The Isle Of Harris Gin Story Pt. 2


Our investigation into potential ingredients for our new gin had finally led us to the sea. As islanders we have always been defined by the Atlantic waters which surround us, so it is perhaps only natural that our attention turned to the bounty which lies off our shores when it came to the botanical which would define this distilling endeavour.

Our aquatic plant of choice was to be Sugar kelp, a large but delicate seaweed which can grow up to four meters in length and live for up to four years. Sugar kelp grows around our island in sheltered, clean seawater and is quite unique in terms of having a high iodine content and also a type of sugar which comes to the surface of the frond when it is dried - hence its name. A single frond grows from a short root which is attached to the seabed and if hand-picked and carefully handled the plant can re-grow successfully, ensuring minimal disturbance to the environment. It's a sustainable harvest, which fits well with the social and environmental ethos of the distillery.

To make sure our gathering was carried out with care and consideration we contacted Martin Macleod of local island company Hebridean Seaweed who arranged for a skilled and knowledgeable man of the sea, Lewis MacKenzie, to search for sources of this special ingredient for our gin recipe. Lewis is a sailor and scallop fisherman, running wonderful boat charters for fishing and wildlife enthusiasts under the name Hebrides Fish ’n’ Trips, but he spends a great deal of time working below the waves too. A qualified diver and expert seaweed gatherer, Lewis has been harvesting local species of seaweed by hand for over a decade using a variety of handcutting techniques and his own custom-made equipment.

“Having spent thousands of hours underwater all along the coast of Lewis and Harris I must have mentally mapped the location of beds of Sugar kelp as when Martin asked me if could I find some for the distillery, I knew just where to look and, sure enough, there it was waving to me on the seabed in a gentle current as the tide flowed through.”


      


Lewis is coy about revealing exactly where these sugar kelp forests he harvests from are to be found, he understands how precious a resource it is, but once he has picked the required fronds he’ll have them to Hebridean Seaweed’s facility with an hour of bring his gathering ashore. Lewis also works with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and has been involved in seeing Harris evolve and its communities grow in confidence through land ownership, tourism and marine development, something he believes the new distillery project, along with the new gin, will also add to greatly.

“It's exciting to be part of a hugely important development for the economy of Harris so hopefully there will be lots of people enjoying the unique Harris tipple when it is ready in the autumn. It is fitting that it is used for what looks to be a beautiful and unique gin made with care and attention just above the high tide mark in East Loch Tarbert.“

As we bid farewell to Lewis, he’s ocean bound once again, this time getting a group of photographers up close with leaping dolphins, breeching whales and characterful puffins. But he knows below his boat lies an equally natural beauty, unseen by most until skilled hands, like those of Lewis, Martin and our distilling team, set to work to transform those slowly swaying Sugar kelp forests into something rather special, something that truly speaks of the sea.

 

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