I wasn’t sure what to expect from a weekend spent paddle boarding while staying at a gin distillery – usually under the influence of gin – in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands. It seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Few people have heard of Strathmashie in the Cairngorm mountains. The nearest shop is 15 miles away and there are rumours of public transport, but nobody has ever seen it. This rugged landscape begs to be explored, whether it’s by foot, ski, kayak or, as I’m soon to find out, by paddle board.
We’re here to stay at Daffy’s gin distillery, which has teamed up with Red Paddle Co to provide an outdoors adventure that is far from ordinary.
To get to Strathmashie, we drive through winding, pristine roads worthy of so many car adverts. Waterfalls trickle down mountains that are still speckled with snow, even under the balmy June sky. As we drive into the distillery estate, a wild turkey hen chases us down the driveway and continues to stare at the vehicle at close range long after we’re inside (visitors can rent out parts of the estate on Airbnb, see below). Along with a handful of chickens, some orphan lambs, two ponies, a few pigs and a sprightly dog called Somersault, she belongs to Chris Molyneaux and his charismatic wife Mignonne, co-founders of Daffy’s Gin. Interestingly, Mignonne is also the woman immortalised by artist Robert McGinnis on the Daffy’s bottle. The painter, now in his 90s, is probably most famous for producing the original Breakfast At Tiffany’s film poster in the 1960s.
Gin foraging, paddle boarding and a lamb rescue
The next morning I’m up early for an introduction to paddle boarding. I’m under the instruction of Barry Wallace, a former hockey player who is now guiding a small group of us down the River Spey and through the choppy Loch Uvie. Our inflatable boards are so tough they can survive a lorry being driven over them, alleviating any fears I might have had about inflatables. I should have taken a few more minutes to become accustomed to the board before standing, as I’m underwater before I understand why, then swimming to the shore and dragging my board behind me. I dry off quickly and paddle a few miles downstream, stopping for a gin lunch and to forage for ingredients that would later be used in our own gin. It’s exhilarating and peaceful, and I feel like I could stay on this paddle board for the next few days.
We’d already passed hundreds of sheep who’d been eyeing our team’s descent down the river. About four miles into the journey, the river forks to make way for a small island, where one of the younger members of the flock is somehow stranded. I’m not certain how it arrived, but when I look behind me I can see the creature being lifted to safety on a paddle board and then reunited with its woolly pals in the field.
There’s more to gin than junipers
We drive back to the ranch for Chris’s masterclass in gin making. He is hugely knowledgeable about the process from field to bottle, and has been helping us pick gin-specific plants all afternoon. Our group is led to a room full of gleaming copper pots; smaller versions of the vat downstairs. It’s a room devoid of any digital technology. Glass jars filled with dried herbs, spices, fruit and botanicals are lined up along antique medicine cabinets. It’s difficult to decide what to throw in my bottle, but I decide on a bit of cucumber-y meadowsweet and some local pine that smells of candy floss.
We watch the liquid bubble before the heady mixture dribbles into a beaker. We’d worked hard for our gin.
Not content with a surprise dip in the Spey, it’s my last morning in this incredible place and I want to get back the water for a proper swim without a paddle board attached to my ankle. There are huge expanses of good, cold, clean water around here ideal for swimming. I jump in to a gorgeous loch behind the distillery accompanied by Somersault the dog. It’s the perfect way to begin a day and the perfect end to a weekend full of surprises
To book a stay at Daffy’s Gin Distillery, head to http://www.strathmashie.co.uk/. Prices start from £80 per night for five guests; foraging and gin course extra. For Red Paddle boards, go to https://redpaddleco.com/en-gb/inflatable-sups/ otherwise hire them from Tiso in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth or Aviemore: https://www.tiso.com/hire