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Harris in a bottle — The “social distillery” making a difference to island life

Peter Urpeth
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Simon Erlanger, managing director of Isle of Harris Distillery.

Peter Urpeth meets a team making a difference by making gin.


Apart from the rich maritime notes that sugar kelp adds to Isle of Harris Gin as a distinctive and unique botanical in the distilling process, an abundance of serendipity might be considered a key ingredient in the recipe for the distillery’s success. But, as Simon Erlanger (pictured above), managing director of Isle of Harris Distillers, points out: “Some of your luck you are given, some you make for yourself.”

“The making your own luck bit for me,” continues Simon Erlanger, “comes down to the fact that you have to make sure that you have something that is compellingly different, something that is inspiringly different because the world doesn’t need another whisky, the world doesn’t need another gin.

“Our story is different – we are the first social distillery. This distillery was created with the single idea of helping to regenerate the local economy. We are the first legal distillery in the Isle of Harris. We are the first distillery that uses sugar kelp as a botanical for the gin, and we are also the first distillery to only sell its gin directly to the consumer.”

The distillery was the original vision of founder Anderson Bakewell – a US-born musicologist who came to and fell in love with the island as a young man, more than 50 years ago. In the early 2000s, Bakewell decided to act to try to stem the ravages of economic decline that had seen Harris’s population fall to below 2000 residents, and which could offer little or no chance for young people to stay on the island and to work.

 

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Standing beside ‘The Dottach’ – the small copper gin still the distillery commissioned from Frilli – a family-owned Italian company who specialise in the manufacture of distillery equipment for the production of Grappa, Simon reflects: “Anderson Bakewell used to ask himself what kind of initiative might give young people in particular, an opportunity to stay on the island. He wanted to directly create employment on a sustainable basis and he had the thought – wouldn’t it be amazing if you could somehow capture the essence of Harris in a bottle and send it out to the world?”

The answer to all of these questions was a distillery – a business that would last for generations and which would not be focused on shorter-term enterprise.

“There are three legs to the stool of this business”, continues Simon, “the most important part of which is the gin that goes into the bottle. Then there’s the bottle it goes into, as people do drink with their eyes, and what you are pouring the gin from is a really important part of the experience. Then, the third leg is the story – the place, the people, the distillery, the ethos of the business and what we are all about, and I think that it is getting these three parts to work together that has made it such an incredible success.”

The recipe for Harris gin developed out of the distillery’s early employment of an agronomist and an ethnobotanist.

“Before we even raised the money to build the distillery, we did a lot of thinking about every spirit we would be producing, and what is it about that spirit that is going to make it distinctive? What is it that is going to make it resonate as something from Harris?”

Anderson Bakewell’s daughter is an agronomist and one of her friends is an ethnobotanist, and this team spent two weeks on Harris scouring the islands for botanicals that might produce something of interest, something distinctive but which could also be sustainably harvestable.

“I then received from them,” continues Simon, “a big report on a lot of plants that grow above the sea on the land, that we could potentially use. But the ethnobotanist was actually a fanatical wild swimmer and what struck me in the report was this idea of sugar kelp. I had never actually heard the name before, and she explained to me that sugar kelp has this sweet / savoury element to it which she thought would provide a real level of sophistication and complexity to a gin.”

isle of harris gin distillery

Apart from its inclusion in the founding recipe of isle of Harris Gin, sugar kelp has become the basis of the distillery’s recommended ‘serve’ – using the hand-dived harvest of Outer Hebridean kelp, the distillery also produces Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water – a lower alcohol distillation to be added to the gin in small drops from the pipette included in its neat dropper bottle. The recommended ‘serve’ adds Walter Gregor’s Scottish Tonic with Quinine, ice and grapefruit to taste.

Standing at the front of the distillery, looking out towards the harbour and the sea that laps against the distilleries boundary walls, when it comes to the success of the Isle of Harris Distillery, there’s certainly something in the water.