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Scotland's Larder: Marian Bruce and Simon Montador from Highland Boundary

We talk to Marian Bruce from Highland Boundary distillery about the science behind alcohol and the true tastes of wild, natural Scotland.

Published: September 23, 2020
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Marian Bruce along with her husband Simon, run Highland Boundary distillery from Kirklandbank farm, near Alyth.

The geographic location means they have one foot in the Highlands and one in the Lowlands of Scotland, with the Highland boundary fault running over their land.

The couple have created a perfect botanical environment to make the most of their passions; science and the natural world.

Originally brought up in Leith in Edinburgh, Marian went to school at Trinity Academy and she said, "I had to make the choice between pursuing science or pursuing art and I went down the science route."

Marian is proud to come from a working-class background, "My mum was a secretary and my dad was a mechanic" she said.

However, it was her family's love of foraging that has become really important now, "My dad grew up partly in the Borders so I guess the whole idea of using plants and actually foraging, comes from my side of the family."

Highland Boundary

The Birch and Elderflower spirit can be added to favour cocktails with a unique natural taste.

"We used to go picking brambles, collecting crab apples, or collecting mushrooms. Dad would go shooting for pigeons and rabbits, or fishing down in Selkirk, so eating food that was wild was just completely part of my upbringing."

Marian met her husband Simon while studying at Edinburgh University, they both studied BSc Biological Sciences and specialised in genetics.

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After graduating from Edinburgh University Marian completed her PhD at Oxford, which she said was "very interesting, but different from Edinburgh."

She then held a Wellcome Trust Biodiversity Research Fellowship at Glasgow University, where she worked in molecular epidemiology of infectious diseases, such as malaria.

It wasn't all lab-based work, as Marian explained: "I did quite a lot of fieldwork, in places like Malawi, Papua New Guinea and Zambia.

"I am just one of these people who is constantly asking questions about things."

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Meanwhile, Simon had become a chartered accountant and worked for Price Waterhouse and then at Sky TV, as part of the executive team.

"Simon definitely has the more business skills, while I bring the more science and research side of it, but they are complementary skills" she said.

Birch & Elderflower Spirit

Where the wild things are

Highland Boundary's operation is entirely dependent on Scotland's wild plant species, as they use the botanical bounty from Scotland's natural larder on their doorstep, to flavour a range of spirits and liqueurs.

Marian explains: "when we bought the farm, one of the first things we started to do was rewilding. We planted more species, as many different varieties as we could get out hands-on, and we have increased the plant biodiversity by about 400 per cent.

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"We also had friends who moved to Denmark, over there, lots of people make spirits like aquavit and schnapps. We have the same plants on the farm so it was a natural step to just start playing around with flavours using Scandinavian and alpine spirits as a reference point, and the distillery idea sort of came out of all that.

"At the same time, a change in the HMRC regulations meant you no longer needed a massive still to get a license, so the time was right.

"We had space, we had the plants, we had the research background and business background in order to make this work as a company. So it was a case of let's just see if we can give this a go. I have visited plenty distilleries but I never dreamed for a million years that I'd be ending up running one" she said.

They founded the company in 2016, and launched their first spirit in October 2018 and they have never looked back.

Marian is proud of the fact,  that they don't import any botanicals. "They are all one hundred percent, handpicked by us. Everything comes from within two miles of the distillery," she said.

"It is what we set out to do, use what we had around us to create something with real strong Scottish provenance, but completely different in flavour from either whisky or gin."

Highland Boundary

Distilling equipment

Highland Boundary evolution

In the beginning, the couple worked closely with the International Centre for brewing and distilling at Heriot watt university, to help develop their first product - a birch and elderflower spirit.

Marian said, "that was a really useful collaboration, I've worked on distilling at chemistry level at university but it is not quite the same."

The birch and elderflower spirit is made with birch buds or emergent spring leaves, and not the sap, which means there is only a very short window of time to collect before the leaves before they get too big. Then they are macerated - a technical term, which means soaked -- with the alcohol.

The base alcohol they use is wheat grain spirit, Marian adds, "everything that we use is UK grown, including the sugar in our liqueurs. So we have control over the provenance of absolutely everything that is going in it."

The outhouse where the distillery is situated has 2 x 100-litre copper alembic stills, which produce each small batch.

Only kilos of botanicals, not huge quantities, are then collected throughout the seasons; including Birch, Larch, Elderflower, Honeysuckle flowers, Rosehips and berries.

Marian tell us:  "We freeze our botanicals to use at different times, often because of the process means we are a year behind. Just now we are picking sloes but the ones we are using to make the liqueur are from last year because the time it takes mature. So it is not like gin process, where you can make a batch quickly."

Marian says she is still using her scientific skills to investigate natural tastes, for the growing range of spirits and liqueurs.  She is keen to point out "I think it would be really difficult without my research background to do this kind of thing."

Marian explains: "we are constantly planting new plants, and expanding the range of species that we use. The flavour that you start off with, can be quite different from the one you end up with. So it is not straightforward at all."

Highland Boundary

Spreading the word about their natural drink products at food and drink shows throughout the county.

However, the response from customers has been amazing. She said, "getting feedback, directly from customers, literally as they taste something in front of you, that you have made, is really important."

Marian is also learning a lot about the diverse way that people taste different things. She said: "flavour is extremely complex but people really are tasting things in different ways."

They are in the process of creating new products that will have completely different taste profiles, to appeal to differing palates.

The ethos of Highland Boundary is to sustainably harvest the botanicals to ensure that they aren't harming the trees.

"We only take a very small amount or portion from each tree, equivalent to what might be taken by a grazing deer or insect attack. If you take too much you will harm it and it won't be there next year. So there is no point in doing that.

"It has been hundreds of years since we've used these plants in this way, we've kind of just forgotten about how to do that. People are surprised by the flavours that you can get. Our native plants do have amazing flavours and to bring those to people is what we set out to do.”

Highland Boundary sell bottles of individual spirits and liqueurs as well as gift packs, which Marian said, "allows people to taste a range of flavours that we generate from our own woodlands."

They also have a range of Scottish cocktail recipes you can experiment with on the website.

Highland Boundary

The farm is also home to a small flock of Hebridean sheep, which the couple breed. They have 8-10 breeding ewes and their lambs, which are born in the spring but don't go to market until the autumn the following year. This is because they are a slow maturing, rare primitive breed of sheep.

Marian said: "quite a few chefs, are now recognising that the flavour is very different from a normal commercial lamb, it is quite dark meat but really really flavoursome.

"We first tasted them at Hebridean sheep society AGM, where they served the hogget meat. After we tasted it, we thought, and oh my goodness, right, we are getting these. So I'm now obsessed with sheep as well as plants."

Scientific success

She adds, "When I was in Oxford, I was working on modelling, and although I didn't work specifically on viral infections, like coronavirus, I worked in an institute where those people were working beside us; infectious diseases, epidemiology and modelling are all connected so I know exactly what they're doing and what they're considering.

"I know those scientists. It's quite interesting to see how modelling infectious diseases, actually turns out in real life, the reality of it is that you can't always control people's behaviour.

"People are now getting the message that we actually aren't above nature, we are part of it and we need to work with it rather than expect to be able to extract stuff from it and not harm it.

"Clearly we have got to the point now, that human behaviour is really impacting on major biodiversity loss and climate change. And we have not got very long to do much about it.

The environment is core to every part of the business, Marian said "we went out of our way to ensure that our packaging is completely recyclable. You would think it would be quite easy, but actually it is not."

The colourful packaging design is based on a Pictish stone from the landscape nearby.  Marian explains they briefed the designer to use the symbol as inspiration, but they wanted the design to be really bright and stand out on the shelf, she said, "we didn't want it to look anything like whisky, it needed to be completely different."

The couple has won industry recognition, for the birch and elderflower spirit, which was awarded a gold medal at the San Francisco world spirits competition 2019 and the following year the Larch and Sloe, they went one better winning double gold.

Looking forward, Marian said: "I think we've got some amazing products in development. We are doing trials and tests with plants that we've grown on the farm deliberately for botanicals, which are quite rare and used for very specific purposes, but they have a really interesting cultural history to them.

"And we can't wait to taste them."

Kirklandbank, Alyth, Blairgowrie PH11 8LL

01828 632816

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.

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