Science And Serendipity

Our journey towards the first Isle of Harris gin had taken us across croft and machair, searching and gathering before the hunt for our botanicals finally turned towards the sea. With the magic of Sugar kelp providing the final piece of the puzzle, the task of combining and refining our selected ingredients, and the manner in which they would be distilled, was now at hand.

As luck would have it such a hand was to be found climbing the mighty Clisham, the highest of our Harris hills. Upon her steep slopes, a young mountain climber by the name of Leon Webb had got talking to a fellow hiker and heard about a new distillery planned for Tarbert. An enthusiastic outdoorsman and dram drinker, the heady proposition of a whisky-making enterprise in this most beautiful of locations spurred him to offer his support to our project upon his descent. At the time, Leon's line of work was in the financial world but perhaps inspired by our island plans, his attention turned to undertaking a Masters in Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University.

"I always thought that it was the perfect place to have a distillery due to the landscape, character, climate and people of Harris. As soon as I found out about the project I knew I had to be involved. I wanted to help in any way possible and even offered to help with construction! The timing of my degree could not have been better as when I began my degree project the opportunity arose to take on the development of the Harris gin."

The university had been working closely with us to develop a gin of distinction and Leon's scientific acumen was brought to bear through his final dissertation project which focussed on optimising our gin production processes. Through experimentation at laboratory scale, he worked on optimum cut points, reflux (re-distillation of condensed spirit vapours) levels and the possibility of feints recycling for full-scale gin production. Although not involved in the design of the wee copper Dottach still, he did work on how the still should be used.

"I worked on small scale equipment and had a full quota of botanicals at my disposal in the research laboratory of HWU. The basic recipe had been developed at the university before my project commenced but I adjusted sugar kelp levels and other ingredients to determine the optimum levels of each botanical in the final iteration. The addition of sugar kelp to gin is unique as it imparts a flavour and mouthfeel which is warming, maritime and sweet. This makes Harris gin exceptional in the world of innovative Scottish gins."

Leon also conducted a sensory analysis study with 20 participants. The results from this study determined the effect of various distillation techniques upon the organoleptic (sensory) quality of the Harris gin. Panelists judged the aroma and mouthfeel of different samples of the Harris gin. The results concluded that narrower cut points, medium levels of reflux and no recycling of feints created the best flavour profile. The science of distillation certainly assists with the art of flavour!

His exemplary work at Heriot Watt finally earned him an impressive 83% dissertation mark and a distinction on his degree but not content with simply accepting his laurels and moving on, Leon decided to commit even more time to our gin-making work, returning to our shores to take up temporary residence here in Harris to work with the distilling team as our first forays into spirit production began.

"I feel very privileged to be able to apply the findings from my dissertation to the full-scale production of the Harris gin. I have been coming to Harris for years and there is something magical about the island which keeps drawing me back. They say that the 4th ingredient of whisky (after barley, water and yeast) is the people. I have no doubt that the local Hearachs will create a spirit of exceptional character which reflects their inherent kindness, warmth and sense of humour. "

And so Leon, by chance, circumstance and mysterious timing has joined our ongoing story. From a serendipitous conversation atop the rugged island hills to playing a life-changing and spirit defining role in the science of our gin production, Leon typifies so much of what we try to do here. Embracing people and place, exploring new ideas and opportunities and applying knowledge and skills, we hope to make great products to share with the world.

Whether luck or just good fortune, we're enjoying all that fate is choosing to send our way...

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