Offerings from the sole distillery in Scotland’s Borders region have arrived. Here’s how to turn these Borders Distillery spirits into delicious cocktails.
We are now in Heightened Alert, Phase 2, and unfortunately, that’s not track five on a prog-rock trance crossover album. We’re effectively back in lockdown for the most part, given the need for vigilance against a far more aggressive variation of the virus.
That also means we’re back to buying our drinks online or making our own drinks at home, which is perfect since The Borders Distillery is officially launching its range of spirits through local distributors Spirits Castle at this moment. Previously, we’ve covered the distillery’s origins, and I suppose the timing’s just right for an overview of their wares available in Singapore.
By the time you read this, The Borders Distillery would legally have whisky in their warehouses, but they are not looking to release a regular offering any time soon. For those who are legitimately curious about the distillery, these three Borders Distillery spirits are currently the only way to get a sense of what they are all about. And in some ways, they do tell a lot.
If it’s the actual output from the stills that you want, then two products are available in the form of Gin and Vodka. Like many young distilleries, Borders thought it prudent to distil vodka and gin to keep the business sustainable. They divert a small percentage of spirit away from the whisky casks and into the Carter Head Still that turns their malted barley spirit into gin or vodka.
While it’s not quite like getting a taste of new make spirit off the stills, I’d like to think that there’s enough in this range of three Borders Distillery spirits to give you a sense of expectation. If you do decide to get a bottle of either to try, we have some easy-to-follow cocktail recipes to go along.
William Kerr’s Gin
William Kerr’s Gin is a nod to the Hawick native, who gained repute as the first Western professional plant collector who actively studied in China and brought back almost 250 specimens to Britain.
You’d be right on the money if you were expecting the narrative to go full British – but perhaps not in the way you expected. This is in no way a traditional gin, and as Tony Roberts, co-founder and Director of The Three Stills Company (which owns The Borders Distillery) would put it. “In Europe, it’s pretty black and white in some markets: Either you love it or hate it. The point is it stands out for the people who love it,” he added, but he’s far from worried. “Those who like it absolutely love it and it becomes part of their repertoire. So long as that market is big enough you’re going to build a brand.”
Lest you are worried that this is some funky gin, William Kerr’s unique character is down to the fact that Borders uses pot still malted barley spirit rather than neutral grain spirit, which does introduce that familiar barley sweetness – not exactly ‘traditional’ if you are a gin purist.
And because it’s unlike anything that’s been made before, it took the distillery 11 tries before they finally agreed on what made William Kerr’s, well, William Kerr’s. On specs alone, they were in entirely new territory and they had nothing to benchmark against, which made it tricky in the beginning. But for the founders, they’ve managed to create something different, and that alone made it well worth the trouble.
“When you ask someone what their favourite ice cream is, nobody says vanilla. But most people will eat vanilla if it is offered to them. We didn’t want to be that sort of brand. We didn’t want people to say, ‘oh William Kerr’s? I think I had that once, but I can’t remember whether I liked it or not,'” said Tony.
Kerr’s Flora and Fauna Recipe
- 50ml Kerr’s Gin
- 25ml lime juice
- 25ml raspberry syrup
- two dots of Jerry Thomas or Angostura bitters
- Ginger ale
Shake gin, lime juice, bitters and syrup with ice. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top with ginger ale. Garnish with a lime wheel and fresh raspberries.
Puffing Billy’s Steamed Vodka
The Borders Distillery’s vodka offering is not that dissimilar to William Kerr’s. Puffing Billy is made with malted barley spirit, and like the gin, it too was designed with uniqueness in mind. The result is possibly the only vodka in the world made this way. Typically, most vodkas undergo filtration as a key part of the process, but that’s not the case with Puffing Billy.
“Regular filtration would strip away the delicious flavours and soft textures of our locally grown barley, so instead, the task of smoothing the spirit is given to Puffing Billy, our specially commissioned Carter Head Still,” said Tony.
It is an approach somewhat similar to how they make the gin, except that in place of the botanicals, charcoal pellets are used. The spirit vapours are then steamed through these pellets, which is a far gentler process than regular filtration. The result is a vodka that retains its creamy mouthfeel, as well as its unmistakable barley character.
Tony explained that with Puffing Billy, they wanted to appeal to aficionados; to fans who invest time in learning and acquiring knowledge about what they drink. So they made every effort to convey that sentiment, right down to the label on the bottle that explains the process. It was their hope that they could connect with people who would appreciate the effort they’ve put into their concepts and their process.
And oh, if you’re wondering if the vodka tastes like new make – unfortunately for the whisky fans, no, but you are certainly getting a refined variation of the base spirit.
Billy’s Mojo Recipe
Puffing Billy’s creamy texture makes it a good alternative to light rum. Try it in a mojito.
- Muddle lime wedges, brown sugar and mint leaves in a Highball glass
- Don’t crush the mint too hard, otherwise makes the drink bitter
- Fill with ice and add 50ml of Puffing Billy Vodka
- Stir and top with soda water, then garnish with fresh mint leaves
Lower East Side Blended Malt
Lower East Side – a reference to its geographical location in Scotland – is often associated with the borough that is Manhattan; a deliberate marketing decision. The fact that the malt blend works well in a Manhattan – that was purely coincidental. But it’s a ‘story’ The Borders Distillery will be happy to run with.
Lower East Side Blended Malt does not contain any distillate from the distillery at the moment, but there are plans to do so. This blended malt features seven different malts and like many blended malts in the market, are made to be easy-to-drink whiskies.
Given the founders’ association with William Grant & Sons, comparisons are bound to be drawn between Lower East Side and Monkey Shoulder. The founders, given their old associations, knew the brand very well. Monkey Shoulder at launch was cool and attracted a consumer base that was younger than usual – it was a crowd that drank at untraditional times and occasions, and one that was happy to throw in a bit of coke for casual drinking.
The founders wanted Lower East Side to appeal to the same audience, but with one key difference: they wanted their blend to be a definitively Scottish whisky.
Interestingly, none of the founders is a fan of heavily peated whiskies. “We knew as we went around the world marketing this, we would have to drink a lot of it so we didn’t want to be drinking a lot of whiskies we personally didn’t like,” Tony smiled.
Which is kind of surprising when you consider that peated whisky is something unique to Scotch. But that said, they knew that a little hint of smokiness on the palate and nose was important for Lower East Side to work: “What we wanted was something that we felt was more of a malt whisky from Scotland, with a slight hint of smokiness,” he added. Not only does the element of smoke make Lower East Side distinct as a spirit, but it also helps it stand out in a cocktail.
Dirty Manhattan Recipe
- 50ml Lower East Side
- 25ml Sweet Vermouth
- 2 dashes of angostura bitters
- 2 dashes of orange bitters
- A small crack of sea salt
Pour ingredients over cubed ice in a rocks glass. Add a small crack of sea salt from a salt mill (not too much). Stir, then garnish with a cocktail cherry and a twist of orange peel. Alternatively, omit crack of sea salt and spray saltwater from an atomiser instead for dramatic effect.
From now till the end of June, Spirits Castle is running a promotion for the new range of Borders Distillery spirits. Every bottle purchased will come with a three-pack (200ml each) of either Fever Tree Tonic Water or Soda Water, while stocks last. The participating outlets are: Spirits Castle, The Angel’s Share, and Dram & Barrel.
*This article was developed in collaboration with Spirits Castle.