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Discovering the stories behind Scotland's experimental spirits, from seaweed rum to pea vodka

In a country known for its whisky, a new generation of distillers is experimenting with spirits, producing creations like seaweed-infused rum and a distinctly Scottish absinthe. Take a trip down the coast from Aberdeenshire to Fife and sip something new.

This summer, Arbikie Distillery opened a state-of-the-art visitor centre — a striking black-wood-and-glass structure overlooking the glorious, wide-angled sweep of Lunan Bay. 

Photograph by Connor Mollison
By Lucy Gillmore
Published 8 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 8 Oct 2021, 12:29 BST

As I wind my way through the luminous landscape of Royal Deeside, with its sparkling river, peridot pastures and patches of vivid green woodland, I shiver with anticipation. In this storybook setting, I’m in search of a misunderstood spirit — a famous green fairy uncommon to these parts.

Absinthe exerts a powerful grip on the imagination, perhaps more so than any other drink, summoning up visions of belle époque Paris and artistic excess. And now, in rural Aberdeenshire, far from the City of Light, it’s the preoccupation of Pete Dignan, who’s set up a craft distillery to produce absinthe in the heart of Scotland’s whisky country.

A herbal remedy originating in Switzerland in the 18th century, absinthe became popular in France after the Great French Wine Blight, which devastated vineyards in the 1860s. But with an alcohol content of as much as 74%, it’s a drink with a reputation — and as its popularity grew, it was demonised by both the temperance movement and the wine industry. Finally, in 1915, absinthe was banned in France, having already been outlawed in several other countries around the world. But never in Scotland. “We don’t like to ban alcohol here,” says Pete, with a wry smile.

Pete and his business partner, Richard Pierce, run Lost Loch Spirits, one of several pioneering outfits taking Scottish spirits in an exciting new direction. This land of whisky-lovers is now home to a new generation of artisan distillers, producing everything from vodka and rum to vermouth and eau de vie. There’s even a Scottish gin trail, curated by Visit Scotland.

Read more: Photo story: from barley fields to whisky barrels in rural Scotland

Pete comes from a long line of enthusiasts. “My father was always making tinctures and wines,” he says. “And my great-uncle was the head brewer at Tomintoul Distillery.” As for absinthe, he first got a taste for it in the 1990s, at a bar in Aberdeen. “They stamped your hand after each absinthe,” he explains. “Two and you were out.”

Lost Loch Spirits’ eclectic product range includes EeNoo gin, named after Inuit traveller Eenoolooapik, who visited Aberdeenshire in 1839; Haroosh, a liqueur made with brambleberries, local honey and whisky, using a century-old family recipe; and a rum blended with vanilla beans.
 

 A mini copper still at Lost Loch Spirits, one of several pioneering outfits taking Scottish spirits in an exciting new direction.

Photograph by Connor Mollison

But it doesn’t stop there. “I found a 16th-century Italian recipe book, and we’re experimenting with an ancient liqueur called rucolino,” says Pete. It’s made by macerating rocket leaves, cloves, orange and lemon peel in gin for a few months, turning it a deep green colour, almost like absinthe. 
“We’re also ageing absinthe in a whisky barrel,” he adds. “It’s taken on a wonderful golden colour and a sweetness from the cask.”

Lost Loch Spirits’ signature absinthe is appropriately named Murmichan, the Scots word for a wicked fairy. “Absinthe purists would probably say the spirit is more like a gin,” says Pete. The process is admittedly very similar, only with more botanicals. Murmichan’s ingredients list includes core absinthe components like grande wormwood, Roman wormwood and green aniseed, plus local additions such as bramble leaves, lemon thyme and heather and willow herb honey. 

As any regular visitor to the country knows, Scotland is almost as famous for its distillery tours as it is for the whisky itself — so if the new generation of craft distillers are to put themselves on the map, visitor experiences will be key. At Lost Loch Spirits, the Spirits School experience includes a distillery tour, plus a chance to try creating your own gin, botanical spirit or, in my case, absinthe.

Standing in front of a mini copper still, I nervously eye up the shelves that comprise Lost Loch Spirits’ large library of botanicals. Soon, I’m weighing out Roman wormwood, fennel, aniseed, spearmint and crushed almonds and adding them, along with a spoonful of sticky honey, to the grain alcohol in the still. As it heats up, the different cuts — the ‘heads’ (herby and heavy with oils) and the grassy ‘tails’ — are discarded. The mixture is then macerated with botanicals for a second time, which is when it acquires its distinctive green hue.

My absinthe has an appearance somewhat akin to pond water. Pete pours it through a coffee filter to remove the herbs, then hands me a bottle of the final product. Now the colour of strong nettle tea, it has a nostril-flaying medicinal aroma and, when I try it later, diluted with a little water, it tingles on the tongue like eucalyptus toothpaste. Murmichan, by comparison, with its lengthier cold maceration, is a golden-green — the colour of buttery chardonnay — and far softer and creamier.

As for how to drink it, Pete says “You can sip it like whisky, adding water to it to open it up. But ideally it should be shared using an absinthe fountain at home.

“Ernest Hemingway drank it with champagne,” he adds. “He called the cocktail ‘death in the afternoon’.”

Braemar village, situated in the heart of Cairngorms National Park.

Photograph by Connor Mollison

Potatoes and peas

The gently meandering route west to bucolic Braemar weaves through the villages of Aboyne, Ballater and Crathie, with their rose-tangled cottages. The road is at times bordered by fertile farmland, at others fringed by pine trees, with the light a dreamy green, as though filtered through crème de menthe.

I arrive at The Fife Arms with booze on my mind and make a beeline for the art deco Elsa’s bar. Perusing the cocktail list, my eye is immediately caught by ‘the fairy and the fiann’, a mix of pear-infused Campari, peach liqueur and nutmeg, served in a glass that’s been rinsed in Murmichan absinthe. However, the barman, resplendent in tartan trews and a waistcoat, has other ideas, and steers me towards a flaming absinthe: after pouring the spirit over a sugar cube, he sets fire to it, creating a cinder toffee syrupiness.

The Fife Arms is a glorious former coaching inn that combines traditional decor with striking flashes of art, much of it specially commissioned. Its Clunie Dining Room, for example, features a ‘cubistoid’ mural by abstract Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca. Here, under the watchful gaze of a stuffed stag, I tuck into a beetroot-laced venison tartare, followed by smoky greens topped with salt-baked kohlrabi. 

While my mission on this trip is to seek out Scotland’s new generation of spirits, it seems churlish not to also indulge in something traditional. So, after dinner, I head to the hotel’s Bertie’s Whisky Bar — named in honour of the hedonistic king Edward VII, also known as Bertie — in search of a nightcap.

It’s a warm, cosy space, with a dramatically backlit library of bottles. The 365 carefully curated malts are organised not by geography, but by flavour profile (fragrant, fruity, rich and smoky) and a nip will set you back anything from £9 to £800. I curl up with a Bowmore Vault Edition, all brine and sea salt, pepper and peatiness.

This corner of the country, on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms, is admittedly a little off the beaten track, but its attractions are obvious to anyone who does make the journey. Its collection of distilleries are dotted around a landscape characterised by rugged coastlines, castles and mountain passes, all neatly knitted together by the North East 250, a touring route that loops around Aberdeenshire.

Head south along the coast, and you’ll find yourself in Angus, another area that’s putting itself on the Scottish spirits map, thanks in part to a family of farmers turned distillers. The 2,000-acre Arbikie Highland Estate has been home to the Stirling family since 1660 and is now breaking new ground in the spirits industry as a grain-to-glass distillery. The team sow, grow and harvest all the raw ingredients for the products — even the water is filtered from an underground lagoon beneath the farm.

Co-founder Iain Stirling checks the pea crop at Arbikie Highland Estate. 

Photograph by Connor Mollison

This summer, Arbikie also opened a state-of-the-art visitor centre — a striking black-wood-and-glass structure overlooking the glorious, wide-angled sweep of Lunan Bay. Tours start in the estate’s fields. “It’s important for visitors to see the start of the process,” says co-founder Iain Stirling, as we wander over to the rows of juniper bushes. “It’s who we are — we’re farmers.” 

Iain, one of six siblings, set up the distillery with two of his brothers, David and John, and is the one who steers Arbikie’s day-to-day affairs. The team source botanicals from the sea, beach and land; harvest barley, wheat and rye; and grow ingredients such as lemongrass, coriander and chillies in the polytunnels. But the story began with potatoes. “I had a light bulb moment,” explains Iain. “I thought, we’re potato farmers, so we should make potato vodka.” Cue Tattie Bogle vodka, Scotland’s first potato vodka. It’s named after the scarecrows that once protected the crop and is made with King Edward, Maris Piper and Cultra varieties.

At Airbikie, it’s all about ‘field to bottle’ — the team can pinpoint the exact field the raw ingredients for each spirit run come from, and the relevant field is then name-checked on the bottles. “It’s all about terroir, just like wine, and production will vary from year to year,” explains Iain. 

In addition to potato vodka, Arbikie has notched up a number of firsts: not only has it produced the first Scottish rye whisky, it’s also created the first pea-based vodka and gin, under the ‘climate-positive’ Nàdar brand. The company’s master distiller, Kirsty Black, developed the spirits in collaboration with the James Hutton Institute and Abertay University, using Daytona peas. “Peas can use the nitrogen in the air, meaning we don’t need nitrogen fertiliser,” she explains. Peas can also improve the soil by transferring nitrogen to the earth, and any leftover peas are used to feed the farm’s livestock. It’s a visionary innovation — the first pod-to-pour spirit. “We’re making it up as we go along,” Iain smiles. 

Peter Dignan of Lost Loch Spirits, which produces gin, rum, absinthe and Haroosh.

Photograph by Connor Mollison

Shrubs and spice rum

Continuing south, I cross the Tay Bridge to reach the grandly named and quaintly picturesque Kingdom of Fife, home to rolling hills and a coastline strung with pretty fishing villages. This is an area that punches above its weight in terms of culinary credentials, with two Michelin-starred restaurants (The Cellar and The Peat Inn) and a bountiful natural larder. As you enter from Angus, one of the first foodie highlights is The Newport, located on the waterfront of Newport-on-Tay. The restaurant with rooms is headed up by BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals winner Jamie Scott.

A 10-minute drive east along the banks of the Tay takes you to the tiny Tayport Distillery, launched in 2017 by Kecia McDougall, whose ambition was to create a Scottish version of eau de vie. Today, the distillery produces the award-winning Never.25, available in four flavours and made using McDougal’s own base spirit (made from malted barley infused with Scottish fruit). The range also includes raspberry liqueur, blackcurrant liqueur, vodka and wild rose gin.

After years without a single distillery to its name, Fife is now home to several innovative drinks brands, including Eden Mill, a producer of whisky, gin and beer. The company is set to open Scotland’s first carbon-neutral distillery and visitor centre in 2022, set on the University of St Andrews’ Eden Campus. Power and heat for the stills will come from the university’s biomass plant and solar panels, while the carbon produced in making the spirit will be captured and used by St Andrews’ chemistry department.

Further south, there’s Futtle. Set up by Stephen Marshall and Lucy Hine in 2018, Futtle is an all-in-one organic brewery, distillery, taproom, bottle shop and music venue that operates out of a farmhouse on the Balcaskie Estate. The couple also run a small record label and store, Triassic Tusk, from the same premise. I’m particularly curious about their East Neuk organic spiced rum, which I’d first stumbled upon at the Kinneuchar Inn, a nearby pub and restaurant with great food and an onsite butchery. There, alongside delicate slithers of cured pork jowl, I’d sampled the spirit in a fiery cocktail with lime juice, ginger beer and mint.

Futtle’s East Neuk is an aged Paraguayan rum infused with foraged seaweed. “Some seaweeds add a delicious minerality and texture, like dulse and bladderwrack,” Lucy explains. “We’ve spent a long time experimenting with distillations, macerations and fermentations. Hogweed is another great one for flavour and aroma — it’s spicy, aromatic and orangey, so  it’s delicious with rum. 

“Before lockdown, we had a fully organic, foraged cocktail menu: rebujitos, martinis, shrubs,” she adds. “Our most requested drink at the bar was our rum shrub, which is made in-house with seasonal ingredients and paired with our spiced rum.”
Stephen pulls out a jar from behind the bar and pours me a glass of sea buckthorn shrub. It’s gloriously tangy and tart, the berries preserved in vinegar and sugar.

Both Stephen and Lucy used to work in the whisky industry, but yearned for more variety. At Futtle, variety is the watchword. For example, the company’s beer is brewed with foraged ingredients, meaning no two batches are the same. “We don’t have a core range as we never repeat the same recipe twice,” Stephen explains.

This year, their wild distilling journey has started with the help of heritage grain expert Andrew Whitley, founder of Scotland the Bread. “We’re thinking of experimenting with oats,” Stephen muses. Original thinking, old-school know-how and a can-do attitude — that’s the Scottish spirit right there. 

Published in Issue 13 (autumn 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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