery complex, just outside Glasgow. Inverleven single malt itself was made in a pair of regular pot stills while Betty was used to make a single malt named after the nearby Loch Lomond - hence Betty and the other similar stills which followed her, became known as Lomond stills. Incidentally, a Lomond still remains in use at Scapa distillery in Orkney but the internal baffles have long since been removed due to their constantly needing cleaning, involving taking the still to pieces.
Betty is the last Lomond still operating with its internal baffle plates still operational but Jim McEwan had other modifications made to Betty’s top two neck sections. Above the section which houses the Lomond baffle fins he had another section added which houses 80 copper tubes arranged in a honeycomb pattern. Referred by some to as “Jim’s Gattling Gun”, this slows the rate at which the vapour rises through Betty’s wide neck and also introduces the vapour to a large surface area of copper which removes any sulphates. Many believe that this additional copper contact also softens the spirit. The top section of the still is a water box, cooled by cold water continually being piped through the section so causing reflux and slowing down the passage of vapour to the lyne arm.
Jim not only modified the still itself, he also added a botanical chamber to the middle of the lyne arm. This is used to hold a bag of the more delicate botanicals, particularly the leaves and petals which are hand-picked on the island. The vapour must pass through these botanicals, so extracting their flavour. A return leg pipe in the base of the botanical chamber allows some further reflux back into the still’s neck.
Nine traditional botanicals (wild Islay juniper berries, cassia bark, angelica root, coriander seed, cinnamon bark, lemon and orange peel, liquorice root and oris root) form the Botanist’s base flavour, augmented with 22 native Islay botanicals.
The 22 native Islay botanicals used are all hand-picked by retired husband and wife botanists, Richard and Mavis Gulliver. They forage the islands hills, peat bogs and coastal shores to collect the botanicals and then prepare them for use in distillation, filling the bags used in the stills botanical basket. The botanicals are used dried or fresh, dependent on their availability – obviously more fresh leaves are available year round than flowers.
Botanist’s Islay botanicals
English Name (Scientific name) – Botanical characteristics
1. Apple Mint (Mentha x villosa) – sweet, delicate, menthol and apple.
2. Birch leaves (Betula pubescens) – spring woodlands.
3. Sweet Chamomile/Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile/Anthemis nobilis) – sweet, ripe apple.
4. Creeping Thistle flowers (Cirsium arvense) – Honey.
5. Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) – Pungent, earthy, hint of musk.
6. Whin Gorse flowers (Ulex europaeus) – Coconut.
7. Heather flowers (Calluna vulgaris) – Honey
8. Hawthorn flowers (Crataegus monogyna) – Heady, sweet, sharp, aniseed undertones.
9. Lady's Bedstraw flowers (Galium verum) – Sweet new mown hay.
10. Lemon Balm (Mellissa officinalis) – Fresh, sweet, lemon, green tea.
11. Meadow Sweet (Filipendula ulmaria) – Heady, sweet, summer meadows.
12. Peppermint leaves (Mentha x piperita) – Strong menthol.
13. Mugwort leaves (Artemissia vulgaris) – oily musk tones.
14. Red Clover flowers (Trifolium pratense) – Sweet honey,brown sugar, machair scent.
15. Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) – Aniseed, myrrh, faint camphor.
16. Sweet Gale/Bog Myrtle leaves (Myrica gale) – Warm, sweet, summery.
17. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) –Strongly aromatic, pungent.
18. Thyme leaves (Thymus valgaris) – Strong, sweet, piquant, aromatic.
19. Water Mint leaves (Mentha aquatica) – aromatic, menthol, refreshing.
20. White Clover (Trifolium repens) – Honey, hint of vinegar, machair scent.
21. Wood Sage leaves (Teucrium scorodonium) – Camphor, sage.
22. Spearmint/Garden mint (Mentha spicata) – Strong menthol.
The other, more traditional botanicals (barks, seeds and peels) are steeped in the pot still itself in the traditional manor. Betty is charged with 12,000 litres of wheat neutral spirit reduced in strength to around 50% alc./vol. using water from the nearby James Brown Spring at Octomore. Named after the farmer who owns the land where the spring emerges, the water is carried the two miles to distillery in tanks several times a week.
In the evening prior to a gin distillation, Jim starts the still to raise Betty’s temperature just to the point when she can barely be touched. He then starts loading the botanicals into the still, carefully floating them on the surface of the hot spirit. Using juniper berries and coriander which readily float first, Jim builds a botanical raft. The heat gradually causes the berries to pop and the botanicals sink. The steam is turned off and the still and its contents left to steep overnight. Distillation starts the next morning.
Betty has a disproportionately large number of steam heating pipes running across its base so allowing very controlled delivery of heat. Jim runs Betty at a low, constant pressure for the slow simmer 17 hour distillation, so gently coaxing complex aromatics from the botanicals.
The final gin distillate is reduced to bottling strength using the same locally sourced spring water as is used in distillation. No sugar or other additives are added and filtration is simply via a pad filter at ambient temperature to remove any particles - no chill filtration is used.
Unusually, in common with Bruichladdich’s single malts, bottling takes place at the distillery’s own onsite bottling hall.
Review and Tasting
Sampled on 16/11/2015
pungent, resiny piney juniper and eucalyptus with subtle parma violet, heather, candied ginger and sage.
Dry juniper with sappy pine dominating but with an integrated herbal complexity and faint liquorice sweetness.
Junipery pine dominance continues in the clean finish with faint lingering parma violet, liquorice and black pepper.
An "Islay Dry Gin" might suggest something peat influenced but The Botanist is superbly clean and juniper led, and while it features "22 native Islay botanicals," The Botanist is distinctly London dry in style.