What is craft gin? The launch of Scotland's latest gin sheds some light

Next week, Glasgow will witness the launch of Makar’s Glasgow Gin, or what its distiller declares to be the city’s “first-ever gin” and what the Drinks Business calls the “latest addition to a burgeoning craft gin scene.” 

Makar Glasgow gin bottle.png

The Glasgow Distillery Company, revived last year as an independent distillery from a brand name whose origins date back to 1770, can confidently claim craft credentials and earns its “small batch” identity due to its 300-litre production cycle. But several Scottish gins often included in the craft movement may make you think twice about the question, “What is craft?”

Here we investigate three of Scotland’s largest gins that use terms such as “handcrafted”, “artisanal”, and “small-batch” to describe themselves. The origins of these gins may surprise everyday drinkers, many of which are trading in their mass-marketed spirits for those marketed with exactly the above terms, terms now employed by both passionate local distillers and gins made by large, international companies.


Hendrick’s

Arguably the most well-known of Scottish-produced gins and the impetus of the move towards craft, Hendrick’s is produced by William Grant & Sons Ltd., the largest independent family-owned distillery in Scotland. The popular brand maintains its craft credentials by distilling in 450-litre batches and using a Carter Head still in which the base spirit and water boil together with only their vapour picking up the characteristics of the botanicals from the flavour basket placed at the top of the still. The resulting spirit is then mixed with a gin made in a Bennett (small pot) still in which botanicals seep for 24 hours in neutral spirit. That’s a pretty small batch and not a particularly common distillation method. 

At the same time, Grants owns the world’s largest single malt whisky brand by sales volume, Glenfiddich, as well as one of the top selling blended whiskies, the eponymous Grant’s. 

Despite its independent ownership and its small-batch distillation, does the sheer size of Grant put its “craft” status in question?


Caorunn Gin

Caorunn Gin, which sells itself as “Small Batch Scottish Gin” and “Handcrafted”, normally takes the second spot in the craft gin category in terms of volume sales. Yet the gin’s marketing material merely states that “a small batch is usually 1,000 litres” without stating clearly how many litres it is actually produced in while not specifying clearly how it is “handcrafted”, the only reference being its “handpicked botanicals”.

Look a little closer and you’ll find that Caorunn was launched in 2009 by International Beverage, a company set up in 2006 by Thai Bev, Thailand’s largest beverage companies, as an umbrella for its international brands. With a number of Asian brands including Chinese wines, several obscure mass market spirits and a few relatively recognizable Scotch whisky brands, the company’s portfolio is decidedly diverse. Although Caorunn is definitely distilled in Scotland in what appears to be small batches, does the fact that it is owned by a large international corporation ruin its craft credentials?


The Botanist

Quickly making a dent in the craft gin scene as the only gin made on the whisky-famous island of Islay, the Botanist. Marketing itself as “small-batch” and “artisinal”, the Botanist uses 31 botanicals including 22 from Islay which are “slow ‘simmer’ distilled in (its) unique and cherished Lomond pot-still” by renowned Master Distiller Jim McEwan. The gin’s marketing material does not reference its batch size, but the Lomond still has a 11,600 litre capacity, substantially larger than that of most independent distillers.

But then again, the Botanist’s parent company, Bruichladdich, known for its peaty whiskies, is no longer an independent distiller. It was bought by Remy-Cointreau in the summer of 2012, about 18 months after the launch of the Botanist. Does this new ownership kill the respected gin's craft credentials? 

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