Near the end of a long and lonely road, three women have overcome challenges to produce a multi-award winning gin whose provenance is intrinsically entwined with their island home – Stan Abbott paid them a visit … and went fishing for sea lettuce.

Another week another new craft gin. That’s the way it can sometimes seem since distillation laws were first relaxed a few years ago.

So, a gin needs to have something a bit different about it to make us sit up and take notice. Take three women in their 40s living 25 miles up a single-track road, add one 10-litre still and a crystal clear spring amid acres of peat. Stir in 15 locally sourced botanicals and you have that essential difference.

Lussa Gin is the brainchild of Claire Fletcher, Georgina Kitching and Alicia MacInnes, who together make up 10% of the tiny community of Lussa, reached after a tortuous hour or more’s drive via the potholes of the only road on the Hebridean island of Jura.

The trio decided in 2015 to pool their 'complementary skill sets' in a way that could secure them all an independent income as their children advanced through school.

To suggest that it’s just the corporate structure that sets Lussa apart from other gins would be to ignore what makes it so special. This is truly a spirit that has evolved from the very landscape in which it was conceived.

“We are self-sufficient in 11 out of the 15 botanicals we use,” said co-founder Georgina Kitching, a former science teacher who’s the one who looks after the techie side of the business, such as calculating the alcohol content and complying with the many regulations.

Some of the botanicals, such as elderflower, honeysuckle and water mint grow wild on this favoured eastern shore of Jura, where deer famously outnumber humans by 30:1. Today, our task is to join Georgina on a short sea voyage in pursuit of sea lettuce, which infuses into the gin a subtle hint of the moist and misty isle.

It’s high tide and this lush green leafy seaweed can be lifted from close to the seabed with the aid of long boat hook. After no more than half an hour, we’ve filled Georgina’s plastic bucket. “That’s enough for 11 batches of gin,” said Claire later. “Nearly 5000 bottles!”

Or half a year’s production, I reflect, while noting that not all of those magic ingredients are as easy to come by. The tender spring needles of Scots pine, for example, can be quite high off the ground and bog myrtle initially demanded foraging in the wilderness boglands, where few plants can gain a foothold on the thin soils that survive in places on the dense and impermeable quartzite rock.

“We didn’t feel comfortable tramping through a bog that’s next to a Site of Special Scientific Interest,” pointed out Georgina, who planted some water mint in her garden, only to find it had migrated into the nearby polytunnel in search of greater comfort.

The ethos of the team is guiding them, eventually, to be self-sufficient in all botanicals. Honeysuckle, elderflower, rosehips and the ubiquitous ground elder also grow wild, while the flowers from the lime trees in the grounds of Ardlussa House are plucked each spring.

It helped that Claire’s husband, Andy, owns the extensive Ardlussa Estate and the stable block that houses the two custom-made 200-litre Portuguese stills. The estate is one of seven on the island and runs to about 16,000 acres – of which only about 35 are cultivable.

The neighbouring estate belongs to Andy’s uncle and includes the remote croft near the northern tip of the island, where George Orwell wrote 1984.

Coriander is grown for its seed in their own polytunnels and also by members of the island’s plant swap group and all the ingredients freeze well.

Orris root and roses (for petals) grow in the garden, while the team has embarked on an ambitious programme of juniper plantation with the ultimate aim that it meet all their needs. One potential botanical was the beautiful sea pink flower that illuminates the rocky shoreline – although harvesting it would have been sustainable, they couldn’t bring themselves to pick it. Lemon balm and lemon thyme are grown in the garden in its absence.

“It’s a combination of cultivated and wild botanicals,” added Georgina. “A bit like our lives here! Both Ali and I used to work for Claire at various times on the estate, and Claire used to do the childcare for me when I was teaching.”

Georgina was raised in Melton Mowbray and said she still makes a mean pork pie. Claire, who looks after marketing, used to work for Radio 1 and first arrived on Jura to shoot a video with the band KLF, which later notoriously set fire to £1m on the island. Alicia, originally from Perth, Australia, met her partner while she was working at the Jura pub and he worked on Ardlussa Estate. She looks after the financial side and is up to her eyes in VAT during my visit.

“We are all quite different, the three of us, because we have quite different skills and backgrounds and that’s been a great strength as we all approach problems in different ways and so make fewer mistakes,” said Georgina.

The women do not see themselves in competition with other distillers and say they received much support from the Bruichladdich team that produces The Botanist gin on neighbouring Islay.

They also frequently compare notes with colleagues at the Jura whisky distillery and welcome the arrival of Deer Island, a craft producer of spiced rum.

Their own gin evolved over a year of testing about 70 different recipes. Eventually, they hired the village hall in the main settlement of Craighouse and trialled a shortlist of just three different gins with most of the island’s population.

“They chose our own favourite by a big margin!” said Georgina, who added that they’ve also been helped by the praiseworthy flexibility and patience of their haulier, Waltons, of Oban.

About 75% of their market is in direct sales to smaller outlets and consumers and they have deliberately turned down approaches from two supermarket chains as they fear such supply pressures could only compromise their slow and gentle production methods, heating their stills indirectly using a hot water system they designed themselves. “It’s a passion for us,” added Georgina.

Lussa also exports to Sweden and Germany, though Brexit has presented huge challenges and vastly increased paperwork, such that they had to find a new haulier for Germany.

More recently, they’ve had their first significant order from the USA, necessitating a new bottle size and a raft of paperwork to comply with American food and drink regulations.

Prices of cardboard packing have trebled during the Covid-19 pandemic and demand for glass for vaccine vials has also sent bottle prices soaring. But, said Georgina: “We are quite resolute and resourceful here and we do find a way.”

Lussa is pretty much a one-product company, though each year they produce a batch of bramble liqueur in time for Christmas, leaving the small and distinctive local fruit in a tank with gin and sugar for eight weeks.

Meanwhile, Claire and Georgina’s children are showing signs that they too have the entrepreneurial spirit – each weekend they bake cakes and then leave them with tea, coffee, hot water and an honesty box in a horsebox parked in Inverlussa Bay, before the long daily drive to school on Islay.

"It’s called Tea on the Beach and saves us paying them pocket money!” joked Georgina.

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