Deep in the wild tangle of Scotland’s Highland forests, a mysterious tribe of ‘painted people’, the Picts, built a beautiful civilisation that rebuffed the Romans and the Vikings alike.
Spirit of Adventure
Barth Brosseau believes in places where time stops. As he says, “You still have places where time slows down, and the world is almost self-contained – I think there’s something quite evocative about that.”
It was this kind of place that Barth found in Ardross, Scotland. Buried deep in the Northern Highlands, a dilapidated farm on the shores of the Black Loch is now the stunning brand home of Theodore Pictish Gin.
Barth explains: “We saw what this place could become if we managed to bring back the splendour of the past.”
And so Barth and his team set to work bringing the history of Ardross and its tangle of wilderness back to life – and along the way, resurrected a story of history’s most mysterious tribe.
Two chance encounters
Initially, gin wasn’t on the radar for Barth. Born in Bordeaux, he worked for years with historic properties, overseeing their refurbishment and repurposing. He was attracted to the world of spirits first because of a chance meeting with a whisky man: Andrew Rankin, a master blender from Scotland.
Barth began looking for sites in whisky-making areas. He and Andrew heard about a crumbling castle in the northern reaches of the Highlands; he travelled up to see it, finding himself in a place called Ardross.
The castle wasn’t quite right, but a local happened to mention another site that might suit Barth’s purposes: a long-abandoned farm that had been reclaimed by the nature surrounding it, stones sinking into earth and moss blossoming on rock.
The site, near the shores of Loch Sheilah, the Black Loch, was perfect.
A labour of love
Rather than buy the plot and throw up a corrugated steel shed, Barth and his team undertook a sympathetic renovation of the site, pulling stone from the dirt to reuse and commissioning local stonemasons to replace those they couldn’t recover. It was an effort that didn’t go unnoticed by the local community.
Barth says: “There were people who had lived in the vicinity for a long time. They could have prevented us when our planning application was submitted. But they understood what we wanted to do and how serious we were, and have been our staunch supporters from the get-go.”
From whisky to gin
Everything seemed to be fitting into place. But, with years to wait before they could release their first whisky, Barth and Andrew were too inspired by Ardross to sit on their heels. They had to pour this place – this brilliant wilderness, with its mystery and allure – into a bottle somehow.
Gin appealed to Barth as an opportunity to learn. “Gin was interesting for me because it was like a blank canvas. It was about learning how to play with liquid, how to meet interesting people and, most importantly, how to bring Ardross to life.”
One aspect of Ardross’s history in particular was undeniably inspiring: the Picts.
A mysterious legend
“As soon as I heard about this secret – almost mythological – tribe, it got my heart racing,” Barth says.
The Picts are history wrapped in legend, the truth of their civilisation shaded by rumour and lore. Little is known about this race of Scotsmen, who held off the Roman legions and left us nothing but intricately carved metal and stone, including the famous Wolf of Ardross.
Their origins, and even their name – Picts, or ‘painted people’ – are a mystery. Perhaps they were tattooed or wore body paint. Perhaps it was a Roman exaggeration, designed to paint a portrait of a barbarian hoard too bloodthirsty to bend the knee to the Empire.
Mystery & Inspiration, Bottled
As Barth began studying the Picts, he realised that he would never be able to discover the truth of their lived experience. He loved them all the more for it, and decided that they would provide the basis for his gin: bold, mysterious, adventurous, brave.
“We don’t pretend to tell the world who the Picts were,” says Barth. “We’re simply inspired by them, and it’s a story we want to tell the world.”
The first step to experiencing the mystery is uncorking the gin in your July Gin of the Month box.
The Scent of Adventure
As Barth considered his blank canvas, the gin he would build using the Picts as inspiration, yet another chance encounter changed his approach.
Barth and Andrew became acquainted with an olfactory expert, a man who specialised in the interplay between how we smell and how we taste. He worked with Barth to build the botanical list, based on plants the Picts might have collected on their travels from their homeland to the Highlands, including a few very unusual choices most commonly seen in perfumes.
“I asked an 8th-generation English master distiller to do a London Dry Base,” Barth says. “Then we started to discuss with our olfactory expert how to elevate and add complexity to that base by using botanicals that can’t classically be distilled using the one shot method, where everything is distilled at the same time. That’s why this gin is truly an intercultural collaboration – we try to take the best from each culture and share knowledge.”
From bourbon vetiver and damask rose to pomelo and kaffir lime, the botanical list of Theodore Pictish Gin is like nothing else on the gin shelf.
A flavour profile like no other
According to Keivan Nemati, a master mixologist and trainee perfumer, the unusual citrus of kaffir lime and pomelo (a grapefruit-like fruit without the bitterness) are the first things you’ll taste as you drink Theodore Pictish Gin.
Then will come the icy clarity of juniper and pine, two flavours which enhance each other. Lavender is at play here – though it’s so subtle you might not even taste it. “Quite often a distilled botanical or essential oil smells very different from the plant itself,” he says. “Lavender is one of the best examples of that; in our case, it gets a very herbaceous, green quality rather than the usual floral aroma. For us, that’s what links the green notes to the rose and chamomile, which is really the heart of the gin.”
At the base of this gin are orris and angelica roots, warming flavour fixatives. But, thanks to the alluring bourbon vetiver – often seen in perfumes but very rarely appearing in gins – the pyramid isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
Keivan says: “What it does is pick out flavours and aromas from the top of the pyramid and drag them down again. For example, you might have the top note of pomelo coming back as you sip. It’s a link we discovered through perfumery, and it helped us understand how to build our botanicals together.”
The resulting gin is incredibly complex and multi-faceted. Like the Picts that inspired it, Theodore Pictish Gin is different things to different people – or even moment to moment.
“We’ve seen that in short serves like Martinis, the juniper and the pine really come through,” Keivan says, “while in longer serves like a G&T or a Tom Collins you would get more of the floral and citrus botanicals coming through. It’s very versatile.”
But, while Barth and his team had a stunning liquid, one element eluded them: the name.
It’s all in the name
Barth toyed with the idea of naming his gin after a Pictish king, or one of the four Pictish kingdoms that had banded together to form a society in the Scottish Highlands. None of it felt right.
Then Barth thought back to his first experience with the Picts. It was an innocent Google search that set him off on an incredible journey – and the first stop was the illustrations of Theodor de Bry.
Inspired by Roman writings, de Bry had depicted the Picts as powerful hunters adorned in ornate body paint. His images are striking and terrifying and elaborate and beautiful – a balanced and fascinating depiction somewhere between the demonization of the Romans and the heroic depiction the Picts themselves would have fancied. In other words, somewhere near the truth.
Barth says, “When I was in the process of naming the gin, I kept coming back to this man, who had brought the Picts to life 10 centuries after they had lived. 15 centuries later, we’re doing the same thing with our gin – bringing the Picts back to life.”
Barth commissioned an illustrator to rework de Bry’s drawings, creating two Pictish characters for a new century: a man and woman, drawn as equals to highlight Pictland’s matrilineal society, strong warriors adorned with the beautiful body paint of legend. In this way, he could pay tribute to both the mysterious tribe that inspired his botanical blend and the talented artist that gave it a name.
But there’s another reason that Barth likes the name Theodore: in Greek, it means ‘gift from God’.
As he smiles: “We’re not religious people, but there’s something so amazing about finding Ardross, then the farm, then meeting all of these amazing people on the journey. It’s a celestial sequence of events that I find fascinating.”
Up there in Ardross, where time stops and sun lingers long on the Black Loch, it’s easy to believe in magic – and, after your first Theodore G&T, you’ll see exactly what Barth means when he says: “Maybe if you’re a very logical person, you can explain everything in a very casual way. But if you believe in magic and the old stones like me, you put credit for it all elsewhere.”