I was put in touch with the team at The Borders Distillery as part of my involvement with International Scottish Gin Day. After talking to Rod, their Head of marketing at the distillery, I arranged a visit to see for myself how William Kerr’s Borders Gin was made and share their journey with you all.
For full disclosure I received a lovely bag of treats, including a bottle of William Kerr’s Borders Gin, after my tour. My review and all opinions are personal and in no way affiliated with The Borders Distillery. As always I will be honest and open about my thoughts.
I’m always keen to promote Scottish Gin, but like to look beneath the surface and seek out brands who go beyond just the spirit. Brands who have set out with bigger ambitions and who are taking a chance and trying out something new. So, when Nat from The Gin Cooperative put me in touch with The Borders Distillery, makers of William Kerr’s Borders Gin, I was keen to find out more.
The founders of The Borders Distillery set out with the vision to bring single malt production back to the Scottish Borders. And indeed The Borders Distillery is the first whisky distillery to be operating in The Scottish Borders since 1837. Hawick is a manufacturing town having had mills operating there since 1771. Brought in by the soft water and great farmland this area is still a mill town today. And this same water and farmland are also what now bring a sense of identity to William Kerr’s Borders Gin.
Finding a building was key. The old Urban Electric Co building, that they have so tastefully renovated, looks like it has stood as a distillery for centuries. It started life in 1903 providing electricity for the many mills in Hawick and produced so much electric that it was able to power more of the town. Walking inside you can’t help but feel a little “wow” escape at the feeling of the building and the touches that have been put in to make it feel like a step into history. Sitting proudly in the middle of Hawick it’s a great idea having a distillery that feels like part of a town rather than a separate entity as many are. As well as a regeneration project the building also holds a secret. A bore hole under the building allows them to pull the freshest water from an underground lake. This water plays a huge role in the end spirit.
The name William Kerr came from a famous son of the town of Hawick. He became a gardener at The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and was sent to Asia. There he became a prolific plant collector, sending 238 species back to Kew. William Kerr’s Borders Gin was named to honour this man and his enthusiasm for plants and nature and his sense of adventure.
Barley isn’t something you see a lot of in most gin distilleries, yet John (distillery manager) was quick to explain to me what barley means at The Borders Distillery.
They use locally grown Barley, all harvested from farms within 20miles. This means a limited carbon footprint and supporting the local economy. Also ensuring that terroir and nature play as big a role as possible in the production of their spirits. The crushed malted barley creates a mix of husk, grist and flour which is so important to get the best yield. This goes into a mash tun and hot water is added. This sugary mix is called wort. The wort is then cooked to release the sugars. The leftover malt is called draff and can be sold for animal feed in winter and during the summer it goes to local farms to make biogas. Zero waste is a big goal for these guys and the idea of a circular economy is crucial to their thinking.
In the washback, yeast is added to the wort to start fermentation. During this time the yeast feeds off the sugar turning it to alcohol and also developing initial flavours. They ferment for 80 hours. After this time it is transferred to a copper wash still. It is heated and this removed impurities and some of the unwanted flavourings that have been created. The spirit now is what’s called low wine and it is heated and purified to make it more concentrated.
It is now that the skills of the distillers come into play as they analyse these characteristics. The first liquid off the still is called the heads, it is unwanted and goes back to be redistilled. The next part is the heart, the spirit will be perfect and balanced, this is collected in a spirits safe and will be around 71%. The tail end is the feints and is treated the same as the heads.
Getting to this part they now have a new malt spirit. Most of this goes into oak casks to produce whisky. The first casks were put down in 2018 so it wont be long before there is news about that I’m sure! The rest goes on to make William Kerr’s Borders Gin (and also Puffing Billy Vodka). The spirit is distilled through charcoal which gives it an incredible smooth flavour. Now we get to the unique part. The Borders Distillery use a Carterhead still to produce their gin. How I describe this is like a giant metal teabag that the botanicals are placed in and so the vapours from the distilling spirit pass through (not submerged like a teabag so maybe not a good way to describe it after all!) A very unique method when nearly all gin is produced by adding the botanicals to the liquid itself. They use juniper, hogweed, coriander seed, liquorice root, orris root, almond, orange and lemon peel along with others to create their gin. The flavours are extracted in this vapour phase, which the distillers believe make the gin the softest and smoothest it can be.
Now this whole process is complex and you would expect a new distillery to have employed only distillers with years of experience. But no. Another incredible ambition for the team when setting up in Hawick, was to make sure they only employed local people. Hawick is a manufacturing town for sure but not in distilling. They decided that the requirements for the job would be well suited to anyone from a manufacturing background. The level of commitment, the physical needs of the job as well as the attention to detail are found in knitwear workers throughout the area.
I spoke with Robyn who started working at the distillery not long after it opened. She had no former experience in this industry but does have an absolute passion and drive you rarely see so openly. She is currently doing her General Certificate in Distilling but already has many distillations under her belt and the full support of Distillery manager John. She talked of her role with pride and spoke of the challenges she had faced getting to grips with the equipment (there are very few Carterhead stills in the UK, Hendricks use one and there is one at Herriot Watt University) and getting into the swing of life in the distillery. But she talked with great knowledge and insight about life as a distiller, telling me how they use the water from the River Teviot as a coolant source and how a fraction of a degree temperature change can alter the whole process. Both Robyn and John who showed me round were bursting with enthusiasm and unconcealed pride in their products.
Now, onto the gin!
I love it. The embossed wording along the rim make it feel like it belongs to another time and having seen the distiller and knowing the thought process behind the brand I think it ties it all together beautifully. Smart and unique label that stands out without being garish. The botanicals are listed around the label and there is a nod to William Kerr by naming the places that he journeyed to. The bottle makes a nice statement on a shelf.
On The Nose
First of all it is a rare gin that you can get your nose right involved in the glass without any alcohol fumes making your nose sting. I get the barley smell right away. For me the first thing I smell is reminiscent of grappa. That grain scent is distinctive. I then get a little orange and a floral note.
Initially the mouthfeel is divinely creamy. So soft and smooth. But almost suddenly it becomes punchier with the juniper piney notes coming in. Still light, the citrus is just there behind your tongue and there is a little spiced undertone. I get light floral and menthol. There is s biscuits flavour that I think is the malted barley coming in at the end – when I said this to the distiller I got an eyebrow raise!
It’s distinctive. It will divide people no doubt. This isn’t a gin you just think is ok. You will love it or hate it. And that’s alright. There are enough gins on the market that sit comfortably in the bracket for people who just want a classic gin. This sits with Makar for me, a gin that I could tell apart blind tasted. It’s got that flavour to it that makes it unique and interesting. It’s a big thumbs up from me. I had the pleasure of conducting a taste test the other night and found that in a Dirty Martini the floral notes really shone yet in a French 75 I picked out more bitter orange notes. It is incredibly smooth and has potential in cocktails due to its powerful flavours.
I urge anyone and everyone to put this distillery on their must visit list. It’s beautiful and one of the nicest distillery visits I’ve done – also the shop is huge with loads of nice products on offer.
To find out more head to The Borders Distillery.
Many thanks to The Gin Cooperative for thinking of putting me in touch with the team behind William Kerr’s Borders Gin, I gained a lot from my visit and am delighted to have made a lasting contact with the guys there. And a huge thanks to The Borders Distillery for making me so welcome on my visit. Look forward to visiting again one day when I am able to bring some friends for a day out.
International Scottish gin Day is on Saturday 24th October and although we are obviously unable to have any physical events there are lots of virtual ones planned! Check out International Scottish Gin Day 2020 for more info.