HRAFN GIN: gin made by whisky lovers

by Great British Chefs 13 October 2022

Whilst visiting the distilleries of Islay, whisky-loving brothers Callum and Peter Sim began discussing the idea of creating a gin with similar characteristics to whisky and have gone on to launch HRAFN GIN, a premium gin brand guided by structure and taste. We chat to the founders to find out more about their gins.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

The rise in the popularity of gin in the UK in the past fifteen years has been extraordinary to behold. Practically every month now, new gins seem to appear on supermarket shelves. Not only does this mean that the plethora of gins makes it harder than ever for consumers to choose which gins to buy, but it means that producers often need to do something particularly remarkable to stand out from the crowd. Brothers Callum and Peter Sim from Aberdeenshire in Scotland, although primarily whisky drinkers, also always enjoyed a good G&T, but felt that most lacked the discernible characteristics of a longer finish, flavour profile and smoothness they experience in malt whisky.

Following their trip to visit all the distilleries on the Scottish island of Islay in 2017, they established Raven Spirits Ltd. to create their own premium gins under the brand name HRAFN (pronounced ‘ra-vn’, meaning ‘Raven’ in Old Norse). The name was inspired both by Callum’s long held interest in Norse mythology and the fact that, after seeing a raven perched outside the Still House at one of the distilleries gazing at the brothers, they considered it a talisman for the journey they were about to take. In developing HRAFN GIN, Callum and Peter have approached it through the lens of a whisky drinker, resulting in their focus on the distillation process to achieve these whisky-like characteristics to enhance the gin drinking experience.

‘Although whisky-boys at heart, we appreciate a quality balanced and flavoursome gin’ explains Callum, whose previous career was as a lawyer in the oil and gas industry, ‘and, for us, there has always been a disparity between the balance and smoothness of whisky versus gin. I’m sure many gin drinkers have experienced gins that, when tasted, have little or no finish, or gins that just tasted ‘ginny’, rather than having distinct botanics’ flavours you could pick out across the flavour profile like whiskies do. When on our Islay trip, we discussed what characteristics we would want to underpin the quality for our gins. We both agreed it would be depth of flavour, length of finish, and the smoothness of the spirit itself, which are natural characteristics of whisky. As a test of the spirit’s quality, we wanted a gin that could readily be enjoyed neat, over ice or even with a drop of water. Essentially just like a malt whisky but, perhaps, with a garnish of lemon peel! That’s how it all began.’

Peter, with several decades in the hospitality industry, also had amassed an in-depth knowledge about distilling and was open to approach things differently to achieve the desired characteristic for HRAFN, ‘I think there’s sometimes a tendency for people to go straight into the distilling and try this and that until they find something that works,’ says Peter, ‘whereas we had such a clear idea of what we wanted, so we started with a blank piece of paper and worked from the ground up. We knew we wanted the juniper to come upfront, and then for the deep citrus notes to come in, and we also knew that to get the length of finish we wanted, we’d need to follow more to the beat of the drum of whisky and its production considerations.’

By using a pot still and keeping a controlled gradual rise in the distilling temperature and pressure, Peter found they were able to distill at a gentler temperature and lower pressure settings between two and three times longer than most gins, allowing a deeper flavour profile of each individual botanical to shine through. ‘We realised that when gins don’t have discernible flavour profiles, it’s usually because they’ve been ‘boiled’ through too quickly and too aggressively due to higher temperatures/pressures in the still’ explains Peter, ‘and we wanted to avoid that. Every botanical releases its flavour at a different temperature, so for us, by controlling a more gradual incline in heat, each one comes across at a more distinct phasing. This provides more of, what we call, a taste journey for the drinker whilst also lengthening the finish’ Peter concludes. Moreover, the lower temperature that HRAFN GIN is distilled at allows use of a more delicate citrus fruit than would be considered the norm. In this case their signature is mandarin, which adds a delicate citrus element to its distinct flavour.

The result of this methodical process was HRAFN GIN’s first expression ‘Thought & Memory’ (named after Norse God Odin’s two black ravens, Huginn & Muninn) in 2018 – a smooth London Dry bottled at 45%ABV, with initial notes of juniper rolling into soft mandarin and building into a warming spice. Thought and Memory was followed in 2019 by the development of their ultra-premium expression ‘Valhalla’. At 49%ABV, the approach for this London Dry used a longer distillation, again manipulating the temperature and pressure profiles to obtain an even smoother spirit. In this case, there was a pleasant surprise in that the flavour profile had changed even though the same botanicals were used. With the longer distillation and higher ABV cut, the spice finish had come forward allowing for the citrus to slide in for a refreshing delicate mandarin finish. The smoothness and deep flavour profile of Valhalla provide for a sipping gin, best savoured neat – continued proof the brothers had successfully created their gins with the desired whisky-like qualities.

The HRAFN GIN range now consists of five expressions, each with its own distinct personality in terms of flavour profile and finish. The brothers were not idle during the pandemic and released two new gins in 2021, uniquely using Jara fruit for a high citrus kick. The HRAFN GIN range has been recognised for the quality of its spirits in the form of multiple international awards. What makes them stand out from the crowd, however, is the fact that they all fulfil the three distinct characteristics that Callum and Peter set out to achieve. That is a result of the huge amount of thought and consideration they put into the development and production of their gins. ‘This journey has come from our passion in what we’re creating. Frankly, it’s fun.’ smiles Callum. ‘I remember someone asking when we started this adventure “what would happen if we didn’t succeed?” and I simply replied that if it works, that’s great but if it didn’t, also great as I’d have a garage full of gin for myself. Luckily, four years on, my garage is empty!’