At the heart of any gin are its botanicals – so there is no better place to go to learn how to make gin than the heart of Scotland.
Strathmashie Distillery is almost at the geographical centre of Scotland: as far from each border as you can get. The exact centre is actually a matter of dispute but one of the traditional locations is marked with a plaque not seven miles away at Glentruim.
This part of the world is also a key crossroads – you pass through it on the way to Skye from the south, east and north. So, as centres go, it will do for me.
The first task is to source the ingredients for my gin. Foraged botanicals are an increasingly popular feature of modern Scottish gins and the lands around Strathmashie have rich pickings.
My host Chris Molyneaux, founder of Daffy’s Gin and owner of Strathmashie Distillery, wants me to explore the area and find my own botanicals for gin school.
We have a couple of options – to go into the hills with a four-wheel drive vehicle or go down to the water with a paddleboard.
As it is a fickle Scottish spring day, with the four seasons rotating at speed, we fear my beginners’ skills on a paddleboard could be overstretched, so we do both.
The Spey Dam is close – a mile-and-a-half as the crow flies – so armed with our blow-up paddleboards, we set off to explore its banks for potential ingredients.
Faced with a stiff breeze, forward motion on the water is rather limited but what fun it is – and surprisingly easy as I quickly find my balance.
The margins of the loch in summer would have offered us meadowsweet, sorel, bog myrtle, wild thyme or gorse.
In the early spring we didn’t pick anything for my gin – the plants are not really showing but it is mainly my fault. Four hours ago I was in the city, so I am totally distracted by the snow-clad hills and the glorious tranquillity.
And for a city-dweller, there is another Highland thrill further up the glen: two herds of red deer.
The first animals are grazing amid the trees, alert but happy to strike a pose for the camera. The second herd is on exposed moorland and again a photographer’s dream.
As the gin school is scheduled for the next afternoon, we have time to explore and admire the Speyside scenery as we head to Newtonmore. Not fazed by my close encounter in the glen, I pick a hearty venison stew to accompany a local lager in the homely Glen Hotel.
It is then time to retire to the Butler’s Flat, one of two self-catering apartments available to rent at Strathmashie House.
The Victorian flat is the ideal country retreat – with central heating, open fire and wi-fi, it sleeps five and its wooden floors cope with the outdoor lifestyle that is inevitable here.
Next morning I meet Ian Brown of Quad Bike Tours to get my foraging back on track. In fact, we go off the beaten track around the Ardverikie estate. Anyone who remembers the BBC TV series Monarch of the Glen will be familiar with it because it was the fictional Glenbogle.
We take a Land Rover to explore. I do look enviously at the group on quad bikes and later when a mountain biker splashes across the beach I envisage powering through this spectacular scenery.
However, being alongside Ian outweighs my adventurous streak as he is able to share his passion for the area and its history as we drive.
We climb steadily through the estate which was a favourite of Queen Victoria, crossing boulder-strewn streams with ease, till it feels like we are on top of the world.
We’ve passed stands of commercial timber, remnants of Caledonian pine forest, deer, birds and a dam for the estate’s hydro power system. Then it is open moorland and those majestic snow-clad peaks.
Descending, we follow the River Pattack as it tumbles through the estate, ultimately feeding Loch Laggan. At one point we walk to a gorge where the river drops precariously, creating spectacular waterfalls. Here, Ian reminds me of my botanical quest and we pick Scots pine needles and note where to return for blaeberries later in the year.
In the distillery schoolroom there are hundreds more botanicals, some in glass jars, many in the drawers of a cabinet salvaged from an Inverness pharmacy.
Now we get down to the business of making gin.
Chris guides us through the process and it is rather like being let loose in a sweetie shop as we sniff, smell and taste botanicals to get a sense of what flavour profiles we want for our gin.
I soon realise that my pine needles are not going to make the sort of citrusy gin I like. Chewing a juniper berry shows me I really like that flavour so I sign up for a gin heavy in juniper.
Raspberries picked last summer around the distillery are another must; as are rowan berries and grapefruit peel so that I have that citrus heart. Cassia bark adds a hint of spice for balance.
With our recipes chalked up on the board, we bruise, grind, pummel or tear our ingredients before adding them to alcohol to steep.
We are encouraged to check the spirit – a dab on my hand to smell, a drip on my tongue to taste – the magic is at work as the scents and flavours change.
Then it’s time to warm up the mini stills, add the liquid strained from its botanicals and wait for the heat and alcohol to work.
All the while we chat and explore the world of gin, laughs aplenty and a glass of Daffy’s gin and tonic to hand lest we forget what a successful gin tastes like.
It seems no time at all before I have my own gin dripping from the still.
Again, we can taste how the flavours change as the distillation proceeds. I think we are all nervous as to how our recipes will ultimately turn out.
In the end, each of us students has a very different – delicious – gin and I’m convinced mine is pretty near perfect. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? n
Daffy’s Gin School at Strathmashie Distillery, Newtonmore PH20 1BU (www.daffysgin.com). Gin school classes start at £95 per person (email firstname.lastname@example.org). The Butler’s Flat sleeps five from £80 per night (minimum two-night stay at weekends). The Distillery Cottage sleeps eight (from £145).
Foraging by paddleboard at Loch Insh (lochinsh.com) from £35; Red Paddle Co (redpaddleco.com) makes paddleboards that fit into rucksacks and take five minutes to blow up.
Foraging by Quad Bike Tours, The Old Filling Station, Kinlochlaggan PH20 1BX (www.quadbiketours.co.uk). Off-road 4x4 tour, £45 per person for 2.5 hours.