Gin and birthdays go together like bread and butter, and on 31 July the wonderful Caorunn Gin turns 10 years old! To celebrate, we scooted up to the Scottish Highlands and had a look at what makes it so special.
As we arrive in Inverness, it seems we might get something of a rarity; a truly sunny day in the Scottish Highlands. It was short-lived, and we’re soon given a true Speyside greeting as we run, huddled under multiple umbrellas, into Balmenach Distillery, home of Caorunn Gin.
Protected from the elements, Gin & Tonics are swiftly passed around, and we chat to gin master Simon Buley about his time at the distillery. The history of the site begins long before Caorunn Gin’s journey, though. Balmenach Distillery was founded in 1824 as one of the very first licensed Scotch whisky distilleries, and Buley has worked at Balmenach for 31 years, before Caorunn was even a twinkle in someone’s eye.
It wasn’t until August 2009, the very beginning of the gin boom, that Caorunn was launched, with production taking over what used to be the cask filling store. The Scottish gin boasts many points of difference, from its star botanicals down to the actual distillation process (more on that later). Within the 11-botanical recipe, five Celtic botanicals are hand-foraged by Buley himself, and he points just across the road to where the native plants are collected. It’s no more than a 10 minute walk to any of them, so when it says ‘locally-foraged’ you’re in for the real deal. Buley explains during the growing season, botanicals are picked fresh just before distillation. At the end of season, they’ll pick enough to last them through until next year, ensuring they’re always locally-grown. The Celtic botanicals hold particular significance, as “Caorunn is all about the five,” Buley tells us. The bottle even has five sides, as well as sporting the five-pointed asterisk motif. The devil’s in the detail.
The star botanicals
First off, you have rowan berry. The name itself, Caorunn, is Celtic for ‘rowan berry’, which gives a somewhat Christmassy note. Then there’s heather. “Look where we are, it’s everywhere!” He laughs. “We’re going to use it if we can.” Heather brings those sweeter floral notes, and both the shoot and flowers are used.
Next, dandelion leaf, and Buley notes that foraging for this one isn’t too much of a task. “It grows wherever you don’t want it to grow!” Apparently, dandelion leaf is becoming a rather trendy salad ingredient these days, though we much prefer it in our gin. Then there’s bog myrtle, which was historically used flavour beer before hops, so you can imagine what it imparts to the gin.
Last but not least, you have Coul blush apple, which is native to northernmost Britain. There’s a very short growing season for these apples, in which there can be weather extremes, from rain to shine to snow. The apple trees surrounding the distillery have been there since around 1927, the hardy fellas. The other six botanicals will be much more familiar to gin lovers, but hail from slightly further afield: juniper, coriander, lemon and orange peel, angelica root and cassia bark.
Copper Berry Chamber fun!
Once foraged, what does Buley do with these botanicals? He uses the world’s only (yes, really) working Copper Berry Chamber, infusing them into vapourised grain spirit. You’ll be forgiven for not knowing what on earth a Copper Berry Chamber is. The chamber was made in the US and previously used in the perfume industry. To make Caorunn, vapour enters the bottom of the chamber and passes up through four perforated trays, grabbing the flavours of each botanical on its way through.
Where each botanical is placed in the chamber is pivotal. The top only has 10 botanicals, missing heather because the flowers are so light that the vapour would pick them up and carry them into the final liquid! Although we’re sure it would look rather lovely, Buley most definitely won’t allow that to happen.
Not only is it important where each botanical is placed, there’s also an exact science to how full the trays are. “If it’s too deep, the vapours can’t pass through and condense back into a liquid and drop back into the bottom of the chamber,” Buley explains. “If it’s too shallow, the vapours pass through too quickly without picking up flavours.” Slow and steady wins the race with this distillation. The gin is also twice-distilled because some botanicals need rehydrating before they give off any flavour. When the spirit first comes off the still, “it’s basically a genever, all we can taste is juniper”. In the second distillation, the juniper gives off almost nothing at all, and the rest of the botanicals can start paying their dues. Finally, the delicious spirit is blended with Highland spring water, and voilà! You have Caorunn Gin.
After nearly 10 years of the original gin standing solitary, earlier this year the brand launched two new editions: the Highland Strength and Raspberry expressions. Tweaks to the original formula are minimal (if it ain’t broke, and all that). Highland Strength has the exact same botanical recipe, only it stands at a handsome 54% ABV, with the higher strength amplifying the signature Celtic botanicals. Meanwhile, the Raspberry expression has the addition of infused fresh Scottish Perthshire raspberries, and that’s it. The fruity expression truly captures some of that natural tartness in there.
So that’s the first decade, what’s next for Caorunn? The brand is evolving with the times, and currently uses a biomass boiler where previously it used an oil heater, which guzzled through an eye-watering 40,000 litres of oil a week. The team are in the process of building an anaerobic digestion plant, into which all the waste products from the distillery will be fed. When fully functional it will also generate electricity, allowing the distillery to be 80% self-sufficient. In the next six months, Buley tells us, they expect the whole site to be running off renewable energy.
Buley is also eager to use more home-grown botanicals. As he points out, there’s no way that the small botanical garden could ever produce enough juniper for every batch of gin. However, juniper is of course quite literally the defining feature of gin, so if, in the future, even a tiny percentage of the juniper in Caorunn is Scottish then that’s most certainly a win. When the juniper is fully grown, “we’ll start using a handful of it, so we can actually say we’re using some of our own grown botanicals in it,” Simon tells us.
What better way to celebrate Caorunn’s birthday than with the gin itself?! The signature serve is simply with tonic and a slice of red apple to garnish, though if you’re feeling more experimental then here are some more outlandish serves.
The Caorunn Raspberry Smash
What you’ll need:
2 parts Pressed Apple Juice
Build both ingredients over ice and garnish with pink lady apple slices and fresh raspberries.
The Pale Highland Negroni
What you’ll need:
25ml Dry Vermouth
25ml Cocchi Americano
Lemon Zest for garnish
Build in a mixing glass and stir until it’s chilled and diluted, then garnish with lemon zest.