Welcome to the Love Your Local Larder podcast! A podcast that celebrates local produce with the people who cook and grow it.
In this fascinating episode, we were introduced to the world of Birkentree, a company founded by passionate individuals, Rob and Gabrielle, who have ingeniously harnessed the potential of birch tree sap as a natural mixer for whisky. Their journey is not just about creating a unique product but also about revitalising Scotland's birchwood forests in a sustainable and innovative way. Join us as we delve into the origin story of Birkentree, the process of birch tree tapping and the natural benefits of using birch sap. We finished our chat by exploring the flavours and nuances of such a unique and carefully crafted product.
When I asked Suzie, our host, about her visit to meet Birkentree, this is what she had to say: "I have family in Dunkeld and visit frequently, so I thought I knew it well, but it turns out I was mistaken. When I arrived to meet with Rob and Gabrielle, they suggested heading up to the tree tapping location. We drove out of Dunkeld and into a woodland area where they operate. For a few weeks each year, the trees are available for tapping. It is the most beautiful place. Just so calming, nurturing and quiet. I truly loved this experience. Recording in the wilderness that day was a blessing."
Listen to the podcast episode here...
Birch tapping has a rich history in Scotland, spanning over 5,000 years. Despite this long-standing tradition, Rob and Gabrielle, driven by their shared passion for nature and sustainability, founded Birkentree. Rob's expertise in forestry and Gabrielle's extensive background in health and herbalism provided the ideal foundation for their venture, which began six years ago in Dunkeld. During the serene weeks of Spring, they engage in the ancient and peaceful practice of tapping birch trees.
Initially marketing birch water for its extensive health benefits, their focus shifted due to the challenges of the pandemic. It was during this time of reflection that they saw an opportunity to revive a forgotten Scottish tradition: using Birch water instead of regular water in whisky. Recognising the natural harmony between these two ancient Scottish liquids, birch water and whisky, they endeavoured to blend tradition and innovation.
Through their dedication, Rob and Gabrielle have perfected the art of creating a high-quality product that seamlessly combines birch water and whisky. Importantly, they prioritise the well-being of the birch trees they tap, ensuring their practices are sustainable and respectful of nature. In essence, Birkentree not only produces a harmonious fusion of Scottish heritage but also exemplifies a deep commitment to environmental stewardship.
Tapping birch trees for sap is a delicate process that requires careful timing and precision to ensure the tree's health and sustainability. According to Rob, the optimal time for tapping is during a 3 week period in the Spring when the sap is rising in the trees. During this period, the tree is drawing up groundwater through its root system into the tree itself before it turns into leaf converting all the starches and sugars that it’s been storing over Winter into sap.
Importantly, Birkentree adheres to sustainable practices during the tapping process. They take great care not to disrupt the tree's natural cycle. Rob mentioned that they only collect about 1% of the sap that the tree is taking up on a daily basis. Given that trees pump hundreds of litres of sap throughout their system daily, Birkentree's extraction process is minimal, typically amounting to only 2-5 litres per tree per day. They also always ensure they effectively rotate the trees so that no one tree is overworked and is allowed time to rehabilitate. This approach ensures that the trees remain healthy and their natural processes continue unhindered. By tapping such a small fraction of the tree's daily sap intake, Birkentree maintains the ecological balance of the birchwood, allowing the trees to thrive while responsibly harvesting the sap for their innovative and sustainable product.
Gabrielle delved into the deep rooted importance of birch trees and how this impacts their product. The birch tree itself is truly spectacular. It is the first tree to colonise any ground and naturally fertilise the ground for other species and plants to make a forest. Rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and antioxidants, birchwater offers a holistic array of benefits for people. The combination of ecological significance and health benefits underscores the importance of birch trees in both natural ecosystems and human well-being.
Being the only dedicated birchwater accompaniment to whisky in the world at the moment, it was a must try for ourselves! Suzie commented on the noticeable enzymes in the bottle. After a quick shake, the enzymes settled and we dived straight into the complexity of flavours. People taste notes of vanilla, cucumber, lychee and coconut. The quality of flavours is really valuable when added to whisky. Unlike standard water which tends to dilute whisky, birchwater's silky and slightly thicker consistency allows it to linger on the palate when combined with whisky. Additionally, when tasting, the birchwater takes away the burn of spirits. This enables you to focus on the flavour profile, and its smooth coating captures the tasting notes that are often completely missed by the harshness of alcohol.
The experts, Rob and Gabrielle, suggest a couple ways to make the most of Birchwater: "Chill the birchwater and add a dash to whisky to suit or create a highball by adding more birchwater. Unlike water, our birchwater does not dilute whisky, it adds a silky smoothness and opens up the layers within fine whiskies. Another way of serving our birchwater is to freeze it into ice cubes. The frozen birchwater melts slowly into the whisky in a very unique way, again not detracting from the whisky but enhancing it."
Birkentree embodies a captivating blend of innovation, tradition, and sustainability. Their journey, rooted in the ancient practice of birch tapping, has not only given rise to a remarkable product but also aims to restore Scotland's birchwood forests. Their sustainable approach, collecting about 1% of a tree's daily sap intake, ensures ecological balance and the well-being and longevity of the birch trees. The birchwater they craft offers a silky texture and reveals complex flavour notes, enhancing the whisky experience. Birkentree stands as a pioneer in the whisky world, combining Scottish heritage with environmental stewardship. So cheers to Birkentree, where the spirit of whisky meets the soul of the birchwood forest! Find out more about Birkentree here.