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Max MacFarlane, Master Blender, with Rob Clamp, Co Founder of BIRKENTREE

One of my favorite things about making a career in the world of whisky is the fact that if I'm curious about learning any aspect of the business, I can likely reach out to someone who will gladly teach me about it. It was following this path of curiosity one day that led me, in a round about way, to a small business called BIRKENTREE in the Scottish Highlands, that produces something called "Highland Birchwater: Whisky's Natural Companion".

I was intrigued. Well, actually, beyond intrigued. I needed to talk to these people, sample their product, and hear their story right away. Was what they bottled tree sap? How did they extract it from the birch tree? And most importantly, how did they come to call it "whisky’s natural companion?"

The birch tree, described by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as "the most beautiful of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods…," came to symbolize renewal and purification in early Celtic mythology. "Beithe" is the Gaelic word for birch, and before there was "Uisge Beatha" (Water of Life, or what we now call whisky) there was "Uisge Beithe", or simply "Birch Water." Ancient cultures knew well of its medicinal properties and healing powers, when it was taken, or "tapped" directly from the tree in early Spring.

The following are excerpts from the fascinating story of Rob and Gabrielle Clamp, founders of BIRKENTREE, who were generous enough to send me some samples from Scotland, and to spend time sitting down for an interview with me about the mission behind their business and the inspiration for it. Over the course of our talk, I asked them how they became aware of the birch water tradition, and the way that their individual life paths led them to reviving it.

Rob and Gabrielle Clamp with baby Roran

Barrel Strength Talent: So, I just have to say it out there: I love what you’re doing. I was blown away by the product, and just as you say in your advertising, it really has this..elegance, and a viscosity to it which I really love. I'm kind of personally a fan of the

whiskys which have a heavier, oilier mouth feel, like the ones that come off pot stills, and (your product) is totally different than water. Water makes the whisky weaker, and does dilute it, but the BIRKENTREE is like a perfect marriage with the whisky! It marries with the whisky in such an interesting way, without lessening its' "oomph" at all. I just love it. I want to bathe in it! (laughter). You guys sent me down this huge rabbit hole of research into the various countries that do birch water as well, because I'm from a Finnish background and didn’t even realize that it was a huge thing in Finland. So if you would first tell me a bit about yourselves…

Gabrielle: So, as you’ve probably heard, I am French, and have lived in Scotland for about seven years. I was a chiropractor, and my first love was wellness and natural remedies. I was passionate about herbalism as well, so when I came over to Scotland…there are just so many foraging plants.I was reading more and more about it and I really got into birch about four or five years ago. It was fascinating to learn more about the birch tree and the ecosystems that live within it.

Rob: So yeah, I'm Scottish.I was born in Caithness, in the very far North of the Scottish mainland, probably the most treeless county in all of Scotland (laughs). I'm a forester by profession, and I trained at the Scottish School of Forestry in Inverness, in the UK. And most foresters, certainly in Scotland, your training, the focus is about growing trees for commercial purposes, for timber... So I did that for many, many years, but then the more I saw, and the more I worked in the profession, I saw the volume of native woodland undergrowth.. There’s no shortage of birch trees in Scotland. But what you have here is a fragmentation of the ancient woodland, that were once the pine woods and birch woods, the Caledonian trees… so, what we found in Perthshire Highland where we are, is you get these amazing fragments of ancient birch woods which have been here since the last ice age. So some of the trees we work with are up to 300 years old, which is very old in global terms. So these amazing trees have been there since Bonnie Prince Charlie was kicking about.

Barrel Strength Talent: Is there a sustainable practice movement in Scotland that you're a part of to help preserve these ancient trees?

Rob: Yeah, yeah, very, very much...We practice what we preach. We actually manage these woodlands as well, and our core business is with the management. So we are restoring ancient oak, pine and birch woods, which is part of our core business as well.

Barrel Strength Talent: So I read a couple of interviews with you guys… could you just sort of tell me about your "Eureka Moment?" So you're doing your forestry and Gabrielle is doing her herbalism and foraging practice. When did you sort of go, oh my gosh, there's this whole birch water thing, and why aren't we a part of it? And why isn't anyone else doing it?

Gabrielle: Basically, it’s a friend of mine that brought a bottle of birch water to me, and I did remember hearing about it in France, because in France, some people tapped birch water as well. And we just tried it, and it was made in Finland. So we tried to look up a Scottish company that did it (made birch water) and we found no one. And this was five years ago.…and we just had this crazy idea of why not us? You know, let's harvest some birch water and sell it, because it was completely different than (regular) water, and we felt like we were on to something here. It started as a health drink we sold mainly at farmer's markets and local shows, things like that... but when we realized it went very well with whisky, we spent the past two years developing that, taking it to where we are now, trying to bring it to market.

Barrel Strength Talent: So I have a two part question next: The first part is, once you discovered how beautiful it was with whisky, did you then study whether other cultures that produce birch water, like Finland and the Baltic countries, if they were onto that?

Rob: Yeah, Yeah we did. We did a lot of research. I mean,we believe we're the only people in the world producing dedicated birch water for whisky as far as we know…. So it was a couple years ago we had this moment, one evening we thought, I wonder what it’s like with whisky! We had some whisky lying around in the corner and we poured a dash in and thought, ohh, that’s really nice! So we tried it on a number of our friends and said, guys, are you getting what we’re getting? And unanimously everybody said "...Wow, it's completely different than water, and I think your'e really on to something!"

Barrel Strength Talent : It’s such a natural marriage. It’s like those two things just belong together.

Gabrielle: Exactly, yeah!

Rob: I mean it’s interesting. There’s a very old heritage. I mean, Birch Water was tapped in Scotland for 5000 years…

Barrel Strength Talent : … so that was going to be the second part of my question actually, which was that you say, you say in articles about it, the "5000 years" thing a lot, and I’m curious how you sort of came to that figure and where you found those sources in your research?

Rob: It's a good question. So I was born in Caithness. There was an archeological excavation and they dug up the remains of somebody from the Bronze Age. I think they found some birch water within her system. So, wow! People knew back then that it was really good for you, you know? It’s incredible.

Barrel Strength Talent: That’s interesting, because here we are in 2022 now, and the roots of Scottish whisky can be dated back to about 1500, am I right? So it’s very interesting that, you know, this lady was looked at and had it in her system…but also, we know that people were calling what they were distilling at the time "aqua vitae", or "Uisge Beatha" (Water of Life), and that happened around the same time.

Rob: I mean, people in the Highlands particularly would drink birch water for its' health benefits, and give it to babies. So the Gaelic name for whisky is "Uisge Beatha" but there was already a connection there to whisky, in the Gaelic term for birch water, which was "Uisge Beithe," which may have been the predecessor to the name for whisky, and it’s amusing.

Barrel Strength Talent: That's one of the facts that really blows my mind, that connection..pretty just sticking with the historical path for a moment.. So people were obviously aware of this tradition as you say, for thousands of years, and using it for health benefits and things like that, but then you mentioned in another piece I read that you feel it disappeared because of the Highland Clearances, and that the old traditions were forgotten or displaced?

Rob: So, Scotland has a very different history than Scandinavia, for example. After the last Jacobite Rebellion, the Highland culture was almost obliterated to some extent. Gaelic was banned. Playing bagpipes was banned. You couldn't wear Tartan. People were deported to America, Australia, and New Zealand. So our culture here was decimated, pretty much like the Native Americans, so there was a disconnect from all those folk traditions... and the Gaelic much of that knowledge left the country. In Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, they didn't have that disconnect like we did up here. So we're just resurrecting the soul. And there are still people who tap some birch trees in Scotland, but..

Gabrielle: They make wine.

Barrel Strength Talent: Oh really? That’s interesting! So just to back up a bit, you have this moment where you realize there is this birch water and people tap the trees for it, and then you drink some Finnish birch water, and wonder why it's not being done in Scotland. So you tap a few trees yourself and share that water with some whisky people, and you all kind of have this "wow, why aren’t we doing this?" moment. What were next steps for you after that? And how did you learn about tapping the trees? Was that an easy thing to learn, or…

Gabrielle: It wasn't!! (laughter)

Barrel Strength Talent: What good would it be if it were easy!

Gabrielle: The technique… is quite low tech right? Because you basically, you drill a hole in a tree, put a tap in, and harvest the liquid. But because Birch water is so active, it goes off in two days if you don’t put it in the fridge or in a freezer, or whatever. So it was really hard to know how to bottle it. That was the hardest thing for us. It has been quite a long journey to know how to bottle it to give it that shelf life.

Barrel Strength Talent: And how do you do that? I mean…in my understanding, just like you said, it actually ferments after a few days if it's not refrigerated. So without chemicals or sterilization or additives of some kind…Is it just a non shelf stable item and you're promoting it that way? How does that work?

Gabrielle: No, we basically did a lot of research with the bottling company to know exactly what would be the best process for us to give more shelf life without leaving out that smoothness…that’s why our product has sediment as well, because we don’t strip off everything from the liquids. So yeah, it’s quite a big challenge, but we managed to do that, and that was really the key thing for us. It's like, keep that smoothness, please, because that’s exactly what the magic is.

Barrel Strength Talent: That's what makes it so beautiful! So how long is its shelf life? You did mention in your notes to me when you sent the samples that I should keep it chilled right away…

Gabrielle: So we give it a year of shelf life from the day it's bottled, and its temperature stable. But no sun, no sunlight, because the sunlight activates the enzymes!

Barrel Strength Talent: Got it. Very interesting. So, I'm assuming that most people that are making birch water around the world, like in Finland and the Baltics, and even here in America, they're not tapping such ancient trees.. Is that a fair assessment? I mean, I heard that in Scotland, you have one of the oldest trees in Europe..the Fortingall Yew... How do you think that affects the quality of your product, if at all?

Rob: Definitely, definitely different, isn't it? I mean, everybody’s going to see this. You've probably seen it, but it really is the consistency, the complexity, the viscosity,..everything is quite different from these ancient trees we work with…we stick with these really old, you know, veteran trees.

Barrel Strength Talent: I also wanted to ask if the product differs from year to know how whisky has batch numbers and age statements on the bottles, and things like that. Have you found… is there some sort of metric for knowing if it's a little different from year to year..I mean you cant keep samples around too long…

Rob: So its really interesting, isn't it? It varies from tree to tree,and it's a really short window of three weeks, ( the trees only produce usable sap during a period of 3 weeks in the early Spring) and it even varies within that three weeks! And the character profile, the flavor profile changes on that tree, within that period…

Gabrielle: Once you blend, it kind of gives us the consistency we are looking for, for our products. So we have Max MacFarlane (Max MacFarlane is a top whisky maker and was the Master Blender at Edrington for nearly 25 years) ..I mean.. We can't have a better nose and palate than his to, you know, make sure that we really have that consistency.

Barrel Strength Talent: Can you talk a little bit about your goals for the company? And also if you could explain Max's role, and how he is working with you to spread the word about your product…

Rob: Well, I think we always had a feeling that it was going to be a really good export product. ..Scotland's domestic market is interesting for us, but at the same time probably our toughest market.

Gabrielle: They are very protective of their whisky! So internationally we are getting some good interest from Spain, Portugal, Dubai, the Middle East and North America…and we always felt particularly that North America would be a really great market for us to get into.

Barrel Strength Talent: Yeah! Well, I think in particular, because the American single malt category is really taking off right now,..its' becoming one of the most exciting movements in the craft whiskey scene in the U.S. I don’t know if you've ever tried any American single malt, but there are some really incredible ones coming out, which is why I sort of thought, wow, this is a really great time for you guys to hit the U.S market.. and I hope you don't think it's sacreligious, but I actually added your water to some bourbon! (laughter)

Gabrielle: Not at all! (laughs)

Barrel Strength Talent: I tried it with some bourbon, and also some rye made in Texas, and in both occurrences, it was phenomenal. Which proved to me that it wasn't just about the water marrying with malt well, but that it married as well with different whiskys in general.

Rob: That's really interesting!

Barrel Strength Talent: So talk to me about Max and how you guys work with him on a day to day basis?

Rob: So Max came in the early beginning when we thought about the branding and direction of the business.

Barrel Strength Talent : Your branding is really beautiful, by the way…

Gabrielle: We were basically like, okay, were going to tackle one of the hardest markets in a way, you know, in Scotland… I mean, it's just water, to people buying expensive whiskeys.

Barrel Strength Talent: (laughs) Yeah, we have this expression here about , you know, someone who could sell sand on the beach…

Gabrielle: Yeah! So basically, we just wanted to get that reassurance from somebody that could tell that (the water) goes super with the whisky and just the magic that happens with it. …He was so excited by it because he's like, you guys have a golden opportunity here. There’s just been really little innovation in the whisky industry in terms of mixers and things like that, so he really wanted to support us from the beginning. He's a lovely man, that is very passionate and he wants to really push.. the stories and traditions behind it.

…BIRKENTREE is, just as Rob says in this interview, resurrecting the soul of an ancient tradition, and a connection with the land that was once so important to the Scottish culture. My tasting notes are below. I first tried the water on its own, and then with a dram of Tallisker 10 year, at about 30-70 water and whisky.

BIRKENTREE "neat" : The water has a smooth, creamy mouth feel, almost what I would call "satiny," with notes of fresh kirby cucumber, wet tree moss, and barely ripe green melon, finishing with what I can only call a feather light herbal smokiness.

BIRKENTREE with whisky: The birch water bonded immediately with the pepper and sea weed notes on the Tallisker palate and gave a custard like feel to the spice, which was amazing.The soft fruity quality was really enhanced, but what I liked the best was the way the birch water really brought out the moss and smoky peat, and made those notes taste smooth and cream like. Luscious!

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