It's no secret to AHB readers that I am a lover of gin. I've enjoyed tastings and tours at Caorunn and Eden Mill, but since moving to Caithness in 2017, I hadn't got round to visiting Dunnet Bay Distillery - home of Rock Rose gin and our local gin distillery - less than 20 miles away. I heard earlier on in the year that a new shop and tasting room were to open this season, so I bided my time and finally this week found a tour with spaces!
Our tour and tasting experience lasted about 90 minutes and starting in the renovated cattle shed on some comfy chairs with a classic G&T serve of the award-winning Rock Rose Gin, choosing either orange peel or a sprig of rosemary for a garnish. I'm a citrus fiend, so orange peel it was for me. For drivers and the under 18's on our tour, they are served ginger ale.
We first heard about the founders - Martin and Claire Murray. Martin has a background in engineering but had to go back to (distilling) school at Heriot-Watt University, and Claire works on the marketing side of the business and was behind the design and furnishing of the gorgeous tasting room. They sound like quite the power couple having good experience in running a business together and have returned to Caithness to produce a gin that reflects the essence of the county.
Next, we heard about the development of Rock Rose Gin as we know it today. After roaming Caithness with a herbalist, and experimenting 55 times to find the perfect recipe, Rock Rose Gin was finally perfected and Dunnet Bay Distillery opened in 2014.
Many of the botanicals that go into Rock Rose gin are grown within a 5-mile radius of Dunnet Bay Distillery, keeping it a truly local product. Amongst the other botanicals, it contains (18 in total) sea-buckthorn - a shrub that gives Rock Rose the distinctive citrus aroma, and has fifteen times more vitamin C content than an orange!
Before we went back to the tasting room, we visited the distillery staff in action, who were hand-labelling and wax-sealing the bottles on the day we visited (they distil on alternate days). The original target for sales in the first year of production for Rock Rose gin was 100,000 bottles which were actually met in the very first quarter, such was its popularity.
We took our seats at the tasting table (under 18's are not permitted to sit at the tasting table, but were welcome to return to the comfy chairs), ready to pair the samples with tonic and garnish.
We firstly sipped the Summer and Winter editions of Rock Rose gin neat, then sampled the gins paired with Fever-tree tonic, borage (Summer) and apple (Winter).
Our final sample was Dunnet Bay Distillery Holy Grass vodka.
Holy Grass actually grows on the banks of the nearby Thurso river, and it has a vanilla scent which was once used for church floors (hence the name Holy Grass). Sticking closely to gin, I am not normally a vodka drinker but this was the surprising favourite out of all the samples, being very creamy on the tongue. Dunnet Bay Distillery name its cocktail the Dunnet Donkey (a nod to the Moscow Mule) which contains apple juice ice cubes, ginger ale and torn mint. We recreated this at home the very same night!
At the end of our tasting, we were given a little goody bag which was a lovely surprise. Don't miss out on the shop either as you leave - there are lots of locally made products including Rock Rose Gin Chocolates, gin marmalade, special editions of Rock Rose gin, and other gin-related gifts. My only disappointment was that the beautifully engraved glasses had sold out, but maybe that gives me an excuse to do the tour again soon!
Booking tours at Dunnet Bay Distillery cost £12 each (under 18s free) and should be done in advance as spaces fill up very quickly! Visit the Dunnet Bay Distillery website for more information.