Holy waters

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As monks go, St Columba was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. A great-great-grandson of High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, he once started a war over a copyright issue and ended up narrowly avoiding excommunication by exiling himself to Scotland. He sailed past Islay, where Irish monks introduced distilling to the Scots, and set up a Christian outpost on Iona, from where he set out to spread his faith.

But he is also remembered for being the first person recorded to have an encounter with the Loch Ness monster. He came across some Picts burying a companion who had been killed by a ‘water beast’ in the loch. Columba ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat on the other side – but the man was only halfway when a fearsome creature appeared.

Invoking the name of God, Columba formed the sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.”

The monster fled, but despite the fact that 1,500 years have passed since that account, and although Columba has largely been forgotten, Nessie’s legend shows no signs of diminishing. Loch Ness still seems a magical place, where the walls between our world and some fantasy kingdom are crumbling, where anything can happen. No wonder then that a family who have lived on the banks of the loch for 500 years have decided to try and capture some of the magic of its waters.

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Lorien and Kevin Cameron-Ross, above, the founders and directors of Loch Ness Spirits, hand pick their own ‘black gold’ juniper and local botanicals from their land on the shores of Loch Ness.  They then combine it with the water of the glen to create the limited edition ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin. Just 500 bottles of the first batch of ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin have been distilled.   

Already an award winner, achieving a gold medal in ‘ultra-premium’ category and silver medal in the ‘London dry’ category of The Global Gin Masters Competition in June, ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin was described by the judges as “A sparkle of juniper mixed with earthy angelica and aromatic pine blossom.”

Co-creator Lorien: ‘Inspired by a local gin tour and noting how rare and precious juniper was, we got to thinking about the juniper around us when we walked the dog at home.

‘It has been a steep learning curve and we have worked extremely hard to hand pick the juniper and other botanicals, but we have made it, and are desperately proud of the result.

‘The family has been working the rugged shores of this loch for 500 years and this is just the next stage in that tradition of working the land. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it could be the most delicious thing we have produced in half a millennium!’

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So what of the gin – it has a freshness on the nose that I wasn’t expecting, a real light air of lemongrass, with hints of fresh-cut fennel bulb. There is a definite menthol element that really lines it up as a palate cleanser – citrus notes, but with a hint of brine. The mouth is definitely a big departure  – lots of cotton candy, a slight medicinal sweetness, leaving more of that initial citrus in its wake. A refreshing gin, served with too much tonic water and you might drown out some of the more hidden depths. I took this neat, then with ice, then tonic, and favoured a weightier measure of gin and less of everything else; like the beastie in the loch, it is an elusive sip that definitely needs more exploration.

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As for Nessie, her enduring myth was revived recently by Ian Bremner, a distillery worker who took this photo:

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Speaking after, Bremner said: “I suppose it could be seals – but I’m not so sure. The more I think about it, the more I think it could be Nessie” – proving that from St Columba to the Cameron-Rosses, all you need to make the waters of Loch Ness magical is a little faith.

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