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A Sugar Kelp Spring

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Diver Lewis Mackenzie gets hands on with Sugar kelp.

The richness of seaweed around Harris, the biodiversity that dwells in it, and the longstanding cultural importance of this underrated underwater plant are just a few of the reasons why we chose Sugar kelp as our Isle of Harris Gin’s defining botanical.

Since we first began hand-harvesting its gold-green fronds back in 2015, we’ve been learning more and more about its secret, submarinal life and our appreciation for the complex interaction between Saccharina latissima and its aquatic environment continues to grow.

The kelp provides a substrate for all kinds of life to inhabit, everything from tiny blue-rayed limpets and beautiful cowries, to spiky sea urchins and whelks, all of which rely on the kelp forests for food and shelter. It even provides a playground and hunting realm for hungry local otters.

The golden-green fronds of Sugar Kelp catching in the spring light.

Growing in gin-clear Outer Hebridean seas.

Its vast forests along our eastern coastline absorb wave energy, particularly in wild winters, and help buffer our shores from storm damage. So, it’s no surprise we take the cultivation of this wonderful plant seriously and work hard to ensure we only ever use it in a sustainable way.

Right now, the sea waters are ‘warming’ to around 7 degrees after a long winter where the kelp has been left to rest and regrow, and by now they’re increasing in size by up to 5cm a day. The tissue thin leaves now take on a translucent golden colour as they sway in the tide under the occasional blink of spring sun.

This year, the Sugar kelp is about 2 weeks behind its normal growing cycle, largely we think due to the spell of strong winds we had last month. Our diver Lewis Mackenzie tells us that heavy wave action at low tides broke a lot of the fronds so the plants are catching up now, as opposed to maturing.

Nature abounds around the kelp forests, a precious habitat for local sealife.

Sea anemones are just one small part of the kelp ecosystem.

But, by the end of this month the Sugar kelp will average about 1 meter in length and be ready to carefully pick, their stalks/stipes gently snapped by hand with the holdfast, or ‘foot and root’, left intact to allow a secondary harvest at a later date.

A weekly gathering of the wet, wild seaweed might weigh up to 100kg but when dried will give us just 10kg or so to use in our gin-making. However, a little goes a long way and our distillers carefully control the amount we macerate for each batch to ensure its flavours don’t overwhelm the final drink.

We also work with our friend Amanda Saurin from the village of Northton to create a special aromatic water with the same seaweed. Produced by hand in small batches, the kelp is combined with a high proof organic alcohol in a small alembic still, a very different design to our own, to bring out the sweeter notes.

Cold, clear seas provide the perfect place for spring growth.

Our Sugar kelp aromatic water, made by Amanda Saurin here in Harris.

She also uses a local rock called Anorthosite in the process, adding marble-sized pieces to calm the boil and agitate the kelp more effectively. It’s a long, skilled process to make with pre-distilling stages and constant vigilance of condenser temperatures to get the best flavour for the final product.

Sugar kelp’s influence is very gentle. Soft, earthy notes can be detected and your imagination will immediately be transported to island coasts with subtle notes of seaweed, ozone, and a fresh sweetness. It provides a slight umami (or deliciously savoury) taste and brings a quiet salinity that will linger on the tongue.

So, if you’d like to enjoy an extra hit of Outer Hebridean seas with your Isle of Harris Gin serves then we highly recommend giving our aromatic water a try. Or simply stick to the smooth and complex contents of our beautiful bottle if you love it as it is. Either way, you’ll be assured of a Sugar kelp spring!

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