Foraging For Gin Botanicals With Ireland’s Glendalough Distillery
Exploring Wicklow with Glendalough’s full-time forager.
To stand on the shore of the Glendalough Upper Lake is like stepping back in time: The lush forest and the bright blue lake are intensely memorable, and the view is as breathtaking as it was eons ago. It quickly becomes clear why Glendalough Distillery is more than fit to carry on the legacy of the landscape.
It’s that very landscape on which Saint Kevin built Glendalough Monastery in the sixth century, and his image graces two new bottle designs for Glendalough Irish Gin (“Glendalough” itself means “glen between two lakes”).
It’s the botanicals within that really reflect the remarkably beautiful region, as Maxim found out during a visit to County Wicklow with Glendalough Distillery Forager Geraldine Kavanaugh, Ireland’s only full-time forager.
The picturesque landscape is bolstered even further by a cocktail enjoyed under a starry night sky at nearby Kilruddery’s Grain Store, but before that drink can be mixed up, the gin itself has to be perfected.
Kavanaugh goes to great lengths to capture gin botanicals in all kinds of weather, using a keen eye and an innate knowledge of the region, plus its weather and growing patterns, to pinpoint where to go — and what to pick.
The forest floor and its lower regions are teeming with flora that only an expert could successfully harvest: It takes years of practice to get right.
It’s a job that appears both demanding and yet refreshing: More time in the great outdoors, including on a rare sun-dappled Irish spring day, goes a long way toward stellar gin.
Botanicals like elderflower are used in abundance in Glendalough’s gin, a lineup which includes a Wild Botanical Irish Gin and a supremely pleasant Wild Rose Gin, but the entire formula holds importance for Kavanaugh as she scours the area’s lush green forests.
“I feel that the ingredients we use in smaller quantities are equally important in how the gin tastes and feels in your mouth, in the same way as herbs, salt and pepper are small but hugely important additions to a recipe when you are cooking at home,” Kavanaugh said.
Other ingredients found in abundance in the region, like the yellow yarrow flower, can’t be harvested year-round, yet Kavanaugh also says “the gin wouldn’t be as balanced without them.”
Kavanaugh scoops up Glendalough’s prized botanicals using hand-woven baskets, which are quickly filled with fresh finds that go into different batches of Glendalough gin throughout the year.
It doesn’t get much more vibrant than that, and the handwoven basket design is even embossed on the new bottle, which Kavanaugh calls a kind of “secret map,” filled with other regional touches like embossed botanicals.
Kavanaugh never seems to worry about running out of certain ingredients, and that’s good news for fans of Glendalough gin.
“I think our gins have a deep sense of place. I can smell the different seasons of the Wicklow
Mountains in our gins,” Kavanaugh said. “As the seasons change, the smells outside change, and when I’m out in these places, I take in the scents and think about where they originate.”
For instance: Kavanaugh picks up herbal and honey notes in the mountains in August (from heather in bloom). April brings with it pine and tropical, coconut notes, thanks to new pine shoots and blooming gorse.
You might say practice makes perfect when it comes to the art of crafting gin, and selecting the ingredients that make Glendalough unique.
Glendalough also isn’t afraid to push boundaries, crafting its Wild Rose Gin with rose petals picked from the garden of Glendalough Distiller Ciarán “Rowdy” Rooney’s mother.
As luck would have it, the gin makes for an excellent, seriously refreshing twist on the Gin and Tonic.
“The best gin for a G&T is a small-batch distilled gin with a juniper-forward flavor that includes other botanicals that are ideally locally sourced,” Rooney said.
It certainly isn’t easy to craft Glendalough’s Irish Gin with such care and a sense of precision that’s filtered through the landscape’s natural beauty.
Glendalough itself is woven through with a sense of memory and of endless beauty. And yes, excellent Irish gin. It’s what keeps Kavanaugh coming back.
“It is a place of many stories. Old stories, but with a universal and timeless significance,” Kavanaugh said.
That sense of heritage and gravitas, distilled and bottled, should keep plenty a bar cart well-stocked going forward.