Gin distilleries in Scotland, we hear a lot about them: they're new, they're exciting, they're everywhere. The BBC predict that gin consumption will outstrip malt whisky sales by 2020 and Scotland currently produces over 70% of that gin tidal wave. Yet, what makes a gin Scottish? Legally, nothing.
There are varying degrees of 'Scottishness' in the gin industry. From made-from-scratch in Scotland, to 'inspired by Scotland' – whatever that means. Many presume that the Scottish qualifier in Scottish gin is much the same as Scotch whisky, a stamp of provenance and quality. The public understanding of Scottish gin is 'made in Scotland', as illustrated by every poll you come across. However, this is not the case.
Scottish gin has not achieved legal geographical indication as Scotch whisky has. A growing number of gins branded as Scottish are made in England which goes largely unnoticed in an industry where 'craft', 'small batch' and 'provenance' are synonymous and expected. At the last count, there were 15-20 'Scottish' branded gins that have never seen Scotland before they hit the shelves – many of which would surprise you.
Why does geography even matter when it comes to food and drink? At its heart, geographical indication (GI) – the 'Cornish' of pasty, the 'Jersey Royal' of potatoes, the 'Stornoway' of black pudding – is to act as a certification. GI is the concept of terroir enforced and it can be considered an extension of the European tradition of linking exclusive land with premium produce. Through heritage, or traditional process, or both, products are protected to ensure a level of consistency is delivered to the public.
The most monstrous example of this in Scotland is 'Scotch malt whisky'. As defined by the Scotch Malt Whisky Regulations 2009, it: must be produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley, must be processed at that distillery into mash, must be fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast, must be distilled to an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8%, must be wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland, must be matured in oak casks with a capacity not exceeding 700 litres for at least three years, must retain authentic colour, aroma and taste, must have no added substances other than water and caramel colouring, and must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. As you can see, there's very little wiggle room.
It is perhaps the problem with gin that no such standard of process or immediate heritage is yet established in Scotland. Gin has no one way of production, that's what makes it exciting and dynamic, but also slippery. The legal definition of gin is a spirit predominantly flavoured with juniper – yet even this is open to interpretation with no gin police in sight beyond the occasional outrage on Twitter.
Gin can be made in a column still, a pot still, or (if compounded) no still at all. Scotland has a well-documented history of distilling Scotch, but only whispers of gin, nothing in comparison to its London Dry Hogarth's Gin Lane neighbour. Subsequently, Scottish gin taps into alternative narratives of general distilling, farming and production legacy.
The frustration of the slippery category of gin is possible as there is no authority akin to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. There is nobody to say: 'This is gin and I would know', or 'You can't make that, there are rules'. With this, there is a risk of dilution of the sector, if we agree that GI protects quality, then Scottish gin is vulnerable. With the dawn of the Scottish gin era, we have seen a growth spurt from gin the drink, to gin the vast and varied category. There is a level of self-policing.
For example, the Scottish Distillers Association run a 'red tractor'-like scheme where Scottish distilleries can opt into certification and display this through a logo on their bottle. Although a great idea towards transparency, the issue is this system is not uniform and it lives in relative obscurity in the eyes of the public. Interestingly, the Scottish Distillers Association changed its name from the Scottish Craft Distillers Association, showing the shift in debate from what is craft to what is Scottish.
And so the Scottish gin scene may appear like the Wild West of the drink industry except with no Sheriff beyond the excise bank. Like Gotham, but Batman's been dead for a while. However, there is a charm. Unlike the straitjacketed world of Scotch whisky, in gin, you are free to do as you please and push boundaries to something new and exciting. Authorities, rules and GI, can stifle creativity. What if you want to make a whisky with a new exciting cask? Experiment with something crazy like chestnut or juniper wood or, I don't know, a nice chunk of walnut. Do as you like but you will not be bottling it as Scotch whisky, and as such, it will be worth less.
With the maturation process in general, distillers may be discouraged from experimenting as it is such an investment, both in cash and time, before you have a result. Whereas with gin there is less of an investment, less pressure, you can make something fun without worrying about the investment or the weight of heritage. Whisky, with its GI, with its process and heritage, is elevated to something otherworldly. You shouldn't mess around with it, you shouldn't add ice, or heaven forbid a mixer. Do we really want gin to be so precious?
I'm less in favour of the straitjacket approach but I do think it could benefit from an ankle monitor to keep tabs before gin makes a complete break for it. I vote for transparency. If you are benefiting off the 'Scottishness' of your gin, then by the court of public opinion it should at least be made in Scotland. Scottish gin matters as far as Scottishness in general matters. To a domestic consumer, this may mean supporting the local economy, to the international market, this is more about Scottish as a premium brand. If you think Scottish gin should be made in Scotland, then ensure that when you buy Scottish gin it is made in Scotland. Head over to the Scottish Gin Society website, and have a quick search through the catalogue.
We have the ability to push towards transparency in a new and exciting scene. Know what you buy and let your priorities be known. You
have the power. Go into a drinks shop and shout 'Scottish gin I'm not a stalker but I do want to know where you are'. Like a concerned mum of a troubled teen, Scottish gin, we are here for you.
Helen Stewart is founder of Badvo Distillery in Pitlochry