discovering small-batch scottish booze with craft56°;

Back when I was drawing up my list of 30 things I wanted to accomplish before turning 30 (almost a decade ago now… gulp), making my own gin was something I’d written down, on the suggestion of a friend. This was right before the craft gin boom (I believe you can buy kits now, to make it even easier), but even then there were enough directions on the internet that I could have cobbled together something.

Like, well, a good chunk of that list, I never got around to doing it – but Scotland has never suffered for my lack of alcoholic alchemy. This tiny country of ours is home to countless popup breweries, small-batch stills and bedroom distilleries – I’ve written about a fair few of them here, over the years – and provided you get the legalities right, and are willing to put the work in, it’s never been easier to make your own.

That’s right, kids: home brew’s gotten a whole lot classier since we were in high school.

Last month, Scottish craft booze distributer and discovery club Craft56° invited some local bloggers to spirits tasting night where we got to meet the people behind some great Glasgow gins and rums – and, of course, thoroughly taste test their products! And now I have just about recovered, I get to tell you all about it too – with pre-emptive apologies that the photography in this post is not up to the standards you’ve come to expect from Last Year’s Girl. There should really be a strict limit to the amount of gin I’m allowed to consume on a school night.

Craft56 independent craft Scottish alcohol tasting night

What is Craft56°?

The idea behind Craft56° actually struck in New York when founder Ally Hardy – a marketer with a love of craft beer – was visiting a bar and bottle shop. The owner was waxing lyrical about the range of beers he imported from Scotland, and Hardy realised that while Scotland has lots of great independent booze shops, there was no one stop shop for people keen to discover amazing Scottish products.

Named for the line of latitude on which Scotland sits, Craft56° now offers two ways to discover the best of Scottish small-batch booze: an online bottle shop stocking the finest Scottish gins, rums, vodkas, liqueurs and even tequila; and two subscription clubs, one for beer and one for gin.

Hardy is also keen to add events to the mix, and while our blogger night was the first tasting event Craft56° had ever run you can also find them popping up at the occasional Scottish gin or beer festival alongside some of the small Scottish brands that they stock.

What gins did you try?

Ally had invited along two local gin makers as well as a rum – all of which can be purchased from Craft56°, of course, although I’m going to direct you to their own websites too so that you can find out a bit more about them.

The Garden Shed Gin Co at Craft 56 Scottish craft gin tasting night, Glasgow
The Garden Shed Gin Co at Craft 56 Scottish craft gin tasting night, Glasgow

The Garden Shed Drinks Company was set up by two husband-and-wife duos, born of “a few drinks and delusions of grandeur”. They’d recently visited a local distillery, and hit on the idea of a gin inspired by the botanicals growing on their West End doorstep. Think notes of wild blackberry and dandelion, lavender and “seeds of paradise” (which were passed around for us to smell) in place of something like coriander.

Their backdoor beginnings also inspired the sustainable ethos of the business, which supports Scottish charities The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Trees4Scotland with every purchase. And while the Garden Shed Drinks Company has outgrown that shed (a figure of speech, Mr Customs & Excise, although the photo shows the small still that powered their early experiments), the bottles are still packed and labeled by hand.

The perfect serve? With ice, blackberries so fresh I’ve been dreaming of them ever since and a sprig of rosemary.

Our introduction to McLean’s Gin came at the end of the evening, by which time I was beyond taking pictures – but please don’t let that reflect on the brand! Born in a one-and-a-half square metre cupboard in Battlefield, McLean’s might still be able to claim the title of Scotland’s smallest gin distiller, despite Colin and Jess’s recent move to the suburbs (more space to make gin, right?).

Colin emerged with trays full of different-coloured liquids in little plastic shot glasses (“like something from an Always advert,” I sniggered to Kirsty, before the man himself described his signature gin as “urine-coloured”), and proceeded to turn everybody in the room’s idea of gin on its head. McLean’s make compound gins, produced by adding flavourings and botanicals to a neutral spirit, which gives them a bit more flexibility to play around with colours and flavourings than your traditionally distilled or London dry gin.

Tipsy Lis prepares to add a cream soda to her McLean's Cherry Bakewell gin at Craft 56 Scottish craft gin tasting night, Glasgow

I daresay the strong aniseed flavour of the McLean’s signature gin would be a bit of an acquired taste on its own – but mixing it with a Mediterranean tonic on Colin’s prompting was Harry Potter levels of alchemy. The brand’s popular “Something Blue” gin, a once limited-edition created to celebrate Colin and Jess’s own marriage turned permanent addition, was also a hit – but it was their best-selling Cherry Bakewell gin, which tasted as good as it sounds and even better with a Barr’s cream soda mixer, that was my favourite from the night.

That’s great, but what about the rum?

I’m actually mostly a rum girl these days – it goes better in fruity cocktails – so I was glad to be introduced to Ross from Spirit of Glasgow, makers of Sugar House Rum.

As a spirit, rum is actually a lot more Glaswegian than you’d necessarily expect (it was practically an 18th century precursor to Buckfast, to hear Ross tell it), although its history is difficult to celebrate because of its connections to the Atlantic slave trade. Spirit of Glasgow’s modern twist on the drink aims to give back to the local community, working with local suppliers wherever possible and the intention to get involved with community projects as the business grows.

The Sugar House Rum line currently consists of white and spiced varieties, double distilled in a copper pot still. The spiced rum is infused with whole vanilla, cinnamon, lime zest and cocoa beans, and derives all its caramel colour naturally from those used.

Ross sees rum as a particularly approachable spirit, without the ceremony of the likes of a gin, and while there’s an intention down the line to create a blend specifically for use in cocktails the existing rums are plenty versatile. We were treated to a couple of refreshing cocktails, in true here’s-one-made-earlier style, and as a big fan of a fruity rum punch I can tell you that the Glesga Punch (Sugar House Spiced Rum, pineapple juice, grapefruit juice, passion fruit juice, lime juice, grenadine) went down a treat!

All that on an empty stomach?

Ha! Don’t be daft. To line our stomachs ahead of the main event, we were treated to a fantastic spread by Soul Food Sisters, a collective of immigrant women with a cafe on the Gallowgate and a shared passion for tasty, authentic food.

Soul Food Sisters catering at Craft56 drink tasting event, Glasgow
Soul Food Sisters catering at Craft56 drink tasting event, Glasgow

We enjoyed a buffet of treats inspired by the Soul Food Sisters’ different cultures: endive boats with caramelised pear and blue cheese; gravlax salmon infused with gin, juniper and dill (of course); lamb lollies with harrisa; vegan pate with beetroot horseradish; Merguez sausage rolls. Sadly the cafe is currently only open Wednesday-Friday, but I’m hopeful the Sisters will be re-running their popular cookery workshops as we head into the autumn.

A fantastic night, which introduced me to some brilliant local businesses I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about as much as I enjoyed getting to know them! Thanks to Craft56° for having me along!

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