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Tried & tested: Gin making in the Scottish Highlands

At this Scottish Highlands distillery you can forage for botanicals by standup paddleboard and learn how to make mother’s ruin like a pro

Tried & tested: Gin making in the Scottish Highlands
Image: Ed Smith

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Whisky may be Scotland’s national tipple, but gin is slowly catching up; there’s even an official Scottish Gin Trail, so you can trace a route between the distilleries, botanical gardens and bars. Daffy’s Gin isn’t on the trail yet, but it’s very much a Scottish operation — so much so that the owners recently relocated their 7,000-litre still from the Midlands to their Cairngorms home, Strathmashie House. They’ve also just opened up to guests, who can stay on site, forage for botanicals and learn the art of gin making.

My masterclass in mother’s ruin begins on a standup paddleboard, with Barry Wallace of Wilderness SUP leading a group of us along the River Spey. It’s gloriously sunny, but due to the long winter, the botanicals we hoped to collect on our boards aren’t out yet. There are some slightly further from the shore, though, so we abandon the SUPs and pick handfuls of yarrow, bog myrtle, meadowsweet and viola.

Back at Strathmashie, Daffy’s MD, Chris Molyneaux, leads the gin-making session in a Hogwarts-esque room full of copper pot stills and apothecary cabinets. They contain more than 120 botanicals collected by the team — among them day lilies from the grounds and rosemary from the garden at Maria Callas’s former home.

Chris draws a flavour wheel, representing levels of juniper, citrus, spicy, floral and herby notes. “Most gins have about 10 botanicals,” he says, and after having a good sniff of the contents of the cabinets, I choose eight that should give a floral, herby flavour. Juniper is crushed using a giant pestle and mortar, and to it I add some of what was collected today, plus lemon peel, rose and pine, before leaving my potpourri to macerate in grain spirit overnight.

The next morning, our strained potions are poured into the stills (“Copper makes the gin softer,” says Chris), which are sealed and heated over a flame. Once the liquid reaches a precise 79.4C, gin starts trickling out. We’re told to keep smelling it — the best way is by rubbing it on your top lip, or by taking three big sniffs. Initially, all I can detect is alcohol, but a bit of woodiness starts to emerge, followed by the floral notes. At the end of the process, I’m left with a 70cl bottle of what smells very much like, well, gin.

A month later, I open up the bottle and have a sip. It smells incredibly floral but it’s more harshly boozy than any gin I’ve tried before; I don’t think it’s supposed to sting the back of the throat like that. But the herbiness does eventually come through. A bit. And tonic can hide a multitude of sins.

Daffy’s and Wilderness SUP experience from £100pp, including Red Paddle Co board hire. Foraging and gin-making from £90pp.

Published in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food.