The actor, known for his starring role as Jamie Fraser on the time-travel drama Outlander, first branched into spirits in 2020, with the release of a blended whisky called The Sassenach. That was just the start of what is now Sassenach Spirits, as a year later, he partnered up with El Tequileño on The Sassenach Select Double Wood Reposado tequila. Gin, however, was something Heughan always wanted to experiment with, and now he’s doing just that.
For the Sassenach Wild Scottish Gin launch, Heughan went back to his initial reason for starting a spirits brand in the first place: to pay homage to his native Scotland. Scotland’s landscape, with its acres of rich pastures, rolling glens and plentiful access to both wild foraged and locally-farmed ingredients, offered countless choices when it came to ingredients, which was important, as the Scottish actor wanted everything to be sourced from his native country.
“We looked at about 20 to 30 different botanicals at first,” Heughan told Observer. “We distilled each one individually to see what they were like, and some things we were like, ‘oh, this is going to be amazing.’ And then when you try you’re like, ‘oh this is terrible.’” Heughan shared. “We tried strawberries, raspberries, all those regular things, but we found that the leaves of those things often tasted better.” Every part of the gin, from the botanicals to the grains used to make the liquid, come from Scotland, with a focus on the southwest of the country, where the New Galloway-born Heughan is from.
Ultimately, the team began to narrow down the options through personally taste testing batch after batch of spirits distilled with each of the flavor options separately, and then mixing them to see which combinations worked the best. “It was a long process. I tasted over 50 different [marketed] gins, and then my own options—my cupboards are full of bottles. What I really wanted was a balanced gin, where you can taste all of those different flavors,” Heughan explained.
Citrus fruits, like lemons, limes and oranges, are some of the most commonly used flavoring components in gin. Unfortunately, they don’t grow well anywhere in Scotland. Still, Heughan figured that there had to be a comparable botanical option found in the southwest. “The only one I could think of was crabapple. As a kid, we threw crabapples at each other and ate tons of them, and [would get] very ill because they’re so sour,” Heughan recalled. That particular sourness, or tannin, however, was perfect for bringing a vibrant, citrus-like component with a unique apple-y crispness.
In total, a combination of eight botanicals, all sourced from the southwest of Scotland, are used in the Sassenach Wild Scottish Gin, including blackberry leaf, blaeberry, rhubarb, juniper, heather and pine. “The Scots pine is one our distiller worked with. He actually used the pine resin [as a botanical] which is incredible. It’s got a real menthol freshness to it. Heather was the most surprising. It’s Scottish, and actually it’s so floral, but it has this earthy quality to it. I think it grounds a lot of the fruit flavors,” Heughan said.
Distillates, or the aromas and oils extracted from botanicals, are invaluable for flavor, but they also add to the texture of the gin. “Toasted oats is one I was really surprised by, but I loved it,” Heughan said. “It creates a really creamy texture and sort of mouthfeel to it. And the toastiness is really nice.”
Heughan wanted to have a hands-on role in the entire project, and threw himself into learning about spirits and flavor profiles, but he was just as involved in every other part of the decision making process. “When we were going to bottling for the whisky, everything was sorted. The labels were printed, and at the last second, I upped the ABV because I felt, on ice, it needed a bit more strength.” He was also involved in more of the aesthetic choices, like using a sleeker bottle reminiscent of a decanter with a cork stopper, and featuring the Scottish unicorn (fun fact: it’s the country’s national animal) on the label. “I think in a world where there are a lot of celebrity brands, we fought so hard to not be one of them. This whole thing was self-financed, mood boards and all. This really is a personal thing,” he shared.
So, how does Sam Heughan like to enjoy his particular gin? “It works really well in a gin and tonic. I kind of like my gin and tonics quite strong.” Heughan explained. “Cocktail-wise, a dry martini is my favorite. I’ve found that 2 ¾ ounces gin, ¼ dry vermouth, like Dolin, and two dashes of orange bitters [is best]. I like to serve it with a slice of green apple, which gives it a bit of freshness, but it soaks up the gin and you get a little bite at the end.” The apple slice in the martini plays off of the crabapple botanicals, while the juniper, pine resin and heather are all highlighted when paired with a good tonic and served over ice.
Ultimately, a well-made and well-balanced gin should work well in any cocktail, or even on its own—and that was the point. “It’s really fun to understand that it’s a living thing. Even just a few months after bottling softens the flavors,” Heughan said, noting that a balanced gin should only improve over time. “It still retains that freshness.”