Gin from Scotland, home of the world’s great single malts? At first it
might seem that someone didn’t get the memo. Look closer, and you’ll
find a visionary who read the memo, cheerfully tore it up, and went on
to pursue his dream.
The visionary is Simon Buley at Balmenach Distillery in Speyside, founded in 1824 by James McGregor. A devotee of gin, Buley had toyed with the idea of making one at Balmenach from the time of his arrival there, but not just any gin. He wanted to craft a spirit that would make use of the pure, local spring water as well as historical Scottish botanicals. His idea was to fuse tradition and modernity, to create a gin that would bring the past into the present.
Buley’s concept eventually became Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin (pronounced “ka-roon”), which launched in 2009. At the heart of Caorunn are five Celtic botanicals that represent the soul of the Highlands landscape. There’s heather, dandelion leaf, bog myrtle and could blush apple (a species of fruit native to the region, once thought to be extinct), but the essence of this gin is the rowan berry. The rowan tree was regarded as sacred by the ancient Celts, and its fruit---described as “sharp and sour but sweet and succulent at the same time”---was historically used to produce wine, beer, ale, cider and spirits.
The production process used to make Caorunn is as interesting as the gin
itself. It is first triple-distilled to yield a neutral grain spirit.
The spirit is then vaporized in Balmenach’s unique Copper Berry Chamber,
a device dating to the 1920’s, prevalent in an era when the production
of gin was more leisurely and time-consuming than it is today. Buley
loads the five Celtic botanicals into the four trays of the Berry
Chamber along with six traditional botanicals (juniper, coriander,
cassia bark, angelica root, lemon and orange peel), and allows several
days for their aromas and flavors to infuse into the vaporized spirit. A
mere 1,000 liters are made in each batch, and the gin is bottled at
83.6 proof (41.8% alcohol).
The bottle is intriguing as well. The striking five-sided design was inspired by Scottish Art Nouveau, a movement led by architects and artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). It’s easy to see why Scottish Art Nouveau appealed to Simon Buley. The movement placed emphasis on making art a part of everyday life, and applied artistic designs to ordinary objects and organic forms of nature.
Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin ($38) has a fragrant, appealing nose with scents of ripe citrus, apple and wild berry, underlined by a pleasant herbal note. The spirit enters the mouth gracefully, with a mélange of gentle and integrated flavors in the mid palate---citrus peel, pepper and exotic spices. The texture is remarkably soft and plump, and the finish unfolds in stages, leaving a resonant hint of lemon zest on the palate (www.caorunngin.com).
If you haven’t had a classic gin martini in a while, consider coming home; make sure it’s ice cold, straight up, and garnished with a slice of red apple. Or consider the Alexander cocktail (not to be confused with its opulent descendant and namesake, the Brandy Alexander). The original Alexander dates to 1915 and was invented by legendary bartender Hugo Ensslin. Ensslin’s recipe calls for equal parts of gin, white Crème de Cacao and sweet cream, but Caorunn has a compelling version on its website, devised by Ervin Trykowski. Combine 2 ounces of Caorunn gin in a Boston shaker with .75 oz. white Crème de Cacao, .75 oz. milk and 1.5 oz. cream. Shake, double strain into a Coupette glass, and you’re in for an elegant cocktail hour.