In the wilds of north-east Scotland, Martin Murray makes gin and vodka reflecting the local landscape’s flora.With botany central to his work, here, he discusses five key plant ingredients for Dunnet Bay’s spirits.

words by Chloe Scott-Moncrieff

Martin Murray, founder of Dunnet Bay distillery in Caithness, the most northerly distillery in mainland Britain, picks, tinkers and distills from nature’s larder where finds include rock rose and sea buckthorn, nestled in the rugged coastline and inland. ‘Caithness has everything,’ he says, ‘Beautiful forests, long beaches, lochs, cliffs and wide open spaces.’

Not surprisingly when he produced his first batch of debut Rock Rose Gin in 2014, it sold out instantly.  Two years on and it’s stocked everywhere from London’s Harrods to Fortnum and Mason. He also makes a Holygrass vodka. But his current focus is on a new seasonal gin. ‘For May’s edition we’ve harvested sycamore sap and added it to the botanical basket with dandelion and coltsfoot.’ 

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1. Rock rose (Rhodiola rosea)

“When I was working with herbalist Brian Lamb we picked plants used for medicines. Rosea grows in the cracks of the cliffs. Initially, he asked me to try the leaf and flower and it tasted of cabbage. I wondered why he wanted me to eat it. Then I tried the root. It goes golden in September. It was like earthy rose Turkish delight. The Vikings used to harvest it in tea in the Orkney Isles. In Siberia, it’s given at weddings. It’s really very special. ”

2. Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

sea buckthorn

Photo: die.tine

“As I look out my window, I can see it as we speak. I have a distillery garden here so instead of field to fork, it’s plant to copper still. We’re supposed to harvest it before the first frost, but that’s difficult here as we get so many. It’s a beautiful fruit, with peach and mandarin notes. When we first started picking it the vibrant orange colour would stain our clothes. On its own, it’s tart, but with other elements it comes to life. For us, its tartness suits the sweetness of the orange peel we use in the gin. ”

3. Holygrass (Hierochloe odorata)

“We use it in our vodka and it was discovered by a self taught botanist, Robert Dick, in the mid 19th century, who ended up in Caithness. He was discredited at the time. But later, people realised he was a genius. It’s found on Thurso river, although the site is protected so we grow it in our garden. The first crop was very small due to difficult growing conditions but that’s where we harvest it. It has aromatic sweet, vanilla notes.”

4. Rowan berry (Sorbus)

“We wanted to seek out botanicals with a history in the Highlands and rowan berry is one. It would be planted by the village boundaries to protect the village. I was born in Thurso so to me using the rowan berry is a way of retaining Scottish tradition. It’s in the Rock Rose gin and adds a clarity. It’s a little similar to orris root, it fixes and balances the other botanicals.”

5. Water mint (Mentha citrata)

“This is my fifth favourite. We pick it from the streams in the Dunnet Forest, a mile away, and it’s in our gin. It grows low down and is so strong to taste you don’t want to use a lot but it has a lovely, cool flavour. This plant really caught my imagination. Although, when it comes to catching the imagination, we made a plum and bog myrtle gin last year. That was a terrific small batch.”

The new seasonal gin is available online and at all existing stockists.