The Botanist's Botanist
Field trip to Bruichladdich’s gin distillery with its head forager
James Donaldson owes his job to a mis-spent youth in the woods, he admits. And today a hundred people’s jobs rest on his ability to pick the 22 Islay botanicals that go into The Botanist gin at the Bruichladdich distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. So successful has The Botanist been (including several medal wins in the NY International Spirits Competition over the years) that Bruichladdich now makes more gin than whisky.
“I grew up with a great love of the outdoors, particularly the wildlife and the plant life,” Donaldson says. “My grandmother was a hobby brewer and winemaker. She’d turn anything into wine, so I was aware what you could do with plants. As a kid I would eat dandelion leaves, munch on sorrel, that kind of thing, because that’s what you did as a kid. I didn’t realize it was foraging and botany.”
Donaldson went on to study botany though he was working as a guide leading whisky tours on Islay when he saw the botanist’s job at The Botanist advertised. “It was the tick-list of my dream job,” he says, “so I went for it with both hands.”
Today his skills as a botanist and forager send him all over Islay from March to October, ensuring he has enough of every botanical for the following year’s production. These include mint, wild thyme, wood sage, elder flowers, and birch leaves. More traditional botanicals such as orange peel, lemon peel, and coriander seeds have to be imported. With 200 rainy days a year, Islay’s climate is not exactly right for growing citrus and spices.
“When the gorse blooms, that’s when my season begins,” says Donaldson. “From then on I’m gathering botanicals as they come in and out of season. Some are very narrow windows. Last year was a beautiful summer and there was only maybe a two-day period between the hawthorn opening up, and then dropping off. So it can be long days – and nights.”
Where tales of terroir and exotic botanicals can sometimes be, shall we say, embellished, it’s refreshing to find a brand story that is 100% genuine. That story goes back to about 2008 when the Master Distiller was Jim McEwan, something of a legend in the whisky industry. Current Head Distiller Adam Hannett, who stepped in when McEwan retired in 2015, takes up the tale.
“We’re a gin brand born of whisky,” Hannett says. “When we decided to make The Botanist back in 2008-9, gin wasn’t very popular. We didn’t make it with amazing foresight. I wish we could have that kind of foresight, it would make everything a lot easier. But back then the gin market was dominated by a small handful of household names. People tended to be a Gordon’s drinker or a Tanqueray drinker. And always in a gin and tonic, with Schweppes tonic. It was very old-fashioned and predictable.”
Bruichladdich acquired a bunch of equipment from a distillery in Dumbarton that was closing down, including a 1959 Lomond still they called Ugly Betty. “It has been described as an upside-down dustbin,” says Hannett. “It was Jim who first said, ‘Let’s make a gin. But not any gin, let’s make Islay gin.’”
McEwan discovered that there were two botanists who had retired to Islay, Richard and Mavis Gulliver, and he recruited them to bring him all the local botanicals they could find, while he set about experimenting to create the flavor profile he wanted.
“Originally there were 21 local botanicals,” explains James Donaldson, who succeeded the Gullivers after working alongside them for the 2017 foraging season. “The Gullivers were adamant that we would not use Islay juniper. It’s very slow-growing, there’s not a lot of it, and it’s of poor quality. In our first distillation we had 21 botanicals, but after that they added a symbolic sprig of Islay juniper as the 22nd botanical. It was to highlight the plight of local juniper. We’re now replanting and in only another 250-300 years we might be sustainable!”
Donaldson shows me his brand new botanical drying room, where the various herbs and plants he has collected so far this year are laid out on racks. “I’m left to my own devices, which I like,” he says. “I’m like the mad scientist in the attic who just does his own thing that no-one else really understands. In fact I really was in the attic last year, a little room at the top of the distillery, till they built me this new drying shed. Now I know when you come in and look at it, it’s only a shed, and you’re thinking ‘global brand?’ But hey, at least now I’ve got a window!”
Despite his jokes and his genial eccentricity, Donaldson has a vital role at The Botanist, as he explains.
“I can’t hand anything over till the end of the season, when I know I’ve got enough of everything. If the company decided for whatever reason that they wanted to start distilling every week, maybe there’s a potential big new market, I just say ‘No’, as then I wouldn’t have anything to pick next year. If they do want to expand production they’re always going to have to wait till the end of the next foraging season when I know what I’ve got and can hand it over.”
The fact that the quality and quantity of the differing botanicals must vary from year to year when you’re foraging for them in the wild doesn’t worry Donaldson. “In the volume we produce, it balances out, and in any case we’re not about consistency. There are changes, but as long as the quality and the profile is there, as long as it’s The Botanist, that’s what matters, and that’s down to Adam.”
It’s a delightfully open and honest approach, to admit that they are not about conveyor-belt production, and they are not about ensuring that every sip of their gin from each batch is identical year after year, which is normally the case. The taste of each batch is dependent on the Islay landscape and the seasonal weather, and that is always what they intended.