This 'Scottish G&T' not just your usual drink

The Scottish G&T kit (Photo by Bill Dowd)
Scottish G&T kit (photo by Bill Dowd)
The current, and I hope brief, cooling off and accompanying rain in my Upstate New York corner of the universe are robbing me of something I cherish in the usual dog days of summer: thirst.

I don't get very excited about gin during most of the year, but when it comes to July and August I begin looking forward to a G&T, as my Brit friends call the drink -- gin and tonic, with a slice of lime in a chilled glass. Simple, direct, thirst quenching, and oh so satisfying.

This summer I've been sticking to what I refer to as a "Scottish G&T" out of deference to the two main ingredients -- Fever Tree Tonic Water made in England but introduced to me in Scotland, and Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin. Over the years, I've tried many types of gins and many types of mixers. These two, superb on their own to my taste, earn even higher accolades as a combination.

In making both gin and tonic water, the portfolio of ingredients is paramount since they use more ingredients than most mixers and most distilled spirits. Many Americans are unfamiliar with both brands. To be honest, I wasn't familiar with Fever Tree mixers until a tavern crawl in Edinburgh, Scotland, some years ago when I found that even the meanest of pubs there looked down on serving anything else. After that experience, I was hooked. Not only on the tonic but on the Bitter Lemon and I'm fascinated by its latest mixer just out, something called Aromatic Tonic Water that expands the line of mixers to seven.

I mentioned the wide variety of ingredients -- marigiold extracts, Tanzanian bitter orange and a half-dozen other botanicals -- sourced from around the globe to make the basic Fever Tree recipe. (That name, incidentally, comes from the nickname for the cinchona tree from which quinine, used to treat malaria but also a key ingredient in tonic, is taken.) Here's Fever Tree's explanation of its newest offering:  

"Aromatic Tonic Water is inspired by a historic recipe Tim [Warrillow], our co-founder [with Charles Rolls of Plymouth Gin fame], discovered whilst researching early references of tonics. Angostura bark was used by Royal Navy surgeons as a fever remedy or 'tonic' in the early 19th Century as a supplement to the long known anti-fever prescription of cinchona bark.

"Fast forward 200 years, and Fever Tree have once again gone to the ends of the Earth to source all-natural ingredients in this 21st Century twist. The highest quality angostura bark sourced from South America is blended with our signature quinine from the Congo as well as aromatic ingredients including cardamom from Guatemala, pimento berries from Jamaica, and ginger from Cochin. With subtle aromas of spice and fresh citrus, Aromatic Tonic offers a uniquely refreshing flavor, designed to be paired with juniper-rich and robust gins."

One such gin is Caorunn (pronounced ka-roon), which like most gins uses a basic assortment of botanicals such as juniper berries, cardamom, lemon and orange citrus peels, anjelica, and cassia bark has quite a different twist on its recipe. Five of its 11 botanicals are sourced not from Africa or Asia or South America, but rather from right around its Balmenach Distillery in Scotland's iconic Speyside region that is home to dozens of distilleries. They are rowan berries (caorunn is the Scots Celtic word for rowan), bog myrtle, dandelion, Coul Blush apple and, of course, heather, that most Scottish of all plants.

Gathering them requires foraging right before a distilling session headed by master distiller Simon Buley because most of those local plants are short-season ones and difficult to store.

Buley, who suggests garnishing a G&T with a slice of Coul Blush apple rather than the traditional lime, says, "In the Scottish Highlands we live in harmony with nature, and Caorunn is a truly Scottish gin. It draws on the heritage, craft, and expertise of local people to harness Scotland's unique natural resources and age-old botanicals."

While Caorunn is a relative newcomer to the world market, the Balmenach Distillery, located at the bottom of the Haughs of Cromdale less than a mile from the River Spey, is no johnny-come-lately. It was founded in 1824 by James McGregor, a local farmer with a family penchant for unlicensed distilling, a heritage shared with many other Speyside families. Today, the distillery is owned by Inver House Distillers Ltd., a company that also owns the Speyburn-Glenlivet, Knockdhu, Balblair, and Old Pulteney distilleries.

Buley worked his way up from starting at Balmenach as a shift operator in 1998. Today, in addition to overseeing Balmenach whisky production, he creates Caorunn gin in the world's only Copper Berry Chamber still that was built nearly 100 years ago. Some competitors use the same vapor/infusion distillation he does, but they also use more traditionally-shaped stills. Buley, by contrast, funnels the vapor to the Berry Chamber, a gimmicky-looking device originally used to extract fusel oils when distilling perfumes.

As Gintime magazine describes it, "It is a round horizontal chamber with a copper frame (copper is used in the distillation of spirits because it removes sulphur and unwanted compounds) and it contains four large horizontally positioned trays. Caorunn’s 11 botanicals are spread on these trays in such a way as to allow the spirit vapor to pick up the broadest range of flavors over the widest possible area. ... It takes four hours to distill 1,000 liters of spirit into gin but, as the old adage goes, good things come to those who wait. Certainly this particular method of distillation allows the aromatic notes of the six classic gin botanicals ... to be deeply imbedded in the spirit. At the same time the more elusive, fragrant notes of the Celtic botanicals ... are captured and held. Those Speyside distillers, they do know what they are doing."

I echo that enthusiasm. As to putting together your "Scottish G&T kit," I'd suggest online ordering of Fever Tree products ($35 for a 24-pack of 6.8-ounce glass bottles via Amazon, for example) because I've been unable to reliably source the brand locally; and, if your favorite liquor store does not stock Caorunn it certainly should be able to custom order you a bottle. A suggestion: order more than one despite the suggested retail price of $42 per 750ml bottle. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

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