The tale of the little distillery that’s putting the Scottish Borders back on the (Gin) Map.
An hour south of the UK’s gin capital – Edinburgh – are the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders, a place among the most fitting scenes for serine silence. Yet, there has been a quietness most unfitting here until, along with the help of a few other distilleries, Kate McInnes decided to shatter it.
This was none other than the dreaded silence of the still. In 1837, along the banks of the River Tweed, the last distillery in the Borders shut up shop in Kelso. Now, one of the tributaries of the Tweed, the river Teviot holds a resident along its banks that was key to bringing life back into the area; a most spiritous endeavour. That resident is Lilliard’s Ginnery.
With the fires now lit, the Borders are fast becoming a hive once more for distilling, with a sawed of new gin distilleries and two major whisky distilleries opened in the last year.
With all sizes of enterprise humming away it would appear, is this far from the most important thing as Lilliard’s has set out to show. This tiny micro-distillery is based in a converted cow shed nestled cosily among good company, with the Born in the Borders Brewery as neighbours. It’s against this quaint, cottage industry backdrop that Kate McInnes has been bringing the art of distilling back to these parts since 2017 – but that’s not all. Not content with reviving history, she’s innovating. McInnes, along with her still – Donald – are helping break a 180-year silence by making one of first ever gins to be created in the Borders.
Despite hot air emanating from this 60l copper still, we’re assured that its name takes no inspirations from a certain other copper-coloured Donald. This Donald is an altogether more charming affair. Its name is all part of an unspoken, maybe unacknowledged, convention-breaking spirit in the distillery, opting for a male-named still and helmed by a female distiller, rather than the prevailing stuffiness of the status quo of the distilling world.
One of the many admirable facets to Lilliard’s is their attention to perfecting a sense of place in the brand. Lilliard’s is named for the local legend and heroine Lilliard who reportedly fought to the death at the Battle of Ancrum Moor to avenge the death of her lover at the hands of the English during the War of the “Rough Wooing” in 1545. The battle happened just north of the River Teviot that flanks the building of the old farm, a short journey from the distillery.
But all is not shrouded in such uncharacteristic and forgotten clamour. Instead, bringing a more harmonic side to the brand is its label inspired by the Monteath Mausoleum which now quietly overlooks the site of the battle. Cut into its roof are the same stars that emblazon the understated label of Lilliard’s. Coincidently, the architects Peddie and Kinnear who were commissioned for the build in 1864 by its eventual host, Thomas Monteath, would go on to design many of the grand buildings of aforementioned gin capital Edinburgh, including the then George Street branch of Bank of Scotland which is now, maybe more aptly for our story, The Dome Restaurant and Bar.
Although every gin brand can spin the cleverest yarns to tie itself to a place and never have any more connection to the provenance than a name on a bottle, Lilliard’s is not such a brand. It’s wonderfully woven story intertwining with the local history of the area is supported with a gin that borrows from the bountiful local blooms of wildflowers; elderflower, rowan, rosehip, and meadowsweet all working to create a sense of the landscape of the Borders regions. Lilliard’s has been carefully tailored to represent the history and the flavour of the Scottish Borders. And maybe more importantly, despite McInnes only arriving in the borders in 2006, there is a real sense of wanting to make this more than a business. Rather than a marketing spiel of its own sake Team Lilliard is busily promoting the area with the help of Donald. Despite Donald’s humble size, Kate has managed to produce over 12,000 bottles of this fine spirit.
It would be easy to think that, with the hectic gin production schedule that Lilliard’s have, they might want a moment to lock up the cowshed and have a go at the grass sledging that you can part take in on the site. Yet, somewhat like their namesake, Team Lilliard are a fiery lot. This desire to give back to the Borders, promote the area and help bring more to the economy of this quite often overlooked corner of Scotland has even festered a brilliant initiative for her business and the area: a gin school. Designed to let amateurs come and learn all about the process of distilling in a relaxed setting, the school even allows people to try their hand at distilling, getting to come away with a 20cl of your very own gin.
So, what are we introducing you to this month? Kate’s Lilliard Gin, a clean round spirit, with a subtle fresh nose that throws a refining citrus and soft sweet woodiness into the mix of wild floral notes. On the palate, this is a gloriously dry, no-nonsense gin that shows off a nice balance of juniper and citrus. Here, the floral notes play a supporting role, adding intriguing flutters that weave in and out leaving you chasing an array of flavours. This all adds up to a gin that perfectly encompasses a Scottish summer; glorious, an enchanting bloom of flowers, and with this brief notion that this may be eternal, though never lasting long enough and always leaving you wanting more. Add a wee peel of orange rind, a splash of a dry tonic, pop the sunglasses on and smile like it’s the summer.