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Swimming With Sugar Kelp
Posted on: 25th November, 2016
This week we spoke to a very important person in the production of our Isle of Harris Gin. Lewis Mackenzie is the hardy soul who uses his skill and experience to hand-harvest our local Sugar kelp, a crucial ingredient in our gin distilling process. Catching up after his last harvest for the year, we loved what he had to say so thought we’d simply let you hear about his work from him first-hand...
"Sugar Kelp is to be found all around the coast of the Hebrides but it has taken time, expense and effort to find it, so I’m not minded to disclose the exact locations. It can be found just below the low water spring tide mark, down to about 100ft on the seabed. I harvest from an extensive area along the east coast of Lewis and Harris, carefully taking young plants from a number of locations so ensuring a sustainable supply for the distillery.
The kelp hosts a wide range of other sea-life which often end up in the boat during the harvesting process. Cowry shells, painted top shells, sticklebacks and spider crabs are usual visitors which are all carefully put back into the water unharmed. I will keep a cowry shell or two though, it has a beautiful similarity to the Isle of Harris Gin bottle with its translucent shell and curved ridges.
In keeping with the ethos behind Harris Gin, I snorkel and free dive for the kelp, rather than using scuba gear, and this keeps equipment and costs to a minimum. A small RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with an outboard, my dive suit with weight-belt, fins, mask and snorkel, are all that is required, other than a good pair of lungs and a mindset to blank out the cold. Even in the spring, water temperatures hover around 8c and I’m in it for about 4 hours a day.
The kelp leaves are individually selected, snapped from the root of the plant and placed in a net bag. Once full, the bags are lifted from the seabed and stored in the boat for transfer ashore at the end of the day. The kelp is harvested in direct response to an order for it coming from the Distillery. Typically, 50kgs of dry leaves are ordered so that requires half a tonne to be harvested as when it’s air dried by Hebridean Seaweed Company, 90% of the weight evaporates – perhaps this is the Mermaids Share?
I harvest at low tide to reduce the depth of water I have to dive through. The kelp grows best between December and May, up to 1cm a day, and a spell of calm, dry weather results in clear seawater so I can spot the leaves easier. An average day is about 4 hours in the water, picking about 50kgs an hour. The bags of sugar kelp are then transported from the boat by road to the Hebridean Seaweed Company near Stornoway. There, it is carefully air dried, cut and vacuum packed ready for use.
The harvesting experience is out of this world! If you can’t get to Outer Space, then freediving in the Outer Hebrides is the next best thing. Once submerged, you enter another world, with the sound of your beating heart being the loudest sound. Seals often join me, curious about what I’m doing and pups pull at my dive fins when they are in a playful mood. It’s a physically demanding job but for someone who loves the sea and its hidden world, submerging into it is a privilege rather than work.
I really appreciate how Simon and Kenny have made me feel part of the Distillery team and it’s been great getting to know the staff over the last year. And having a good chat with Prince Charles about harvesting seaweed was not something I had remotely anticipated doing when I first began diving some 25 years ago!”
We thank Lewis for all his hard work, care and attention to detail as he gathers this vital natural ingredient for us. And while his underwater experiences sound wonderful we’re not sure we envy the water temperatures at this time of year. At least we can offer a dram of something warming when his day is done...