The Botanist gin is the brainchild of Jim McEwan, former master distiller of the Hebridean distillery Bruichladdich, located at the Isle of Islay in Scotland. The company got lucky when it bought everything in the closed Inverleven distillery, which included a Lomond still. Only four of these whisky stills exist, The Botanist brand ambassador Chloe Wood tells us over lunch at the Chocha Foodstore in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur. Developed after World War II the combination column and pot still was designed to create different styles of whisky.
At this point, gin was a distant idea and it would take five years of tweaking and modifying before the Lomond still was ready to distil gin. Lovingly named Ugly Betty, the still ran its first distillation in 2010, creating a quality gin that surprised all, McEwan included.
As Islay’s first and only dry gin, The Botanist stands out from the crowd of international gins with its 22 hand-foraged botanicals, the number embossed on the bottle itself. The gin is distilled for just eight days of the year, which results in a limited annual production.
The team has used the same recipe since The Botanist’s inception. Foraging is at the heart of this gin, and the passionate distillers and botanical scientists ensure that all of the herbs represent Islay. The distillation process begins with an overnight maceration of nine core botanicals — including berries, seeds and bark — in spirit and Islay spring water. In the alcohol infusion chamber is the botanical basket with the key 22 flavours — including creeping thistle, heather, lady’s bedstraw, mugwort and bog myrtle. The double infusion process creates a distinct flavour. The botanicals grow all over Islay but they bloom at different times of the year, which makes hand foraging a challenge. Each season brings a new herb — March is ideal for young birch leaves for that nutty flavour and in June, the summer brings water mint and wood sage. The careful combination of botanicals creates a gin that is versatile and well suited to unique cocktail creations. Wood points out that The Botanist is a mixologist’s best friend, as it lends itself to a wide variety of flavours.
The Botanist gin experience begins at cocktail bar Botak Liquor, which is reached by a spiral staircase in the middle of Chocha Foodstore. Known for its use of clear spirits, Botak Liquor’s menu is filled with bold, local flavours such as nangka, which makes it the perfect place to experiment with The Botanist. The bartender hands out a plate of Malaysian ingredients — moringa, bee pollen, banana flower, elephant apple, star fruit and more — that are often used in the bar’s concoctions. Each herb and fruit is fragrant and unmistakable, all familiar in flavour.
From the perspective of someone who prefers whisky to gin, tasting The Botanist on its own was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. With aromatic citrus notes, it comes alive with a touch of water, which brings out the mint and herbaceous flavour. It finishes with a sweet hint of strawberries.
One of the cocktails we try is The Botanist muddled with moringa, bee pollen and sugar, topped with starfruit juice and citric acid. Sweet with a sour finish, this creation goes down effortlessly. The next cocktail is a mix of gin, ginger flower, pumpkin seeds and soda with a squeeze of calamansi. It tastes like an upgraded gin and tonic with a distinct Malaysian twist. Another highlight cocktail, and perhaps my favourite, is The Botanist fat-washed with coconut oil and mixed with banana flower, bitter bianco and vermouth. It is a delicate gin Negroni, with a buttery mouthfeel and fragrant nose.
We end our session over a sumptuous meal at Chocha Foodstore. Feasting on ulam salad, kerabu rojak, sticky duck and scallops, good company makes the afternoon that much more vibrant. A highlight is certainly the cauliflower and curry leaf dish, with flavours reminiscent of tandoori. The juicy morsels of cauliflower are impossible to resist. The combination of local dishes with Malaysian-inspired cocktails is a truly unique experience. Perhaps for The Botanist, I just might become a gin convert.
This article first appeared on Oct 28, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.