Edinburgh’s gin boom: How did the Capital become the home of quality gin?

The current popularity of gin is best seen in Edinburgh.

Friday, 15th March 2019, 5:00 am
Updated Friday, 15th March 2019, 6:52 am

A decade ago, where there were no gin distilleries, today there are eight and more in the pipeline.

It was five years ago that Edinburgh’s first gin stills started producing the alcoholic spirit flavoured with juniper that we call gin.

We all know about Edinburgh Gin’s stills underneath the Rutland Hotel at the west end of Princes Street and Pickering’s converted-dog-kennel distillery at Summerhall, the old Royal Dick vet school.

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Edinburgh Gin  the multi-award-winning spirits brand  plans to invest in a new multi-million-pound distillery in Edinburgh city centre.

Their tours and gin-making experiences mean the two distilleries have become firm favourites with tourists and locals alike.

Edinburgh Gin also has ambitious plans to build a visitor centre in Market Street – perfectly placed for all those the Royal Mile tourists.

At about the same time as Edinburgh and Pickering’s were opening up, Derek and Karin Mair were starting to make Firkin gin in Leith.

Going into gin-making was a departure for Gleann Mór Spirits, their firm of independent whisky bottlers, but they used that experience as inspiration.

The gin Clan book cover

They matured some gin in a firkin, a small-sized whisky barrel, creating a gin which is a light golden colour and has notes of toffee caramel, vanilla and sweet oak.

They recently added the more traditional London Dry-style Leith Gin to their portfolio, following it up with LeithAL, a Navy strength edition. As I researched Scotland’s gins and their makers for my book The Gin Clan, it was apparent that the interest and enthusiasm for gin was pretty much countrywide, but it is Edinburgh that feels at the heart of things, with more than 20 different gins associated with the city.

And it is not just a recent phenomenon. Gin has been part of Edinburgh life for hundreds of years.

On the one hand there is the Dutch connection.

Marcus Pickering at Summerhall Distillery, Edinburgh. Pic: Ian Georgeson

Just across the North Sea, what is now the Netherlands, was historically one of Scotland’s closest trading partners.

Jenever, the juniper spirit that is the forerunner of gin, would have arrived aboard the ships docking in ports such as Aberdeen, Dundee and Leith.

Scots were often soldiers of fortune and would have fought with – or against – the Dutch and been aware of the jenever-fuelled “Dutch courage” of troops who were said to have drunk their ration before going into battle.

Thirsty sailors – and everyone else – required something to drink. With indifferent water supplies, spirits and ales were the answer and makers congregated in dock areas where they had easy access to raw materials and transport.

The Big Big Gin Festival at the Corn Exchange - Fiona Penman, Lynsey House, Heather Randall. Pic: Greg Macvean

There are records that show that around the docks of Leith there were eight licensed distilleries in 1777, and there were probably another 400 illegal stills as well.

Some of the spirit was heading south and James Stein is said to have exported 2,000 gallons of spirit in 1777 to be “rectified into gin”.

Over the decades Edinburgh’s spirit-making fortunes fluctuated and by the 1970s Melrose Drover was the last gin standing – until that is the modern gin boom of the past decade.

This history is an inspiration to some of the city’s gin makers but another key driver is Heriot-
Watt University.

Its International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) is the only organisation in the UK to offer Honours and Masters degrees in distilling and brewing and its students take advantage of one of the world’s most respected centres of distilling expertise.

In the five years to 2018, 387 students have graduated with an MSc and the interest of those graduates has increasingly been focussed on gin.

The Big Big Gin Festival at the Corn Exchange - Tom and Fidelma Muraska. Pic: Greg Macvean

Some of the graduate distillers remain in Edinburgh, others find their niche elsewhere.

And there are plenty opportunities.

My research for my book shows that in Scotland 23 distilleries went into production in 2018, with at least 12 more due to come on stream in 2019.

In addition, there were another 18 new gin brands launched.

In the Capital, four new distilleries opened last year and two future distilleries launched their first gins.

Fiona Laing’s book about Scottish Gin and Distilleries, The Gin Clan, is published by Great Northern Books price £11.99 on 28 March. Edinburgh Evening News readers can save £5 and get free UK postage and packaging when they order two copies at https://www.gnbooks.co.uk/product/the-gin-clan-sco/