At the Sugar House distillery in Dumbarton, there’s a stag’s head on the wall. That’s not unusual for Scotland, you might say, and you’d be right – except that this one is used as a hatstand – a metaphorical two fingers to the traditional image of the distilling industry, and the distillery is not set in the rolling acres of the Highlands, but a somewhat scruffy industrial unit on the outskirts of town.
Sugar House is one of three distilleries that produced huge online spirits retailer The Whisky Exchange’s spirits of the year. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the winners are all Scottish. “We didn’t actually realise the Scottish connection until a few days after we had all the winners,” the site’s co-founder Sukhinder Singh says incredulously.
The tradition of drinking rum is firmly established in Scotland, especially in Glasgow, where there were once four sugar houses, as rum distilleries were known. And they make it from scratch: “We’re such a small-scale outfit that we can make anything we want,” says Sugar House’s distiller Ross Bradley. And they do: witness their 47% Scotch Bonnet Spiced Rum, which will blow your head off.
Over at the Holyrood distillery in Edinburgh, it’s the juniper-rich Height of Arrows gin (£28.95, 43%) that caught the attention of the Whisky Exchange’s buyers, but I’m equally grabbed by its “new-make” spirits (effectively, unaged whiskies) that owe their flavour to a range of speciality malts. (Distillery manager Marc Watson used to be a brewer, and that has influenced Holyrood’s ingredient-led approach to distillation.)
Gin is also a focus at Thompson Bros, a new organic distiller housed at Dornoch Castle hotel on the east coast that, remarkably, makes the fantastically summery Mediterranean gin in today’s pick. They started out as an independent bottler, but, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, are now making their own spirits.
Then there are distilleries such as Deanston, which has been going for a while as a component of better-known brands but is now striking out in a more innovative direction under new distiller Brendan McCarron. Although Deanston won whisky of the year for its 18-year-old, it’s the brand’s much younger, seductively creamy Virgin Oak bottling (see today’s pick) that’s McCarron’s own favourite. Apparently, the secret is an unappealing-looking tank of black gunge called the feints receiver, which is redistilled and contributes to the spirit’s particularly waxy character. And that’s only dipping a toe into the trend towards sustainable distilling, but that will have to keep for another week. Scottish distilling is really on a roll right now.
Five spirits you might not expect to come from Scotland
Thompson Bros Organic Mediterranean Gin £31.95 The Whisky Exchange and Royal Mile Whiskies, 45.7%. Gorgeous, bright, citrussy gin flavoured with lemon, orange and bergamot – as good on its own as it is with tonic.