We like the occasional tipple of gin. We enjoy walking and being outdoors. So when we were invited to Daffy’s Gin School to make our own, how could we refuse? The opportunity to explore somewhere new and have a shot at making our own wee batch of gin was overwhelming. A Cairngorms gin and swim odyssey would be the perfect combination, hell, we might even throw in some walks too.
There has been a surge in popularity over the last few years which has seen gin become the drink to have. Each one with tasting notes, advising you what fruit or tonic to pair your new favourite tipple with.
We have a great selection of Scottish gin in the pantry from our travels. The Scottish Gin Society claim there are around 70 distilleries across Scotland with their own stills. That’s quite a lot.
Back in August when I was at Belladrum festival, I had my first taste of Daffy’s Mulberry gin, paired with rose lemonade and I loved it. Pretty and tasty – double whammy. I also got to meet the man behind the brand, Chris. A lovely unassuming guy who is clearly passionate about his gin and the ethos behind it all. He’s not new to the distilling game though, in a previous life he was a Master Distiller for Diageo, so clearly knows his stuff.
I looked forward to meeting Chris again at the Gin School near Laggan.
Daffy’s Gin School
An early start to a Saturday morning for us, and a 90 minute drive into the Cairngorms. Not a bad journey in the sunshine, up the A9 to Dalwhinnie and then swing a left toward Laggan.
We arrived at Daffy’s Gin School to a warm welcome from Chris and to meet our class mates. All present and correct, introductions over with and we headed over the courtyard into what felt like a scene from Harry Potter.
Beautiful, shiny copper stills on a long table in the middle of the room and on the back wall were rows of glass jars full of botanicals. A real apothecaries dream.
Amongst the group there were couples and individuals and each had a work space/still.
Chris spoke passionately about the brand, how family and friends make up his close team, sourcing the best ingredients, his work history and how they came to be based at the old shooting lodge in Strathmashie.
Making our first steps into the world of gin making, Chris passed around some of the jars for us to taste and smell the contents. This would help us decide on what to include in our own concoction.
The magic potion
With our senses now in overdrive it was time to decide which botanicals we would use and in what quantity. Our potions teacher, Chris, talked us through the basics of a selection process for each element – juniper, citrus, herbal, spice and floral. Using this five spoke wheel we could choose how much of each ingredient would go into making our gin. Each point has it’s own scale (1 to 5) on which we could decide the flavour intensity.
One being the least strongest flavour and five being the centre of attention.
The botanicals we chose to join the juniper were: burnt mandarin, honeysuckle and pine. With a very last minute addition of dried cucumber just to lift it slightly.
Next thing to do was actually have the opportunity to forage for fresh ingredients. The Gin School is in a spectacular location and within less than one hundred metres of the classroom Chris was pointing out different pines to taste, lichens, rose bay willow herb, nettles and wood sorrel. We returned to our seats clutching our wicker baskets like children in a sweet shop and chatting about the possible different flavour combinations.
Now time to get hands on.
First, we put crushed juniper into the clear base spirit and stirred. Then with the pestle and mortar we ground up our botanicals, i.e the burnt mandarin, pine, honeysuckle and dried cucumber etc to release the oils, flavours. Then pouring it all into the base spirit and juniper mixture, stirring as much as possible to help it infuse.
With the contents of the jar now resembling a mud pie concoction from childhood memories, it was time to strain out the bits. Squeezing out all of the liquid to ensure we capture all the flavours (and not waste any gin!). After topping it back up to 600ml it was time to put it in the still. Let the magic begin.
Now to play the waiting game whilst the liquid heated up to a boiling point of 78.4°c and for the distilling process to start.
Because of the short amount time we have for the class, the gin is only processed once through the still. The more times it is passed through the still, the clearer the end product. This meant that our gin was slightly cloudy as we bottled it.
And just like that, three hours has vanished. What an experience though. I think we all enjoyed ourselves and were happy with the end results for our gin making efforts.
Time to cool off
Given it was the start of September there was hardly a whiff of autumn. After lunch at Laggan Wolftrax cafe, Dude and I set off to find a place for me to enjoy a swim. Chris had shared with me some of his local knowledge and favourite swimming places. After swapping some kit into a rucksack we headed off for a walk near Pattack Falls.
It was so peaceful and the sun shone, the last remaining pink heather hues were still hanging on to summer. We saw plenty of fungi making the most of the damp atmosphere along the trail too.
We could hear Pattack Falls long before we could see them, but for now we headed on further up the track for a more gentile place to swim. I know my limits in the water and I wasn’t willing to test my skills in the fast flowing river, so we continued just a bit further up the river Pattack.
Eventually we settled on somewhere and I hurriedly changed into my swimsuit, excited for my cold water swim fix. As Dude watched from the banks I enjoyed feeling the cold water on my skin. Not a care in the world.
Happy and content with my dip, it was time to get out and head back down to the car.
Easy like Sunday morning
After a good nights sleep, we woke on Sunday morning eager to do explore a local Pictish fort, Dun-da-lamh.
From the room of our B&B we watched the low cloud slowly reveal the tops of the higher peaks. By the time we were ready to move on it was pretty much clear.
We followed Forestry and Land Scotland signs up a woodland track. Gaining height slowly but surely. This short but mighty outcrop in the Cairngorms is well worth the trek. Upon reaching the top we were rewarded with views 1484ft above sea level, all for just a 600ft ascent. On a day like this where it is so clear it really does feel special.
After reading a plaque about the fort, it is thought that the rock used on the summit is not local to the strath below. Meaning that around 5000 tons of rock were somehow transported from somewhere else.
This early Pictish fort was a well chosen spot, with three of it’s sides so steep it is impregnable. The views from the top would have also help them defend well.
After sitting in silence, listening to nature and taking in the scenery we could no longer put off the inevitable journey south. We headed back down the track and spotted Daffy’s Gin School, nestled next to the river Mashie. Reminding us of the fun we had had the day before (and that we must stop off to buy tonic on the way home!)
A Cairngorms gin and swim odyssey
All good things have to come to an end but as with all our roadtrips we have made even more memories to treasure. The Cairngorms gin and swim odyssey was full of firsts. First time making gin, first time cold water swimming in the river Pattack and we discovered a new walk too. In fact, we discovered that this area is well worth exploring, not just driving through en-route to Fort William and beyond.
That evening back at home we settled down with a D&T (Daffys and tonic). Both pleasantly surprised our version was drinkable. Another Scottish gin to add to the collection. We raised our glasses to Scotland and new adventures. Slàinte.
*Please note that the Daffys Gin School experience (lunch at WolfTrax and our overnight accommodation) were all gifted and arranged by VisitScotland. My fellow classmates were also VisitScotland Ambassadors. I was under no obligation to write about our weekend at all but wanted to share some aspects of it with you. All opinions and gin recipes are my own.