THE BORDERS & COOPER KING DISTILLERIES
Awesome day today; we drove a total of about 250 miles, but our two stops were well worth it. Our Edinburgh apartment had provided us with two nights of welcome space, quiet and privacy before hitting the road again for a big drive to visit the last two distilleries on our trip. After a quick stop to buy a new bag (and a Batman) we were on our way to the Scottish Borders and the brand-new Borders Distillery in Hawick (pronounced ‘hoik’).
The Scottish Borders region occupies an area in the south-east of Scotland but doesn’t include the whole of the Scotland/England border. It is a predominately rural area, perhaps most well know as the birthplace of Tweed, but was once home to many distilleries due to its close proximity fresh water and barely crops.
The Borders Distillery is owned by the Three Stills Company and is not a small craft distilling enterprise, but it’s not massive either; think modest sized with room for expansion. The distillery began producing spirit in March this year and has only been open to the public since May. The Three Stills Company currently produced blends under the Clan Fraser and Lower East Side whisky labels, but this new distillery will allow them to produce their own single malt whisky and gin products.
I asked Tony Roberts, one of the four directors of the Three Stills Company, why build a distillery in the Scottish Borders?
He told me they wanted to build a distillery somewhere where it wouldn’t be just another distillery and that the Scottish Borders presented a unique opportunity to be the first legal distillery in the area for 180 years and bring distilling back to the Borders.
Barely has been produced in the area for centuries and as was the custom, local farmers turned to distilling to make the most of their excess crop. When distilling became regulated, the arrival of excise men drove small scale (illicit) distilling north into the more inaccessible areas of Scotland and distilling disappeared from the Scottish Borders less than 15 years after the excise bill passed.
The distillery itself looks fantastic, having been retrofitted inside a historic Victorian building, last used by the Hawick Electric Company.
Tony was very proud of the way the distillery turned out and I can see why; the old buildings have been restored and stripped back to expose the original stone work and the use of natural woodwork in the new construction sections look perfectly in harmony with their surroundings. The still room contains four attractive pot stills and a large continuous still used for gin production. Interestingly, Borders Distillery will use the same malt-based spirit for both whisky and gin; a point of difference in the increasingly crowded gin market.
We were given a very informative and entertaining tour by Charlie, who had to bring his A-game since his boss was on the tour with us. Borders Distillery uses locally sourced concerto barley, delivered to the distillery pre-malted with hot air, not peat and is looking to arrange local bond storage so that they can keep as much of the production within the Scottish Borders.
I got to try their latest prototype gin which is probably very close to the final recipe due to come to market in July.
As I said before, it uses a malt-based spirit produced on site rather than an imported neutral spirit and the botanical are infused using a vapour infusion method. I found it to be very pleasant tasting and quite citrus forward which is how I generally like my gin. My dad even enjoyed it after proclaiming “I don’t like gin.” five seconds prior to tasting it.
Next up, Dad and I headed south, crossing from Scotland into England to visit the last distillery of our trip, Cooper King, in Yorkshire.
I have been following Cooper King distillery for some time and this was a very special visit for me. In 2014, Cooper King founders, Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume, a successful scientist and architect travelled to Australia in search of adventure and a break from the stresses of professional life. Their journey led them to Tasmania where they discovered the world of distilling and were blown away by the passion and can-do attitude of the local Tasmanian distillers. This set Abbie and Chris on a new path towards creating their own distillery and an essential link to that defining period in their lives is their copper still, designed, built and shipped from Tasmania all the way to Yorkshire.
It was such a strange yet comforting experience to walk into a distillery in England and see a highly familiar (at least to me) still; the only one of its kind for at least 17,000km.
I had conversed with Abbie and Chris a few times in the past, but this was the first time we had met in person and my dad and I had a wonderful time chatting and tasting with them. While the Tassie copper still will be used for whisky production, Abbie has brought her science background to gin distilling by choosing to use a vacuum still (probably more at home in a lab) than a traditional continuous or pot still.
Vacuum distillation is a method of distillation where reduced pressure allows for boiling at lower temperatures.
This creates unique opportunities for gin production, since distillates of the more delicate botanicals can be produced at lower temperatures, slowing decomposition and maximising aroma and flavour extraction. In developing their gin recipe, Abbie worked backwards, knowing the kind of favour and aroma profile she wanted to achieve. Vacuum distillation allowed her to produce isolated botanical distillates and then mix these in various ratios until the desired profile was achieved.
I found this process to be fascinating and was thrilled to be offered some unusual distillates to sample. Highlights included a Hogweed distillate that reminded me of the new rain smell that only exists for the first few minutes of a rain storm and Scots Pine, that didn’t smell ‘piney’ at all but rather closer to fresh celery. I would have loved to experiment with all the different distillates and create my own gin, but Abbie’s recipe used for the Cooper Kin gin (which is now on sale), is superb.
Cooper King should begin producing their own malt spirit this year and when they do, not only will they be using a unique Tasmania copper still, but also Maris Otter barley; which is a British-developed barley from the sixties producing a stronger flavour profile than the common Concerto barely, but at the expense of total fermentable sugar yield.
It was a pleasure to meet Abbie and Chris in person and to see a little Tassie still on the opposite side of the world. Tomorrow we head further south to Corby, where Dad spent part of his childhood.