In the south of Edinburgh, on the generally less civilised side of the bypass, stands a butterfly sanctuary. The butterflies are kept in a row of greenhouses and there is also a small pavilion where you can buy the tickets. When you are inside the greenhouses, everywhere is packed hard with this inescapable, wringing wet heat. A friendly little labyrinth trails around what is meant to look like a rainforest but what is in reality just a messy garden.
There are the sounds of spray and gushing water and tables with halved oranges on them for the butterflies to dip down and feed from and those large plants, with leaves as shiny as playing cards, which are typically shown off in bourgeois front rooms. Random butterflies flap about limply on the damp air, like an inconsequential muttering amongst the foliage. Where there is water, you can sometimes spot terrapins scraping over the rocks.
I had once visited this butterfly sanctuary on an afternoon in late spring with my wife Polly. Thus relieved, I had no desire to visit it again until I had completely forgotten everything about it.
They had recently set up a gin distillery in a storage shed next to the visitor centre. The bottles were soon appearing in bars around Edinburgh. It was called Edinburgh Butterfly Gin and, as with all of these innovative local craft products, I rather begrudged it its energy. The world was still young for Edinburgh Butterfly Gin. Soon they were constantly issuing “special editions” of their product and, finally, they had thrown open their distillery for guided tours.
Several months ago I began working at a chain bar where they would periodically send out the new workers to tour the gin distillery. This was so that we could talk knowledgeably and confidently about gins to our customers. On the tour that I had attended, there was myself and six girls, all of them in their early twenties.
They were nice girls, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they were inoffensive. All of them had briskly humourless personalities. They made me think of a collection of knitting needles, all of them identically featureless and ending in sharp points. The more that I got to know them, the more that this impression was not dispelled.
At the start of the gin tour, we had to wait in the butterfly sanctuary’s visitor centre. Long glass panels looked in on the greenhouses and some of the girls tried to wipe little patches in the condensation to peer through. The mass of the moisture was, however, on the other side.
When our tour guide arrived, he plunged through the greenhouse doors, brandishing a circular tray high on his fingertips that was crammed with tall glasses of gin and tonic. These glasses seemed so neat that they could have been dressed in suits. “Morning guys,” he called. “You’re all here for the gin tour, guys? Welcome to the gin tour. I have some cheeky wee gin and tonics here for you all, just to freshen us up before we get going!”
We bristled, immediately looking about to verify each other’s startled faces. It was just after eleven in the morning. I am sure that your grandfather had once solemnly told you, as mine had told me, that “no gentleman ever drinks before noon.” For a moment a potential crisis was veering about amongst us, like a football that we were loosely keeping in the air. We all looked at each other and we all knew that we each had the same words in our minds: “are you insane?” But then the crisis was receding and none of us had uttered them.
So we accepted our gin and tonics. Some of the girls sipped at theirs with perceptible distaste, whilst others just patiently held them. I gulped at mine and its balance of g and t tasted ominously uneven.
Our guide must have been in his mid-forties. He had a crafty-looking face, with a large brown beard that poured down sleekly to below his chest like a bib. Attached to this beard were tiny moustaches that curled in fatuously primped ringlets. When you beheld this beard, you shuddered slightly, knowing instinctively that it was something that would have been rejected or found unfit in nature but that had somehow secured an artificial life for itself amongst modern humans.
The guide knocked back his own gin and tonic quicker than you could have swallowed a pill. Now he was leading us on into the distillery. He showed us two gigantic urns that various things sat in for a long time and dreamed and reflected until they were gin.
His talk did not get very far before his hands were fumbling again for the gin bottle and pressing a “top-up” onto us. He appeared oblivious to our steep uneasiness. He, of course, found that he did require a top-up and he instantly received one.
He was talking very quickly and fluently, with the mindless precision with which some workers might empty a removal lorry. He was telling a story about the two friends who had supposedly built this distillery. They had been fooling about in a garage one day and they had decided to brew up some gins, simply out of boredom. To their surprise, everybody who had sampled this batch had been promptly clamouring for more. So the friends had then invested in some professional industrial equipment, only to fend off the bewildering demand. These two friends were never consciously capitalists and their gin empire had apparently sprouted out of nothing, as an unstoppable fungal process.
At the end of this story, our guide was fortified with another top-up. We were all still clinging to our first, mostly undrunk gins.
On he went, into another story. In May, one of the friends had visited an aunt’s house down in Chelmsford. His great-grandfather, who had grown up in Edinburgh, had once famously stayed at the same house on a family weekend when he was a boy. He had been photographed here holding up a small fish that he had pulled out of a stream by its tail. It was an ancient, iconic image and highly prized by the family.
On the night that the friend was staying in this house, he had felt extremely cold in bed. In his pyjamas, he had traced the draught to his bedroom window and then, strangely, past it and on towards the far wall. The wallpaper had a curious lack of purchase behind one section. When he pushed in with his fingertips, the wallpaper crumpled away to reveal a dusty compartment. In this was hidden a ledger and in the very back, written in virtually unreadable spidery handwriting, was a recipe for a long-lost imperial gin. They had launched this edition during the summer, complete with a reproduction of the boy holding up the fish printed on the label. It tasted unusually strong, our guide concluded approvingly.
After this, our guide had earned another cheeky wee top-up.
The tour ended in a long gallery that once more looked out onto the greenhouses. The windows here were so steamed up that nothing inside could be seen. The gallery was dotted with metal tables and there was a smart counter against one wall, with various gin bottles arranged in a gantry behind it. Our guide took his place familiarly behind the counter. As he spoke to us, his fingers swiftly, noiselessly, plucked at different bottles.
“So this first is our Navy Strength edition. Shall we take a sip and then try to think of any way that we can – any word that might spring into your mind – to describe it?”
Witheringly, the girl beside me looked at her watch. It was barely midday.
Each of us received a small plastic receptacle that was laden with neat gin.
Our guide instructed us about how to luxuriously inhale the gin and roll it around inside our nostrils. It smelled like gin. Next we had to exquisitely sip it. After our guide had sipped his gin, he launched into savouring it with a great slam of all of his powerful body language. He clenched his fists and he seemed to rock on his feet like an agitated panther. Then the words came. The gin was very dry and fine. It was as pure as dew but there were hints or scratches of elderberries and cashew nuts, with a growing venison-like texture, or even one of barbequed duck, with a consequent squirt of jellied bacon, and then a gluey, thick, raspberry-jam-type consistency…
The girl next to me put her hand up quickly to her mouth and then, wretchedly, she shook and visibly swallowed back down vomit. All of the other girls looked at her in concern.
By the way, our guide said, breaking off from his ecstasies, there was no pressure for any of us to drink the gins. Nobody would think badly of us if we occasionally decided to sit a round out. He recounted this so rapidly under his breath that it might have been “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
I understand this, I realised at last. Alcoholism has to evolve, like any culture, like operas or documentary filmmaking or barista coffee-making, and it has to constantly find new methods for sustaining its existence. Ten years ago, this alcoholic would have been lazily scratching about inside some old man’s pub. He would have been wearing stained clothes and hectoring passers-by with his opinions about Rangers. Yet in order to survive, he, like all of the other alcoholics, have had to learn the patois of craft brewing and to recite all of the flowery adjectives that you need to use to enthuse about the largely synonymous craft products. The billion different available ways of describing the taste of alcohol.
The hipster beard renders him a particularly sturdy strain, I thought. As long as there are losers and wasters, there will be hipsters.
At that moment, we heard a distant slither of shattering glass. Through the hot mist of the greenhouse windows, we could dimly perceive the luminescent bodysuit of a motorcyclist snaking around the rainforest garden. I almost thought that I could discern the butterflies rising in a great, wet, multi-coloured cloud to follow him. He crashed through more glass and then he was rattling around the gallery to pull up sharply in front of us.
“Sir!” he barked at our guide, “A lady died this morning. I have her kidney – all ready to go – in my backpack. I’m to take you straight to the hospital.”
Our guide floundered speechlessly and he stared around, as if a particularly important butterfly was escaping from the sanctuary.
“We have minutes, sir! This kidney is drying up second by second!”
I imagined the donor, who had been doubtless hit by a bus or flattened by a falling tree on her morning commute. She would have lived an anonymous life of dutiful temperance, maybe having a glass of sherry with her Christmas lunch, a drink that she would have found as warm and as unpleasant as being roughly touched up in a stationary cupboard at work. Now she had been annihilated, but her solitary kidney would continue to live on and represent her elsewhere, like a star twinkling in the night sky.
Our guide was climbing onto the back of the motorcycle. The courier was revving up impatiently. I wondered whether this was a real hospital, or a hospital that some junkies had all set up together in a flat.
I fixed upon what our guide had been looking for, with my hands moving quickly amongst the bottles. “One for the road?” I offered.
He nodded without quite seeing me. I clamped the glass into his hand and as the motorcycle tore away, a stream of eager adjectives was decanted from his mouth. The drink was heady, bushy, packed with intricate flavours, cheeky…