Sunday, August 28, 2016

Rock Rose with Hugh MacDiarmid's 'Scotland Small?'

D bought me my first bottle of Rock Rose, he's originally from Caithness so when he saw it he had to buy it. (In Fortnum and Mason's, they might not have the biggest gin selection in town, but I believe it still runs to over 100 bottles, the guys on the counter know their business, and they have tasting samples of almost all of them if you ask nicely.) For me it was like getting gin and flowers all in the same package, I was so delighted with it that it's set the bar for casual gifts ever since. Happily, when we've been in Scotland it's been easy to find so it's become something to look forward to on trips North.

It makes sense that so many good gins are coming out of Scotland at the moment; the well established whisky industry, especially the way that single malt took off from the 1970's onwards, is a great example of how to do it. (Conversely the English are getting in on the act, making single malt in distilleries that started off making gin, it'll be interesting to see how that pans out.)

With Rock Rose there are a handful of locally sourced botanicals (including rowan berries, sea buckthorn, blaeberries, and of course rock rose root) which tie the gin to the landscape it comes from. The ceramic bottle with its arts and crafts/Charles Rennie Mackintosh/Glasgow four overtones is strikingly attractive (serious shelf appeal), I love the way it references Scottish design history, its own namesake botanical, and a certain fin de siècle loucheness all at once.

The gin itself is great, there's a hint of rose on the nose, and the sea buckthorn adds a certain sharpness to the palate that works well with the juniper. It's a fairly classic gin, but with enough subtle twists to make it distinctive. Rock Rose recommend garnishing with rosemary, which I'll try next time. (I'm also very keen to try their navy strength gin, next time I see a bottle it's mine.)

When I was thinking of what to match it with my first thought was Neil M. Gunn's 'The Silver Darlings' - Gunn was from the right part of the world and it's definitely a gin that wants to celebrate where it's from, but I haven't yet managed to finish 'The Silver Darlings', and anyway it feels like more of a whisky book. My second though was Josaphine Tey (she was from Inverness) which just as swiftly reminded me that I want to read 'The Singing Sands' and haven't. Tey's books do suggest gin to me, but somehow not this one.

Then I thought of Hugh MacDiarmid. I don't read a lot of MacDiarmid, he can be heavy going, but his story is interesting (see Here for brief details) and 'Scotland Small?' Is a favourite poem for the way it celebrates a landscape that's certainly families to Caithness. It's obviously not a poem about gin, or the process of tasting it, but nevertheless it strongly reminds me of the discipline of tasting (as opposed to just drinking).

Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliché corner
To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’ where in September another
Sitting there and resting and gazing around
Sees not only the heather but blaeberries
With bright green leaves and leaves already turned scarlet,
Hiding ripe blue berries; and amongst the sage-green leaves
Of the bog-myrtle the golden flowers of the tormentil shining;
And on the small bare places, where the little Blackface sheep
Found grazing, milkworts blue as summer skies;
And down in neglected peat-hags, not worked
Within living memory, sphagnum moss in pastel shades
Of yellow, green, and pink; sundew and butterwort
Waiting with wide-open sticky leaves for their tiny winged prey;
And nodding harebells vying in their colour
With the blue butterflies that poise themselves delicately upon them;
And stunted rowans with harsh dry leaves of glorious colour.
‘Nothing but heather!’  ̶  How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete. 


  1. My current favourite and they gave a spring one I would like to try.

    Try it with rosemary it works!

    1. I will try it with rosemary, and I like the look of the spring one too. Gorgeous bottles.

  2. I was unaware that rock rose had any perfume at all! The label does look like a MacKintosh design.

  3. I believe it's the root that's used, I haven't actually managed to get within nosing distance of rock rose roots (yet) but am assuming it works a bit like orris, where it's the iris root that provides the scent - though I've never knowingly detected the iris smell familiar from perfume in gin despite orris being a botanical. That's something I'm going to think about now.

  4. Thanks for allowing me to read MacDiarmid again in a refreshingly different context. He perversely rejoined the British Communist Party after the Soviet Union butchered the Hungarian democrats. He was a great poet for all his silly attention-seeking and his Stalinist posturing. I doubt if as a Borders man he visited Caithness more than once in his life. There's a new paperback biography of Josephine Tey, and someone has written a detective novel in which she features as the main character. I remember seeing a first edition of The Daughter of Time in John Braine's office library; see John Braine on the Woking Matters blog. Your comment on Rock Rose (I had never heard of it) and the undetected iris scent in the gin is fascinating. Please return to this in another blog. I had no idea the English are distilling single malt whiskies; good on them, I say. Maybe this will bring down the price of malts a wee bit. The present cost of single malts is outrageous. I like to sip a malt with a drop of sparkling water, now that the nights are drawing in, but who can afford it apart from the plutocrats who don't pay Income Tax? The distillers don't seem to give a damn because they are doing well in the international market.
    Jack (John) Haggerty, Glasgow.