I don’t speak Flemish. And on reflection, it was perhaps a risky move on my part. But there we were, stood on a Belgian canal bridge, with a decision to make and not much time to act. So we did the only thing we could…we made a run for it!
Rewinding slightly, and it was the summer of 2010. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I had embarked on a mini tour of France via an Interrail train ticket, which would see us set off from Belgium to make a further 3 stops through France and ending in Paris. We had opted to kick off our trip in the picturesque medieval city of Brugge. It had been a destination high up on my holiday hit list ever since watching the dark comedy ‘In Brugge’ starring Colin Farrell (I’ve gone on to watch the film an incalculable number of times since and would thoroughly recommend it to you if you haven’t yet had the pleasure!).
Beer, chips and chocolate; Belgium lived up to its stereotype with great aplomb and made for a brilliant start to our trip. And after the allotted 3 days in situ it was time to pack our bags and head to the next port of call. As we headed for some rest, I arranged for an early morning taxi to get us to the train station, based a good 2-3 miles away from our hotel. Sure, the conversation between blogger and hotel receptionist was conducted in questionable and broken pigeon English. But I just punctuated the sentences and silences with laughter where it felt appropriate and thought ‘what’s the worst that could happen’?
No bloody taxi turning up would turn out to be the answer! And with no 24hour reception, and the door to the hotel now locked firmly behind us, we were a little stuck…
After doing the typical polite British tourist thing of waiting patiently, assuming that the taxi must be ‘just around the corner’, it soon became painfully obvious that no one was coming. And with 25minutes before our train was set to depart, and two large suitcases to drag over the cobbled streets, we were now at high risk of being stranded in Belgium for 24hours with no accommodation until the next available train. We started running.
Despite the perilous hopelessness of our situation, we keep ploughing forwards. At one stage, I spotted a local stood in their doorway smoking a cigarette and tried to explain the situation to them. In speaking not a word of Flemish, I could only resort to mime, pointing and speaking louder at them. In retrospect, they probably made a wise choice in not letting the sweaty, iratic and unfathomably loud English man in to their home to use the phone (and quite who I was planning to call I still have no idea!).
Dejected and all but resigned to our fate, I looked down the street and saw a taxi turning up a side street. From nowhere instinct took over, I threw my arms in the air and shouted ‘TAXI!’… he disappeared out of sight. I sighed a broken sigh.
Until 5 seconds later, when the same taxi slowly reversed back in to view. The drivers side window was lowered and the driver beckoned us towards him. I can not describe to you the relief! Within minutes, our ‘knight in shining armour’ or in this case a shiny taxi, had thrown our cases in the boot and was tearing through the narrow streets to get us to the station.
It turned out that our driver had been working all night and through the small hours of the morning, and was off duty & on his way home to sleep when he came to our aid. A genuine case of a ‘Good Samaritan’ answering our SOS call in our time of need! The taxi screeched to a halt outside the station with 5 minutes to spare before our train was due to leave. With a hearty handshake and a gushing of sincere thanks, he disappeared in to the morning mist like a superhero making a grand exit to stage left.
Back to modern day, and I was stood in my kitchen staring at a message in a bottle. Though this was a very different kind of ‘SOS’ altogether… Rather than a cry for help, this was actually the latest gin drop to arrive from north of the border, and I was about to welcome a new addition to the gin shelf; SOS Gin, Scotland’s Other Spirit.
Sending out an SOS…
Born in the Lowlands of Scotland, produced in Loanhead, Midlothian, SOS Gin is the creation of Mark & Craig Munnoch-Wahlberg. After an extended period of experimentation to identify the unique character that they were after, SOS Gin was launched in January 2019.
Team SOS were looking to ‘create an alternative taste in (their) uniquely flavoured craft gin’ . And it’s the unique character that first caught my eye. First off, let’s take a look at the botanical list. It is, at first look, modest and seemingly small, with just four ingredients at play;
But that is to do it a massive injustice and to completely miss the point. I prefer to look at it as being concise, purposefully stripped back and masterfully considered.
The Lowland juniper used is 100% locally sourced and hand-foraged. It is also harvested with a delicate hand, so as to protect the next years crop. The local rosehip is also hand-foraged. But more than that, once de-seeded in readiness for distilling, the rosehip seeds are returned to the ground to allow nature to rejuvenate and replenish. The rhubarb is, once again (yep, you guessed it) LOCAL! So local in fact, that it is sourced from the gardens of friends & family! I suppose when you know that your rhubarb may go someway towards bagging you a bottle of gin, you too would look to get a little green-fingered.
This treasure trove of finds, plucked from the Scottish landscape, are then blended with chamomile before being distilled in small batches in a copper pot still.
SOS Gin are very transparent at calling out that they use the facilities at Strathearn Distillery to create their gin. But whilst it may be distilled under contract, the team are involved at every stage of the distillation and bottling, and keep their recipe very close to their chests!
The next thing that grabbed my attention was the name; ‘Scotland’s Other Spirit’. Whilst not explicitly defined by the team, perhaps leaving you to reach your own conclusions, I interpret this in two ways. And both are equally meaningful.
Firstly, there’s the obvious fact that Scotland is renowned and revered for its whiskey making. Let’s face facts, it’s a key part of the country’s history and heritage and there’s a reason that Scotch whiskeys are widely considered to be some of the best in the world. But to not acknowledge the bustling gin scene is to do it a disservice! I have been blown away in recent years by the strength and depth of both the volume and quality of gin that has exploded from Scotland, making it one of the most vibrant and exciting gin destinations of the moment. The SOS name then is perhaps a tongue in cheek, gentle dig in the ribs, to playfully remind you that there’s more than just whiskey on offer in their bonnie land.
Secondly, and perhaps a little more deeply, I see the naming as being a reference to the team looking to bottle the spirit of Scotland. One of the things I most admire about Scottish gins is their ability to pluck flavours from the rich tapestry of the landscape to deliver a real taste of provenance in the end gin. With SOS, I love the idea of the team carefully extracting only what’s needed from the land to bottle a sense of place, before giving back to hillsides for future prosperity; man and nature working side by side. It’s about being able to transport you to the foothills of where the gin is made, translating place of origin in to character and taste.
That said, the depiction of morse code on the bottle and branding playfully toys with the SOS abbreviation. As a father of a young child, particularly in the Covid time lockdown, I do like to think that this could be useful in a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ type of situation. I get the sense it would certainly come to the aid of many a stressed out parent!
SOS; Message in a bottle
So we’ve talked about what’s inside the bottle. But what about the bottle itself? Well, it’s certainly striking with its clean and sharp edges, opting for a tall and slender contemporary offering over some of the perhaps more common place sightings.
You’ll also notice that it’s almost completely transparent, save for the branding and logo. It brings a sense of assured calm, demonstrating an elegance and sophistication. It is a nice call back to the carefully considered botanical lineup, with everything in place for a reason rather than chucking garish bells and whistles at the vessel.
The silver foil print angel depicted front and centre, a relatively unique take on gin labelling, can’t help to catch your eye.
However. One point of observation is that the clinical approach may just be…a little too clinical? Whilst I personally appreciate the sentiments and symbolism behind the design, I fear that on a back bar the bottle could become lost in amongst the sea of competition.
Even when photographing for this review, I struggled with lighting and location to make sure the finer details were able to be appreciated. I fear that this is perhaps a case of being brilliant for collectors, but under appreciated in the public forum.
I also wince whenever I spot a glass stopper in the top of a bottle. Not for any aesthetic reason, in fact I think they look rather beautiful and in this case it is in sticking with the rest of the look and feel. My trepidation is primarily based on my own ineptness at opening the bottles in the smooth and effortless way in which I’m sure they are intended!
Getting in to the (Other) Spirit of things…
With the glass stopper successfully extracted, and far easier that I’d expected (which either means I have benefited from ‘experience’ or the design of the cap has been executed really well – both are plausible!) there was nothing left to do but to give it a whirl. It was time to get ‘in to the spirit’…literally.
On the nose, there’s a light and floral perfumed feel to the neat gin. For me, the rosehip gives a sharp, almost citrus tang to the foreground that delivers a hint of orange and bright red berries. The use of fresh rhubarb really is a stroke of genius. It brings a vibrant and punchy sweetness, and a sense of zippy citrus of its own, that helps to balance our any danger of being overly tart.
The juniper feels deep and purple, and whilst perhaps not the first botanical to grab the nostrils, it is confidently powerful each time I return to the glass.
But for me, the chamomile is the really clever bit. It seems to be pulling the strings, knitting every other element together. It has been used to exacting ratios, to ensure it’s presence is felt without ever becoming overwhelming. It provides a warming and mellow hue, that is at times almost vanilla like. To my nose, it gives a delicate and fresh tea leaf feel to the aroma, reminiscent of other gins I have enjoyed that have used tea as a core botanical.
Despite its 45% ABV, there is very little aggression to the vapours, which present as measured and soft.
Tasted neat and it is absolutely delicious. Like. Really, really good. This is definitely a little bit of me!
The character on the nose carries over directly to the palate. In fact, every note that I detected is elevated and exceeds all of my expectations! The bold, orange citrus of the rosehip seems brighter. The sweet, cooked fruit sensations of the rhubarb feel more lively and vibrant. The juniper is far more pronounced, delivering ample amounts of fresh Lowland pine. And the chamomile, for me, continues to be the star of the show. There’s a warming aromatic cinnamon spice, with vanilla-esq flavours dancing across the tongue. It helps to give a ‘rhubarb & custard’ suggestion without any level of over sweetness. And who doesn’t like rhubarb and custard?!
The perfect serve suggestion from the team at SOS Gin is as a gin and tonic, with a garnish of mixed summer berries. And I’d have to concur! This gin feels made to pair with a premium tonic, to pull those fruit flavours forward, complemented by the garnish and perfect for a hot summers day.
But for me, there’s far more to this gin than stopping at a G&T, with a lot of scope for wider serves.
I can’t get my head out of the idea of a Dry Martini with lemon twist! At a ratio of 5:1, Cocchi Americano Bianco vermouth would bring a touch of sweetness and harmonise with the fruit flavours of the rosehip and rhubarb, allowing the aromas of the chamomile to shine through…A thing of beauty.
My suspicion is that this is a less likely candidate for a classic negroni. I fear that the flavour profile could become muddled and a little lost (don’t get me wrong, it won’t stop me from trying!). But where this gin could really come in to its own is as a White Negroni. The spirits delicately fruited character, and natural sweetness, could do wonders to offset the bitterness of the Suze and deliver a superb summers evening sipper.
That said, SOS Gin state that this is a gin that can be drank neat or over ice. Whilst I normally roll my eyes at these kind of statements, as it’s not generally a serve with mass appeal, I can absolutely get onboard with it here. There’s enough going on in the character of the gin to keep me entertained for hours, and it’s smooth and rounded finish would definitely allow it to be enjoyed in naked form (the gin that is…not me!).
And they all lived happily ever after…
I have been left thoroughly impressed by SOS Gin; Scotland’s Other Spirit. It exceeded all of my hopes, and has left me excited to explore a whole range of serves.
The thing that I have really enjoyed is the ability of the gin to stamp is mark on the map through the flavours delivered. I went in to the tasting wanting to really get a feel for the landscape where the botanicals have been foraged. I wasn’t left disappointed! The sense of provenance is expertly delivered and transports you to the Lowlands through the drinking experience.
And even though I can speak Scottish (fluently), if I did ever find myself stranded in the Lowlands without a taxi anywhere in sight, I think I’d be just fine with that. SOS Gin would answer my call, and probably convince me to hang around a while longer…
With huge thanks to Mark & Craig Munnoch-Wahlberg for my complementary bottle of their flagship gin ‘SOS, Scotland’s Other Spirit’!
Make sure to follow the team at SOS Gin to stay on top of all of the latest news and goings on:
Facebook: @S O S Gin
This blog is also brought to you in recognition and celebration of International Scottish Gin Day 2020! Hitting your calendars on 24th October this year, the team at ‘The Gin Cooperative’ (www.thegincooperative.com) are doing an incredible job of setting up the events second annual outing! Make sure you’re following the team to keep up with all of the latest in the build up to the big day:
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!