Nestled in the shadow of the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is a secret herb garden. The garden is home to The Old Curiosity Distillery – one of Scotland’s finest and most creative gin producers.
Back in January, Mr G and I attended the launch of The Balmoral Hotel’s own-label premium Scottish gin Baile Mhoireil’. The gin was made in partnership with local herbologist Hamish Martin from The Old Curiosity Distillery. Baile Mhoireil means majestic dwelling in Gaelic – never was a name more apt.
We were lucky enough to meet Hamish at the launch. He told us about his passion for herbology and his work at the Secret Herb Garden and The Old curiosity Distillery. Hamish invited us to visit the garden and distillery – we didn’t need to be asked twice after trying Baile Mhoireil.
Fast forward to September and we finally managed to take Hamish up on his kind offer.
Secret Herb Garden & The Old Curiosity Distillery
It was a dreich morning when we arrived at the Secret Herb Garden. The place was charming – even with a persistent drizzle falling.
Besides a herb nursery and distillery, the Secret Herb Garden also has a shop (stocked with gin, plants, organic produce grown on site and many other goodies), cafe, bee observatory and school, where herbology and bee keeping courses are run.
After locating Hamish, we set off for a tour of the garden.
A dream realised
Hamish told us his dream had been to own a herb garden, while wife Libby wanted a shop “full of charm” and a cafe. In the summer of 2012, they bought 7.5 acres of neglected land on the outskirts of Edinburgh – their dreams were within reach. It wouldn’t be easy though. There was no house on the site, which they also planned to live on. Undeterred, Hamish, Libby, their children and dogs moved into a caravan on their new plot of land.
Their hand work, vision and determination paid off. Between them, they created something rather special. They took an unremarkable piece of land and turned it into a little corner of paradise, filled with fragrant plants, flowers and brimming with shabby chic charm. The couple are passionate about recycling, upcycling and organic growing methods. Several of the buildings in the garden were salvaged and repurposed. These include, shipping containers, train carriages and a large water tank (The Tub).
As we wandered round with Hamish, we quickly discovered he was an oracle when it came to plants. He was a delight to listen to and his passion really shone through. Children are welcome at the Secret Herb Garden, but there’s no play area in it on purpose. Hamish wants children visiting to experience the joy of nature and discover the wonderful playground that exists outdoors.
A new Scottish gin is born
As we were learning about the botanicals grown on site and used in the distillery, Hamish told us he got into gin producing by chance. The garden was set up as a herb nursery, shop, cafe and wedding venue, but it needed to make money. With gin botanicals growing all around him, Hamish decided to try making gin as an additional revenue stream. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Our tour with Hamish was an olfactory delight. Synthetic scents and flavours will never come close to rivalling the aroma of Mother Nature. We both went into raptures when we were given lemon verbena leaves to crush and sniff. The smell was fresh, citrusy and so uplifting.
Juniper too – the bush may be jaggy and hostile on the outside, but crush a juniper berry between your fingers and the scent is divine.
Inside the garden’s state-of-the-art drying room we got to see trays filled with leaves, flowers and herbs being prepared for use in the gin making process.
Green fingers and an animal lover too
The Secret Herb Garden isn’t just about plants. There are pigs, turkeys, geese and bees (you can buy their honey in the shop) living in the garden. Hamish is also known to work with his beloved rescue owl on his shoulder. Just when I thought I couldn’t admire the man any more, it turns out he cares for animals too.
This couldn’t have been more apparent when Hamish pointed out a bee on a flower, which he told us it was cold and tired. What happened next was amazing. Hamish lifted the bee from the flower, placed it on the palm of his hand and warmed it up by blowing on it. After a minute or so it began to stir, before flying off. Mr G and I were in awe. The child in me was thinking “I want to try that”.
Dr Dolittle, eat your heart out.
Gin tour and tasting, The Old Curiosity Distillery
After our herb garden tour, Hamish left us with Sarah in the The Old Curiosity Distillery’s ‘Gin Lounge’. It was time to drink gin. Well for me it was. Gin lover Mr G was our designated driver – what a blow.
When Sarah told me I’d be sampling the entire range of Secret Garden gins, I knew Mr G would have died a little inside.
Since launching Secret Garden Gin in 2017, The Old Curiosity Distillery has become a real success story. Besides making gin for one of the world’s best hotels, they also produce gin for supermarket chains Lidl and ADLI. Good gin doesn’t need to cost the earth.
Sarah was brilliant – a natural people person, great fun and super enthusiastic about her job. Who wouldn’t be, working in a gin distillery with pigs, owls and gorgeous smells all around them?
She walked me through the six alcoholic gins in the Secret Garden range, explaining what was in them and letting us handle the dried botanicals used to flavour them.
Mr G got to partake in gin number seven – a non-alcoholic number. It was smooth, subtle and a nice alternative to mineral water or fizzy juice for teetotallers and designated drivers. It’s the first all natural, non-alcoholic gin to be produced in the UK. So, if you’re looking for a non-alcoholic drink that doesn’t contain as many chemicals as a household cleaning product, this is the drink for you.
I can honestly say I loved all of the gins I tried at the tasting session.
If pushed to chose a favourite, it would be a close call between Apothecary Rose and Lavender & Echinacea. The former would marginally claim the crown.
After enthusiastically sampling six gins, I felt sightly tipsy. I needed food to soak up the alcohol.
Lunch, Secret Herb Garden Cafe
Luckily, Hamish had reserved us a table for lunch at the Secret Herb Garden Cafe. The cafe is run by Edinburgh fine-dining restaurant Fhior. Fhior use organic produce, grown in the Secret Herb Garden in the cafe and their restaurant too.
I had a feeling we were in for a treat.
The cafe at the Secret Herb Garden is located inside a large greenhouse, so even on a grey day it’s a light, airy and green space.
After checking out the menu, we opted for tomato, ham and chickpea soup and ham hough terrine, served with bread and butter. It was all delicious – fresh and full of flavour.
We loved our visit to the Secret Herb Garden. We’re partial to a distillery tour, but being able to see the end to end process, from the growing of the botanicals to the bottled gin was brilliant. If you’re looking for things to do in and around Edinburgh, I can highly recommend a gin tour and tasting at The Old Curiosity Distillery. Pretty flowers, gorgeous smells, cute beasties, people passionate about what they do, good food and great gin – it’s a winning combination for sure.
Our gin tour and lunch were provided on a complimentary basis, however all opinions are my own.
Until next time …