A great deal of alcohol has been processed by hundreds of thousands of livers at Glasgow’s legendary Barrowlands, the 84-year-old ballroom that most locals agree is still Glasgow’s best live music venue. The surrounding area may be dilapidated in places, and a little shady in others, but if you come to The Barras you can expect to have a good time.
You can also expect to leave with more alcohol than you arrived with, although, thanks to Crossbill Gin, it doesn’t all have to be sloshing around in your belly. At the start of last year, Jonathan Engels moved his distillery to Glasgow from the outskirts of Aviemore, in the Highlands, to Barras Art and Design, a multipurpose venue and creative hub. He launched The Hatchery Laboratory & Gin School in the summer, which offers a three-hour course on which total novices — like my friend Callum and I — get to learn about, and briefly participate in, the gin craze sweeping Britain.
Crossbill Gin could hardly be simpler: the only botanicals are Scottish juniper and rosehip. As gin school pupils making our own, we’re told we’ll have a lot more freedom. Jonathan explains that so long as juniper is the chief component, we can call it gin. So, if we want to have, say, four grams of rosemary, we’ll need to have at least five of juniper. There’s no limit on the number of botanicals we can include, either — some gins have dozens. For example, Monkey 47, a German gin, is so named because of its number of ingredients (none of them is monkey).
Pouring each of the class a large glass of his gin, Jonathan explains that he originally made vodka but switched to gin after being inspired by the success of Scottish producer Hendrick’s Gin. As he researched the subject, he learned that early Dutch pioneers used to source their juniper berries from Scotland — until then, he had no idea it was grown in his homeland. With the help of the Forestry Commission, Jonathan has now revived Scottish juniper production, harvesting from a small crop of trees in the Highlands. He named his launch product after a little, oddly beaked bird that feeds on conifer cones.
Pupils are free to bring their own botanicals to the school, but there are dozens of ingredients in jars on site, too. I decide to keep things simple, following the logic that established food pairings will likely work well together in booze. To that end, I reach for lemon verbena and some kaffir lime leaves, weighing them and popping them into my still with some fresh juniper. To my mind, I’ve created something that’ll have vaguely Thai flavourings, a sure-fire winner.
Callum, meanwhile, decides to cram his with macerated strawberries and rosehip, seemingly for no other reason than because he plans on giving his final product to his wife as a present.
As my brew drips from the still, it’s an eye-watering, throat-constricting 80% alcohol. Using tiny copper cups, we’re told to sample this firewater, an experience something like being tear-gassed. Although it’s undoubtedly potent, mine doesn’t taste great. Worse: through my watering eyes, I can see that Jonathan has been thoroughly impressed by Callum’s perfunctory effort. Later, he’ll describe it as the best any student has so far made in one of his classes. Leaving the class, bottle in hand, I feel like I could do with another drink — just not my own, of course.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)