Day: 263 & 264
Towns / Cities Visited: 176
Countries Visited: 30
Steps Taken Today: 23,894
Steps Taken Around the World: 4,277,472
Arising to another clear blue Maltese morning, we gathered our things and made the ten minute, heavily laden trudge to the airport. No part of me wanted to leave; I had grown fond of Malta more than I had ever expected to. Still, progress called, and I consoled myself that our flight would deliver me back to another of my favourite places, Edinburgh. The trip went fairly smoothly, check-in was a breeze, but the gate had no seating, so there was much standing around waiting to board. Four hours in the air and we were landing, passing through customs with possibly the most cheerful airport employee I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with, and stepping out to be greeted by a change in weather which can only be described as jarring and quintessentially Scottish, cold wind and rain. The kind of weather which sings to the soul of someone like me who lives for being wrapped up in big warm jacket while the air paints my cheeks red with its biting chill.
Luckily for us, there was a bus which ran from the airport all the way out to Ocean Terminal in the Edinburgh suburb of Leith, which is, unsurprisingly, right near the ocean. On top of that, the stop was only a ten-minute walk from the Airbnb we were renting for the next few days. Our chipper host was there to meet us and spent a fair amount of time giving us the low down on the area and where to eat and drink, like any good Scottish host, before leaving us to our own devices. As I said on the last blog, this was the start of the final couple of weeks of our trip and we were using it as an opportunity to wind down a little after nearly nine months of hectic galivanting, as such the remainder of the day was whiled away with rest, life admin, and a pretty decent take-out curry for dinner we lazily had delivered.
The following day saw us rising to the reminder we weren’t in mild Malta anymore; the first leg out from under the blanket begging wholeheartedly to be tucked back in. ‘No such luck I’m afraid, little leg,’ I thought to myself as we fixed ourselves some breakfast, rugged up, and stepped out to find the day was not quite as violently cold as we had expected. As much as I would have loved to have stayed in bed, we had a booking to make at 11, not because we wanted it to be that early, but because out of the entire stay in Edinburgh, that was the only time slot which had three places on it, despite the fact we had booked literally months in advance. So where were we heading that was so incredibly popular, but probably not morning appropriate? Why, Edinburgh Gin Distillery of course.
Now, it seems strange that a gin distillery would be located in the basement of a building smack bang in the middle of a major city, but that just so happens to be exactly where it is; its miniscule size explaining the scarcity of its tour tickets. Arriving with time to spare we nestled down in the comfortable bar area as we watched others arrive for the tour on the cusp of initiation. Bang on eleven, our guide joined us all, ushering us over to a few rows of seats set up classroom style for our introductory education on the history of gin.
There is no better way to appreciate the complexity of something than to learn how it came about in the first place, and as such, I will share a snippet of it with you. As we all sat to attention, our guide harked back to its origins in the Netherlands. When the Dutch were fighting with Spain for independence in the 17th century, they enlisted the help of the British. As part of their payment, the British soldiers were given a ration of the Dutch spirit jenever, made at the time by distilling malt wine and using herbs, mainly juniper, to mask the unpalatable flavour left by the crude distilling process, and often drank for medicinal purposes. Jenever was usually at least 50% alcohol, and its strength and the lack of inhibition caused by drinking it made the drunken soldiers tend to go into battles thinking they were ten foot tall and bulletproof. Hence, my friends, the term ‘Dutch courage’.
As expected, the Brits took a liking to it and brought it back with them to England, where they quickly changed the name and ingredients slightly and thus London Dry Gin was born. It quickly became wildly popular because the government imposed high import taxes on spirits like French brandy, while simultaneously allowing gin to be produced without a license. This all got out of hand fast, as you would expect, to the point it was becoming dangerous; we’re talking every man and his dog was basically making it in their bathtub and it was creating a working-class world full of alcoholics and drunkards. Unsurprisingly, by the 18th century, anti-gin/pro-beer propaganda went into circulation, portraying gin drinkers as the scum of the earth, and beer as the drink of good honest hard workers. After this, the government cracked down and passed the Gin Act, which banned sale to unlicensed merchants and upped the charges for licensees, resulting in the elimination of small gin shops and restricted distribution to large scale production companies and retailers. At this point, gin was basically only used as a ration for sailors in the Navy. Why, you ask. Because its high alcohol content meant that if it spilt on the gunpowder stores while at sea, they would still ignite. This is also why strong gins these days are usually labelled as navy strength, as a nod to the history of the spirit.
By the 19th century all that was old was new again, and gin became popular one more, this time produced only by a small number of licensed distilleries, its high price-tag making it the drink of choice of the wealthy upper class. With the rich-folk on board, fancy bars known as gin palaces were born so that they could schmooze and drink gin dressed to the nines and lit expensively by the new-fangled gas lights of the times. The almost draconian restrictions on who could produce gin actually stayed in place all the way up until 2010, when they were eased, making way for the resurgence of gin distilling as boutique and small batch distilleries, much like the one we were now seated in, began popping up.
After the history recap we were given a brief run through what makes a gin a gin, basically it must be a neutral spirit, usually grain based, flavoured with juniper and whatever other botanicals the distiller desires: there is no legal requirements outside of juniper. Our guide also ran us through the requirements which must be fulfilled to call something a London dry gin, that being that it must be obtained exclusively from ethanol (with strict limits on methanol content), must be at least 37.5% ABV, the predominant flavour must be juniper, and it cannot contain more than 0.1g of sugar per litre. If the gin is sweetened, it generally falls under the umbrella of ‘old tom’ gin.
Our third and final lesson was on the finer points of distillation, which came after a short step over into the tiny glassed off room at the rear of the building which houses the two small stills, quietly going about their business making one of my favourite drinks. The sound of gentle bubbling hummed in the background as the pot belly of the still boiled the mix of spirit, juniper, and spices, before the alcohol evaporated, taking its new flavours with it, passing through racks holding other more subtle botanicals if needed, and condensing down into a bucket as a stiff 85% spirit. Of course its not sold at this strength, and it taken off site for dilution and bottling.
With our formal education concluded, we were led to the most anticipated part of the tour, the tasting. Shuffling into our seats around a large communal table tucked into a tiny cellar-like room, we were handed our tasting flights, a mix of six different gins. With a running commentary from our guide, the tasting began with the company’s traditional style gin with tonic and a twist of orange, followed by their navy strength and Christmas themed gins, then topped off with three of their lower alcohol flavoured gin liqueurs: pomegranate, apple spice, and plum and vanilla. All well tippled by our late morning drinking session, we were then all let loose choosing our 200mL bottle of gin included in the tour price. Given that there were three of us, we elected to go for a variety: one original, and three of the flavoured liqueurs (yes, we bought an extra), pomegranate, elderflower, and raspberry.
By the time we stepped back onto the street, we had a bit of a buzz on, and in jovial moods, we took the short walk over to our next adventure, exploring Edinburgh’s Christmas market. Not only is the concept of a cold Christmas completely foreign to all three of us, but Christmas markets are not a thing in Australia, and my mother and I ventured in eagerly while I low-key sent my partner off on a secret mission under the guise of going to run the boring errand of topping up our phone credit. All shall be revealed on that front in the next blog.
Operation Distract Mum in progress, I whisked her over to the stall selling mugs of mulled cider. Nothing says winter warmer like spiced hot alcoholic apple juice, am I right? Mum holding the fort at the high top we’d managed to snag and grappling with her moral dilemma of ‘shouldn’t we have gone with Benny?’, I popped to the bar and ordered us a round. I did have to laugh at this point when the mid-twenties bartender asked me for ID and seemed genuinely dumbfounded to discover I was in fact a full ten years past the legal drinking age. Maybe it was the university style hoodie, or the headband, or just the fact that I don’t go out in the sun much, and as a result my skin is aging fairly well, but apparently on that day I looked of questionable adulthood. Take ’em while you can get ’em, I guess.
Chortling to myself, I relayed the story to my mum as we sipped from our festive mugs and nibbled our complimentary ginger cookies, before wandering off to explore the food options on the upper level of this seemingly four-tiered event. By the time my partner came back we had the lay of the land, and whisked him off to share in another round of mulled cider before we dug into some much needed sustenance; as much as living purely off alcohol seems to scream family Christmas adventures, especially when your mother is going to be on the other side of the world for actual Christmas. Starting with a damn good bratwurst, we ended up at a place selling two of my newfound Hungarian favourites from the trip; langosh, in all of its cheesy, sour creamy, garlicy goodness; and the always delectable chimney cake, something my mother was, before this point, devastated by the thought of having missed her chance to try given how much I’d hyped it up. Luckily, her first chimney cake experience was lovingly catered to by the tiny old Hungarian lady churning them out in this Scottish stall.
Of course, the rest of the market couldn’t be explored without gin hot toddies to warm out hands and bellies, and therefore we made sure we had a shared mix of traditional and sloe gin varieties between us before we continued. Sauntering along, we perused the tiers of stalls selling very little in the Christmas wares department, but arts and crafts by the bucket load; the kinds of knickknacks and obscure homewares that beg to be purchased in the festive season as we all rush to fill out the consumerism based duties we try to pretend we’re not all enslaved by. Thanks, societal conditioning. As much as I dislike the idea of being expected to give gifts to show affection, my partner did spy me lingering by some gorgeous handmade leather-bound notebooks and swooped in to purchase me one despite by protests. Bless his cotton socks.
Market ticked off the list, we spent dusk wandering the smattering of other stalls lined up along the Royal Mile, pausing at one while I treated myself to a Celtic style ring which had caught my eye, before scurrying off towards home as the dark bought with it a bitter chill. Seriously, it takes some getting used to, this mid-afternoon sunset business. Dropping into a nearby supermarket to buy dinner supplies, we were home for the usual routine before too long.
Warming my hands on a cup of tea and settling onto the couch with a biscuit, I couldn’t help but think about my Christmases as a child. Christmas in Australia generally involves the temperature being up somewhere near to or over 30°C, and yet on television you are faced with a barrage of movies blanketed with snow and doling out meals which don’t really translate to mid-summer dining. It’s a strange dichotomy which leaves the majority of the Christmas carols moot to our circumstance, to the point we must make up our own just to explain to children how Santa’s sleigh would even work in a sunburnt country, and leaves advertising companies depicting the fictitious gift distributing super-being in cut off shorts and a shirt, I’m assuming so we don’t all have too many cases of overheated dads and uncles in Santa costumes flooding hospitals every December 25th.
As someone from a broken family, half of which are Australian and half of which are English, my experiences were always a strange mix of traditional and Australiana. Lunch with my Aussie side was generally roast, often cooked outside on the BBQ to stop the house heating up any more than it normally would, dished up with a wave of salads; whereas my English family dinner was often traditional British style Christmas dinner with roast and all the trimmings, served up under whirring ceiling fans or with enough air conditioning to mimic a chilly winters eve.
Pondering my youthful experiences, I smiled at the memories these yearly celebrations had provided me. Given that Christmas was usually the only time of year my families would get together, they were always a hugely important day, and the moments captured in my mind are ones I cherish, especially given that some of the faces from them are no longer around. I replayed, once more, the images of the over-the-top celebration we had thrown with my father’s side when my grandmother first started to get sick. With the fear she might not be around for the next one, we went all out: uncle and family down from interstate, an absurd amount of party poppers and glowsticks, a piñata, hell, we even had a slushie machine. Luckily, for us she survives for quite a few more years, but when we finally lost her to lung cancer, it was the memories of her Christmas cooking that I searched for to comfort me. I tried a plethora of different mince pies to try and find even one which would rival hers; a woman whose short crust pastry not one of us can seem to replicate to save our lives. Finding but one which can at least invoke the memory, it is a yearly scramble for me to try and find a packet, even if it means my partner lovingly scours multiple supermarkets just to ensure I can have one.
We all have flavours we associate with certain people or certain celebrations, and Christmas tastes different to everyone who celebrates it. For some it is roast turkey and pigs in blankets, for others its barbecued prawns and new season cherries. Perhaps its fresh baked panettone, or the traditional stollen or plum pudding your grandmother has been soaking fruit in brandy for the last six months to make. Maybe it’s a meagre plate in a house with minimal money but maximum love.
For me, Christmas tastes like mince pies; it tastes like just enough custard to hold the brandy together; it tastes like room temperature sausage rolls and leftover ham cooked twenty different ways over the space of a week; it tastes like biting into clinkers as you all try and guess the colour of the centre; it tastes like dry turkey smothered in gravy and paired with the latest salad pulled out of a Donna Hay magazine that my aunty may not have nailed but you love every bite of because she’s been up since the wee hours organising it all. Christmas can be contained in a single bite, and in this bite sits so much more than a flavour, within it sits every feeling which comes with family celebration. Christmas tastes like bad cracker jokes and useless toys; it tastes like the excitement of sneaking out to the tree at 6am to see if Santa came, then running screaming into my mum’s room to wake her up because I just can’t wait to open my presents; it tastes like my brother snatching my unwrapped gifts out of my hand before I even know what they are; it tastes like mid-highway car swaps and fast pace yearly updates; it tastes like eating until you can barely walk; it tastes like hugs; it tastes like laughter; it tastes like love.