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Why can’t whisky be like usquebaugh?

  • ‘When my ancestors were determined of a set purpose to be merie, they used a kind of aquavite, void of all spice, and onelie consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens.'

    Hector Boece's words, written in 1526, swam up from memory. I quickly refocused. Botswana Dave was still talking: ‘…but don’t get this one, hemlock, confused with this one, wild carrot. Hemlock will kill you. Wild carrot won’t.’ Handy to know.

    We were on a nature walk at the RSPB Gruinart reserve on Islay. There were few birds around, so Dave, like any good guide, had switched to flora, including a diversion into the world of lichen and fungi when we came across trees draped in lungwort, before we returned to mugwort, pineapple weed, gorse flower and meadowsweet, and others, many of which go into The Botanist gin, produced by Bruichladdich.

    Scotland’s west coast is hoaching with gins these days. The Botanist led the way, but in the past few months, Islay has been joined by gins distilled on Jura (Lussa), Kintyre (Beinn an Tuirc), and Harris (er… Harris). Colonsay has plans to make its gin on the island, as does Tiree.

    All make a big play about using local botanicals. The Botanist uses 22 from Islay, Harris has sugar kelp; Icelandic moss and sheep sorrel are in Beinn an Tuirc’s botanical recipe, while Lussa uses ground elder, honeysuckle, rosehip, bog myrtle, sea lettuce and Scots pine among others.

    Machair Tiree

    Floral flavours: Is there a place in whisky for the larder of the machair?

    Gin, the world’s first global spirit in terms of ingredients, is now becoming increasingly terroir-fixated. It’s no longer sufficient to say your gin comes from a place, it has to somehow taste of that place as well.

    This is all good news, when it works. Gin is a fiendishly difficult spirit to get right. Each botanical has to be there for a reason. There’s no point in making a gin with an added botanical which you then can’t notice, or one where the unusual botanical has been dialled up to such an extent that the gin is unbalanced. That said, this aspect of terroir suits gin perfectly.

    Why then did Boece’s words keep nagging away at me as I stravaiged up the west coast from island to island, finding a gin at every corner? Could whisky play in this area as well?

    He shows that a Scottish-distilled spirit – probably made from cereal – was flavoured from the word go. It became known as usquebaugh, and it and ‘usky' co-existed for centuries, the former flavoured, the latter a straight distillate (which in turn was usually drunk as a punch or toddy).

    The ‘herbs and roots as grew in their own garden’ would have included hyssop, marjoram, lavender fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, sage, rue, wormwood, horehound, lovage and pennyroyal. The hills would have provided wild thyme, rosemary, rowan berry, and heather, maybe in the form of honey. These early usquebaughs were as much distillates of place as the whiskies.

    On Colonsay, I picked up a reprint of a 1903 book by Murdoch McNeill on the flora of the island. Lurking there was an entry for ‘heath vetch, aka bitter-vetch [Lathyrus montanus]… which was used for flavouring whisky’. The dried and roasted vetch tubers have a slight anise flavour and were also used as a hangover cure, a way to offset drunkenness, and as an appetite suppressant. Hebridean coca! I’ve ordered some seeds.

    Tiree beach: With plenty of space and time for some ‘extravagant thinking’

    I’m writing this on Tiree. Outside, the machair is filled with buttercup and red clover, knapweed, birds foot trefoil, ragged robin, tormentil, tansy, wild thyme and harebell. Its beaches are a larder of different seaweeds. Little has changed since Boece’s day. It’s all out there still. From this perspective there is an argument that whisky can play in this field as confidently as gin.

    Whisky already has the remarkable ability to somehow distil what surrounds it. Is it not possible, then, to extend this property to reflect terroir by using the flora of the place, either in terms of new usquebaughs, home flavouring, or in bartending? After all, Thomas Pennant wrote in 1772: ‘The people of the Hebrides extract an acid for [whisky] punch from the berries of the mountain ash [rowan].’

    The west coast does this to you. The wide skies, the open seas, the wind bringing the sweet-smelling machair hissing through the marram grass. The Scottish poet Kenneth White calls it ‘extravagant thinking’, but what is whisky if not a drink which welcomes that?  

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