Inside the secret garden that makes gins change colour

Growing his own botanicals has helped Hamish Martin win a legion of fans for his gins – and create a relaxing retreat for wildlife and people alike

Words by Peter Ranscombe

With his deep tan and faded shorts, Hamish Martin (above) looks every inch the dedicated horticulturalist, striding between rows of the 600 species of plant growing in his Secret Herb Garden on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland. Yet herbs aren’t the only secret in Martin’s little patch of heaven.

Tucked away behind the greenhouses sits the Old Curiosity Distillery, where Martin and his distiller Mark Boswell use up to 80 of the herbs, flowers and other plants growing in the garden to make the botanicals for their gin. Tray after tray of petals, leaves and roots lay stacked in rows in the drying room, ready to make their way to the still room, where the stills – “Violet” and “May” – are named after Martin’s youngest children. Add tonic and the gins will naturally change colour, thanks to a chemical within apothecary rose, one of the botanicals.

Mark Boswell © The Gin Cooperative, Old Curiosity Distillery
Mark Boswell © The Gin Cooperative, Old Curiosity Distillery
The Gin Cooperative, Old Curiosity Distillery
© Laura Meek

Colour-changing gins aren’t the only magical thing about the garden though.

“It’s a place of healing,” Martin explains as we wander among the flowers, dodging low-hanging Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes as we go. Tables and chairs are set up inside the greenhouses, with guests from the café encouraged to take their coffees and traybakes out into the garden.

 “We don’t hit people over the head with messages about the benefits of enjoying nature – we let them discover it for themselves.”

Setting up the Secret Herb Garden was part of a healing process for Martin too. After a career spent in the wine industry, latterly as one of the bosses at drinks wholesaler Inverarity Morton, he wanted a change of direction.

“I knew I wanted to work with plants, so I studied herbology,” he says. “The first time I saw the derelict site where the herb garden is now, I fell in love with it.

“Our family lived in a caravan on the site while we planted the garden and built our house. It was quite cramped with four kids at the time, and five dogs”.

Hamish Martin, owner of Secret Herb Garden in Edinburgh
Hamish Martin, owner of Secret Herb Garden in Edinburgh
Hamish Martin

Now, Martin supplies both high-end herbs to Edinburgh’s restaurants, and botanicals to other distilleries. Customers can even buy his herbs from the garden’s shop.

Humans aren’t the only ones enjoying the calm and tranquillity of the garden either. Strolling among the plants on a sunny summer’s morning, we are surrounded by dozens of butterflies and bees, with honeybees from the garden’s 30 hives mingling with scores of bumblebees among the flowers.

One of the most impressive plants in Martin’s collection is central to gin’s story. Notoriously difficult to cultivate, juniper is flourishing in the secret garden, with the plants bearing fruit after only two years rather than the usual three.

“We don’t use any chemicals, not even those allowed for organic horticulture,” Martin says. “It sounds a bit hippy, but we believe growing plants is a partnership – you give them what they need through the soil, and they will return the favour with their fruits and flowers.”

Flowers growing at the Secret Herb Garden in Edinburgh
© Laura Meek