Advertisement feature: the bottle for this review of Hills & Harbour Gin was provided by Crafty Distillery as a collaboration for International Scottish Gin Day.

Hills & Harbour Gin

Nestled in the hills of Galloway in south west Scotland lies Crafty Distillery. Founded in 2017 by Graham Taylor, it’s a modern grain-to-glass distillery full of Scottish provenance.

Read my review to find out all about the Crafty story, how Hills & Harbour Gin is made, its tasting notes and recommended serve.

Story.

“Putting the graft in craft”

In 2008, everything changed in the gin category. Up until then a long-standing British excise law meant distillers couldn’t gain a licence for a still under 1,800 litres. But thanks to a petition by Sipsmith, the law which had stood since 1823 was amended and opened the floodgates to the category as we now know it, and the birth of craft gin.

Fast forward to over a decade later, what even is “craft gin” and what does that mean anymore?

Is it size? Is it the process? Is it being done by hand (as far as gin can be)? I don’t think anyone really knows anymore. Gin Foundry discusses what craft is (and what it’s not) more succinctly than I ever could and I’m here to talk about Hills & Harbour, so that debate is for another time.

That being said, language really only has the meaning on which we bestow it. Craft gin will mean different things to different people. And from speaking to Graham Taylor, founder of Crafty Distillery, craft for him is all about making something from start-to-finish; it’s about, well, crafting. “We wanted to have fun making something from scratch – which for me is what it truly means to be craft,” Graham explained.

“Whatever Crafty was going to be, it was going to be created using our own spirit and to tap into the botanicals of our region.”

Graham Taylor, Crafty Distillery

Photo credit: © The Gin Cooperative

Grain-to-glass

“Putting the graft in craft,” is the Crafty Distillery slogan. And as one of only seven Scottish gin distillers (at the time of writing) to make their own base spirit, there’s definitely something in that. According to The Gin Cooperative, there are over 140 Scottish gin brands, meaning Craft Distillery is one of only 5% of Scottish brands who do this. The others buy this in and focus on the rectification process. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this and hundreds of amazing gins are made in this way.

Given that it’s considerably more effort to make your own base spirit, and the fact the spirit is supposed to be tasteless, why bother?

“So we can craft something that really lives up to the craft promise,” Graham told me. “Whatever Crafty was going to be, it was going to be created using our own spirit and to tap into the botanicals of our region.”

Craft distilling to Graham was and is about building a home from which to grow. In that sense, contract distilling didn’t fit the business model. From day one, Crafty had to be confident enough to make their spirits from scratch under one roof. He wanted consistency from bottle one of the first batch. To do so, patience was most certainly his virtue.

Graham Taylor, Crafty Distillery
Photo credit: © The Gin Cooperative

Photo credit: © The Gin Cooperative

Four years in the making

To build a grain-to-glass distillery takes time and planning, and that was certainly the case for Crafty. The idea was first planted in 2013 when Graham’s brother told him of a whisky distillery that was up for sale. This got him thinking about creating his own distillery.

His dad, Bill, was a whisky lover and this is where his interest in spirits came from. At that point, Graham didn’t know too much about gin but continued to do his research on equipment and where to build.

In 2014 he was set on Crafty being grain-to-glass. “I sat down with my brother and friend to bounce ideas off each other. My belief was that in order to truly make something, it had to be a grain-to-glass setup.”

The plans for the distillery and the gin recipe ran in parallel. Graham designed the building, the brand and sourced the equipment from iStill & Genio (a masher, fermenters, a couple of stills etc.), while his long-time friend Craig Rankin (now the Distillery Manager) worked on the recipe development in the background.

In 2015 the planning permission for a piece of land in his hometown of Newton Stewart was made. This was finally approved in 2016, before the first bottle was distilled in June 2017.

Graham’s dad was a builder and built the distillery. The design uses many local materials and looks out onto a beautiful view of Galloway Hills.

From the off, it was always going to be a gin destination and visitor attraction to help showcase their home in southwest Scotland. Visitors can tour the distillery, experience a variety of events, or even go on a foraging tour of the hills and coast of the area.

Sounds good, right? The Scottish Gin Awards judges agreed and named Crafty its Gin Destination of the Year in 2018.

Photo credit: © The Gin Cooperative

The Process.

Making the base spirit

As explained earlier, Crafty Distillery is one of the few gin distillers to make their own spirit from scratch (there are seven at the time of writing in Scotland). The simple reason is usually because of the cost and time it takes to set up a grain-to-glass distillery – and what it entails to make a base spirit from scratch.

Chatting to Graham, his knowledge of the process is extensive, considering that he’s completely self-taught by trial and error.

Read more

For a London Dry like Hills & Harbour, or indeed a distilled gin, the ABV of the base spirit legally needs to be a minimum of 96%. This is the point where the spirit is supposed to be tasteless, hence why it’s referred to as grain neutral spirit (GNS).

“The issue with barley is that it is, in essence, more pungent and complex, and that flavour transfers to the end spirit, meaning the spirit would be too reminiscent of whisky. Wheat on the other hand, which is what we use, is creamy, sweet and soft”

Why would you, therefore, not buy this in? If it’s tasteless and effectively a ‘blank canvass’ why go to the extra expense and effort?

I chatted to Graham for quite some time about this and he is adamant it makes a difference. When experimenting in the early days they tried to make it with barley, for example, which is traditionally used in whisky production.

“The issue with barley though is that it is, in essence, more pungent and complex, and that flavour transfers to the end spirit, meaning the spirit would be too reminiscent of whisky.” Graham explained. “Wheat on the other hand, which is what we use, is creamy, sweet and soft and is grown locally.”

Gin Foundry agrees with this sentiment and wrote a great article on base spirit a few years ago: “Be it grain, potato, sugar cane or wheat – it’ll carry through onto the final flavour and texture and no grain-to-glass spirit ever truly has a neutral base.”

Local grain

The GNS is made using wheat purchased from a local farmer – some seven miles from the distillery – further adding to Hills & Harbour’s provenance. It’s milled and crushed onsite, and the distillery has storage for around five or six tonnes of grain. The grain is then transferred to the masher and fermented for around seven days. This is longer than normal but allows for more of the oils and flavour to be extracted from the wheat. The wash is then removed and distilled to bring it up to the legally required 96% ABV. It’s a 10-day process in total.

The gin tends not to be distilled straight away and Crafty always has some GNS ready for when gin distillation is required.

Developing Hills & Harbour GIn

To create Hills & Harbour Gin, it took over 14 months and 90 different recipes to get close to their final product.

The last piece in the jigsaw, however, was the public. Three different gins were sent out to over 400 members of the public – a traditional juniper-forward gin, one that was modern and light, and a slightly sweeter version. From the responses, Crafty were able to create their final gin which would go to market. “Through their feedback we shaped the final balance and body, creating a gin developed with the people for the people,” added Graham.

Hills & Harbour uses 11 botanicals and looks to balance the gin so as to cater to all five basic tastes Graham told me: sweet (mango), sour (orange), bitter (locally foraged noble fir), salt and umami (locally foraged bladderwrack seaweed).

The other six botanicals are juniper (of course!), coriander, liquorice root, angelica root, orris root, bay leaf and green Szechuan pepper.

Gin Distilling

As a London Dry Gin, all the botanicals are added during the distillation process with “no essences, sweeteners or nonsense added post-production.” Craig Rankin explains.

A mixture of steep/boil and vapour infusion techniques are used and which botanicals go where (pot or basket) is one of the few closely guarded secrets in the entire process.

The selected botanicals are added to the pot the night before along with the painstakingly crafted GNS. The following morning, the other botanicals are added to the vapour basket and the still is turned on.

Hills & Harbour is distilled using the single-shot method, meaning once distilled, it’s diluted to bottling strength of 40% ABV with water. Nothing is added post-distillation.

BOTANICALS

juniper, noble fir needles, bladderwrack seaweed, coriander, orange peel, liquorice root, angelica root, orris root, dried mango, bayleaf, green szechuan pepper

RECOMMENDED SERVE

How to serve Hills & Harbour Gin

  1. Chill a glass in the fridge
  2. Add plenty of ice to the glass
  3. Pour 50ml of Hills & Harbour Gin
  4. Top up with quality tonic water (I found 2:1 tonic to gin to be a good ratio)
  5. Add a slice of fresh mango
  6. Stir gently and serve
Highclere Castle Gin and tonc, garnished with dehydrated orange and rosemary.
Highclere Castle Gin bottle.

“Such is the balance of Hills & Harbour, you can really take it in any direction you like – and from speaking to Graham, this is something that Crafty would encourage.”

Tasting notes.

Neat

On the nose, Hills & Harbour Gin has a fresh, sweet salinity with layers of juniper and citrus. Having tried other gins with bladderwrack, it’s a familiar scent and the botanical jumps out at me.

To sip, piney juniper leads the charge with sweet orange peel supporting. Just as you head towards the finish there’s a subtle tropical flirtation with that dried mango before a finish of delicate spices, leading to a salinity from the bladderwrack.

The texture of the gin is like delicate silk – so smooth and creamy. That extra effort to make the grain spirit from scratch really does pay dividends and brings so much of Hills & Harbour’s delightful character.

With tonic

With tonic, the greenness really comes to the fore – and the texture remains sublime. You really get the creaminess of that wheat spirit. As you add more tonic, Hills & Harbour becomes more citrus in flavour with the seaweed dialling down.

Crafty recommends a slice of fresh mango as a garnish to complement the tropical notes already present, but I found it also works well with orange and grapefruit.

However, such is the balance of Hills & Harbour, you can really take it in any direction you like – and from speaking to Graham, this is something that Crafty would encourage.

Photo credit: © The Gin Cooperative

Branding.

Before setting up Crafty Distillery, Graham Taylor’s background was in branding. With everything from their website, marketing copy, to the bottle itself, it’s safe to say this influence shows.

I’m partial to a pun and the marketing copy is amusingly playful. “Keeping everyone in good spirits,” and “doing it the Gallo-way,” are the sort of quips you can expect to see.

The logo is a lightning bolt, symbolising “a bolt of inspiration” – a nod to the entrepreneurial and innovative country which they call home. After all, Scotland is “the nation that invented almost bloody everything,” as Crafty states on their site. As a Scot myself, I’m not going to argue!

The bottle is modern and cool, with a lovely green and aquamarine colour to mirror the forest and the sea, from which they get their signature botanicals. And when you see the bottles lined up they reminded me of a row of trees. Graham told me this wasn’t on purpose, but I’m going to pretend he didn’t!

REVIEW VERDICT.

I can’t help but admire Crafty Distillery and what they’ve set out to achieve. It’s clear there’s been a huge amount of thought put into making a brand that is here for the long haul. You don’t go into as much effort as Graham Taylor and his team has for the short-term, and this is something which he alluded to when I spoke to him. He didn’t create Crafty just to “cash in on the gin boom,” but to be here for years to come to benefit not just himself, but his employees and the region.

But a great ethos, and brand story is all for nothing if the gin doesn’t stand up – and boy does Hills & Harbour do everything else justice! The extra, dare I say ‘craft’, that’s gone into making their own base spirit really shines through and Hills & Harbour is really quite distinctive to drink – that in itself is no mean feat.

Hills & Harbour Gin costs £36 and can be purchased on the Crafty Distillery website.

FAQs

Where is Hills & Harbour Gin made?
Hills & Harbour Gin is made at Crafty Distillery in Galloway.

When was Hills & Harbour Gin launched?
Hills & Harbour was released in 2017.

What is the best way to serve Hills & Harbour Gin ?
Hills & Harbour is best served over ice, or as a gin and tonic with premium tonic water, garnished with a slice of fresh mango.

How much does Hills & Harbour Gin cost?
Hills & Harbour Gin costs around about £36.

What are the botanicals Hills & Harbour Gin ?
Hills & Harbour Gin uses 11 botanicals. These are juniper, noble fir needles, bladderwrack seaweed, coriander, orange peel, liquorice root, angelica root, orris root, dried mango, bayleaf, green szechuan pepper.