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James Donaldson spends his days literally following his nose around the remote Scottish island of Islay, sniffing out the native botanicals that go into distilling The Botanist Gin. As one of the only full-time professional foragers for a gin brand, he is a rare breed in the spirits world. While he is tasked with hand-picking the 22 botanicals to make the gin, Donaldson notes that the real focus of his work is “to encourage the supply of botanicals, not ravage it. We ensure nothing used is rare or threatened on the island. Islay is such a small but dramatically diverse place and we want to keep it that way.”
Donaldson’s “fairly feral childhood running riot in the woods,” and the influence of his grandmother, who brewed her own beer and taught him about medicinal herbs, built the foundations for his foraging passion. While gin foraging is nothing new in Scotland (visitors can book their own foraging expeditions and use the bounty to distill their own gin), Donaldson views the bounty on Islay as extraordinary. “The island is a bit like a forgotten larder,” he explains. “Many of the botanicals such as lady’s bedstraw, mugwort, creeping thistle, and tansy have a long history as flavorings in cooking, brewing and distilling.”
Any given day might have him navigating the perils of Islay’s boggy quicksand or adjusting to the island’s unpredictable changes in weather. “As stunning as Islay is, it’s a rugged and untamed place and we are still very exposed to the might of the Atlantic,” he says. His gear is simple but tough: “A decent jacket and a stout pair of boots,” and he keeps a diary of where and when each plant was picked. He’s quick to note that there is no such thing as a typical day. He might spend from dawn to dusk foraging one day and spend the following day in his workshop, individually stripping stems from tiny flowers and laying them out to dry.
March is the official beginning of picking season, but it’s the scents that really dictate the calendar. Ensuring he is picking at the right time (too early and the botanical will not be at full expression, too late and you might impact the plant’s ability to replenish), is a critical part of his job. “Hawthorne has a very narrow window,” he cites as an example. “I have to be very focused and source it when it will be at its most aromatic and mature.” He also has to mind the spiny attentions of more prickly plants such as Gorse, which “really begins to peak in early spring, painting the island yellow with its blossoms but I have to wait patiently until I detect the plant’s rich coconut scent before picking.”
The island is small but packed with a range of habitats and, as of yet, Donaldson has never encountered menacing wildlife. Most days he might stumble across any number of deer and brown hares. “But the birdlife,” he explains, “is globally renowned. So many geese overwinter on Islay that they will darken the sky.” During his forages he often spies Hen Harriers (raptors) hunting on the moors and even the rare and elusive corncrake—which loves to hang out around the distillery and use the warehouses to echo its distinctive calls out over the landscape.
The weather is an ongoing challenge for Donaldson. Islay is on the frontline of the Atlantic and mercilessly wet days hamper his ability to pick in the prime. Bringing in damp botanicals will yield poor flavor and aromatics. “Picking dry and then laying out to dry more is the goal,” he says.
When asked to pick a favorite botanical he’s hard-pressed to choose but these days he’s sweet on lady’s bedstraw, or galium verum as it's also called. “It’s a delicate yellow flower with a lovely aroma of fresh cut hay and vanilla. It’s at its best from mid-July and grows among the sand dunes behind the golden beaches towards the north of the island—a beautiful location to be out picking on a summer’s day.”
Donaldson has even discovered a botanical to substitute the olive in his gin martini—pickled Japanese knotweed. “It’s really an invasive, much-reviled, non-native plant," Donaldson explained "that I have been able to put to good use.”