Scotland: Home Of Tartan, Golf &... Gin?

with Martha Chapman

Hanna Chart & Cathy Stapells of VisitBritain with Michael McCuish of VisitScotland

Alex Nicol – the sign means “Shut your mouth and get on with it!"

What's a Scottish party without a fiddler?

Ask anyone about the favourite tipple of Scotland and I'll bet you'll hear – “Whisky!" Well, that may change if the personable Alec Nichol of Spencerfield Spirit has anything to say about it.

The owner of the smallest distillery in Scotland, Nichol met with a group of appropriately-thirsty Torontonians last Thursday to extol the joys of gin, Scottish style. The evening was co-hosted by Michael McCuish of VisitScotland which is on a roll to reinvent the public perception of Scottish food and drink.

“People don't always realize how fantastic our product is – and luxurious! We have 16 Michelin-starred restaurants including 5 in Edinburgh, the most in the British isles outside London," he told me. Canadians, he added, are amongst the highest per-capital spenders as tourists so it's likely we're enjoying that fresh, local produce in some of the country's swankier restos.

And certainly the dinner, at the very Scottish-themed Caledonian Restaurant on a pouring rainy night, was an impressive salute to Scottish cuisine, with nary a haggis in sight. We tucked into house-cured salmon, pheasant, rhubarb crème brulee and delightful cheese platters. Each course was paired with one of Alex's remarkable gins, including the 57% proof Cannonball. “After two," Alex assured us, “You can't feel your teeth."

So is the gin-and-Scotland combo just too hard to get your head around? “In 1700 there were 400 gin distilleries in Scotland," he explained, “Today it's a bit unusual, but coming up since the cocktail revolution. Edinburgh, for example, has the highest per capita consumption of gin in Europe."

His distillery, located in the heart of the city , features gins with such unforgettable names as Pig's Nose and Sheep Dip – and uses unexpected ingredients including pepper and even frankincense and myrrh for a limited edition Christmas bottling from which profits went to a local hospice. Clients can tour the distillery in groups up to 20 and even make their own gin and leave with a bottle with their own name on it.

Not wishing to miss an opportunity to pick a distiller's brains, I asked if he had a tip for curing a hangover. He certainly did – but it sadly may not be available to clients who over indulge at the sip-n-dip pool bar of an all inclusive. “Get out there and chop wood," he counsels. Palm trees, watch out.

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