March arrives and brings with it the start of meteorological Spring. After a long, dark winter, we’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel as the days lengthen and life returns to the land.
But, beneath the waves, the process of rebirth has already begun, as the native island seaweed known as Sugar Kelp takes advantage of the winter months to grow once more.
It’s now that these new, golden-green fronds become ready for harvesting by hand, carefully picked from Outer Hebridean sea lochs, blemish-free and at their best for making our Isle of Harris Gin.
We entrust this task to one man, our friend and distillery diver Lewis Mackenzie, who selects every piece of this special seaweed from his secret underwater forests.
“The plants live for about four years, and I can harvest the same plant twice a year. It’s like an underwater vineyard, where you’re looking after the vines and ensuring that they’re well kept. The younger the leaf, the better its quality…”
With only a 7mm thick hooded dry suit to keep the cold waters at bay, Lewis collects the kelp by himself, freediving during a two-hour window on either side of the fortnightly low spring tides.
Sustainability is key, and he works strictly to the Scottish Natural Heritage code of conduct. Only the top fronds of the seaweed are taken, never the stalks, to ensure that they can continue to thrive.
“My boat is anchored over the harvest site and I roll into the sea with mesh bags into which the fronds of kelp are placed. After a couple of hours in the water, I'm ready to get back into the boat where after a coffee, the bags are emptied and the seaweed carefully cleaned.”
Happily, our island is blessed with large beds of Sugar kelp and the amount harvested to make Isle of Harris Gin is a minute fraction of the annual biomass.
No plants are killed and the kelp re-grows to the full length within 8 weeks, with the whole process being mapped using GPS. A robust HaCCP procedure is also in place to ensure a fully food-grade botanical.
As for Lewis, we cannot thank him enough for the work he does to bring this precious piece of the gin recipe from clear-watered seas to our bright copper still.
After 30 years of diving, he remains impressively enthusiastic about taking the cold plunge in pursuit of these wonderful, savoury-sweet plants. He tells us…
“Every day is still an adventure. Yes, it's cold, wet, uncomfortable, but you learn to blank these out, and the sights to be seen underwater around the Outer Hebrides more than compensates for a drop or two cold water down my neck.”
So, as you sit in the warmth of your home this weekend, sipping on a glass of Isle of Harris Gin, raise a toast to the return of the kelp man, without whom our magical maritime spirit would not be the same.