Geraldine Kavanagh, who works as a full-time forager for Glendalough Distillery, grew up in County Wicklow, in a beautiful mountainous countryside area of Ireland about an hour out of Dublin.
“It has the longest range of mountains in Ireland that runs right through the middle of the county,” said Kavanagh in an interview.
There’s beauty all around in this spot. “To the east we have the coast and the county has many forests, rivers and lakes, small farms, quiet country roads and a lot of wild land in the mountains,” said Kavanagh.
Kavanagh has always loved the outdoors, and had a love of roaming the gardens of Wicklow even as a child. She also had an early love of wild plants and unique flowers. “I learned all about them – where they liked to grow, when they would flower, their scent and unique properties. It was an entirely natural education about the outdoors, I didn’t have anyone to teach me and it was a long time before I learned the names of plants, but I knew all about them which is more important than simply knowing their names,” said Kavanagh.
It makes a lot of sense then that this love of the outdoors would lead her career path and even as a teen, farming and foraging was the way to go. “I worked in organic farming in my late teens and twenties and became interested in wild food, fascinated by all of the incredible foods that grow all around us, that all of our ancestors knew and consumed, that had now been forgotten and often referred to as weeds,” said Kavanagh.
The work farming and researching led to teaching, and before long, Kavanagh began teaching foraging classes on the weekends. “I felt it was important to share this forgotten knowledge, to show others the magic that is there right in front of us,” said Kavanagh.
And it was exactly this career trajectory and passion for the magic around her that led Kavanagh to the most unusual role of all – and the path that turned out to be perfect for her.
“I came to work with Glendalough Distillery in 2014. The founders had been selling whiskey and poitín for a few years at this time and had decided to try making gin,” said Kavanagh, who points out that this was even before using local botanicals when making gin was a common idea. “They had created a base gin recipe that they were happy with, using juniper, coriander, etc. but they felt it wasn’t unique enough and that it didn’t have a sense of place,” said Kavanagh.
It was around that time that Kavanagh was sharing a foraging outing and wild food lunch with a local Irish journalist, and suddenly had the idea to use wild and fresh flavors around her in making the gin. “Glendalough means the valley of two lakes. …The first batch was so good, we used freshly foraged botanicals and put them straight into the still within hours of being picked,” said Kavanagh. They made just 2,000 bottles that first year, but they knew they were onto something magical.
It was the job she was meant to do. “I have the best job,” said Kavanagh. “I head out in the morning into some of the most beautiful countryside. I bring my willow baskets as they are best for keeping the leaves and flowers cool and fresh – we use zero packaging for the botanicals,” said Kavanagh.
Ireland is known for some intense weather, but none of that gets in the way of Kavanagh’s daily foraging. “I forage with the seasons so I know what I am looking for and I know where to find every plant, the benefits of roaming the countryside in my youth,” said Kavanagh, who forages for Glendalough’s Wild Botanical Gin, Wild Rose Gin and also a small quantity of seasonal gins. “Our Wild Botanical Gin takes a year to make and has four seasons in every bottle. I begin in spring when the weather warms up enough to work outside all day, picking the fresh wild greens of spring, plants that like the cooler temperatures such as sorrel, wild water mint, sweet woodruff. As the days warm up and the flowers begin to appear I harvest elderflower, clover, chamomile, meadowsweet and many more. Autumn is great for wild herbs and fruits and in winter I harvest pine and fir,” said Kavanagh.
Each afternoon, Kavanagh will take the fresh botanicals to the distillery where she puts them directly into the still to macerate or infuse overnight, or directly into alcohol for distilling a few days later. “Rowdy (Ciarán”‘Rowdy” Rooney, the head distiller) and Sam (Assistant Distiller, Sam Mulligan) will have the still ready with the base botanicals, grain spirit and water already added. This allows us to capture the fresh flavors, the volatile oils, which would evaporate if the plants were left out for even a day,” said Kavanagh.
“Foraging for wild botanicals allows us to capture and preserve unique flavors from our home in Wicklow, where we live and make our gin, our terroir. Using plants that grow locally and distilling them daily allows us to capture the changing flavors of an entire year in the wilds of Wicklow in one bottle and deliver a profound sense of place through our gins,” said Kavanagh.
Kavanagh shares that part of what makes her job so fascinating is that her “to do” list changes constantly. “That’s one of the reasons why I love the job!” she said. It is different every day. “If it’s raining I might go to pick watermint or some other wild greens. If it’s dry and sunny, I pick flowers or fresh pine shoots for example as I want to get the flavor of the pollen too. I have the whole year to get my work done and as nature is the boss and everything is out of my control there is no stress. I simply work with the seasons,” said Kavanagh.
Kavanagh forages in different parts of County Wicklow depending on the season. “Glendalough is our inspiration but I don’t forage in the national park as it is preserved. There are large areas of wild land in the mountains where heather and wild blueberries grow. The clean rivers are great for greens that like moist, cool environments. Flowers will come out first at the coast at lower altitudes and as the weeks pass they can be found higher up so I work my way up into the mountains as I harvest. We have many miles of hedgerows too and they are great for wild fruits and herbs,” said Kavanagh.
It is in these beautiful spots that Kavanagh harvests wild edible greens, flowers, fruits and herbs. “Many of these were eaten by our ancestors and each one has a unique flavor. They can’t be bought in the store so they have to be foraged in the wild. They each have their season and once they are gone you have to wait until the following year to harvest them again,” says Kavanagh.
It is this aspect of foraging, the seasonality, that Kavanagh is so drawn to. “I like that you have to wait and that there is a sense of excitement with the coming of each botanical. We have lost this in the modern world where everything is available all the time, all year round, but things don’t necessarily taste as good,” said Kavanagh.
Not any flowers or herbs will do when foraging. “The botanicals have to be of excellent quality, the flowers have to be picked on a dry day when they have pollen, the leaves need to be fresh and green and at their prime in terms of flavor, fruit has to be perfectly ripe. Everything has to get to the distillery in perfect condition and be in the still or in alcohol within a few hours of picking,” said Kavanagh.
At the end of a busy day foraging in the fields, Kavanagh loves to unwind by foraging, of sorts, in her own kitchen while mixing cocktails. “I love to play around with homemade syrups, tinctures and colors. I rarely have the same drink twice as I have access to such diverse ingredients, many that we don’t use in our gins, that I love to use as a garnish or cocktail ingredient. Fresh wild flowers are always beautiful. I have even managed to make a wild cocktail in the middle of winter using freshly foraged snow or a sheet of ice from outside!” she said.
Now that’s something we need to experience.