To swim or swig the gin

Swimming is one way of exploring a landscape, tasting it distilled is another. Swimmer, botanist and distiller consultant Susanne Masters shares a few of her favourites places to do both.

© Suzanne Cruikshank

There is a natural partnership between spirits capturing a taste of the landscape in a bottle, and iconic swims that are thoroughly tied to the landscape they roam through.  A dip followed by a nip of something local makes a twofold exploration of place. A distillery to visit can also be an enticement that makes a swimming trip fun for non-swimming companions. Keep in mind that to be safe it is swimming first, alcohol when back on dry land. Below are seven of my favourite spots to combine the two:

Soldier’s Leap - Edradour Distillery

www.edradour.com

The Edradour Distillery, renowned for being the smallest traditional distillery in Scotland, is situated between the Highlands and lowlands. Here, thick forest covers the sides of the gorge through which the River Garry flows at Killiecrankie. Visually, its steep rocky walls are a contrast to the soft meadows and river bends of the Lowlands lying to the south. It was also a meeting point between Highland clans who supported King James II and supporters of King William of Orange, who were predominantly from the Lowlands.  A death-defying leap to safety across the river by a soldier fleeing Jacobite clansmen after the battle of Killiecrankie is what gave Soldier’s Leap its name. As a swimming spot it offers two very different aspects. A large still pool of dark water encircled by forest is perfect for swimming in, or just floating and admiring the trees. For more of a challenge swim upstream to where the water tumbles over rocks and enjoy a return downstream with speed enhanced by the force of the current. Blair Athol Distillery is nearby and open all year. Edradour is a couple of minutes further away and only open April- October.  Using small stills in the same old farm buildings it started out in, makes it a snapshot of Victorian era distilling.

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Strathmashie Forest - Dalwhinnie Distillery

www.discovering-distilleries.com

On the southern edge of Speyside, Dalwhinnie Distillery’s buildings stand out white against the browns and mauves of heather. One of the highest distilleries in Scotland, Dalwhinnie inhabits the Highlands. Before touring the distillery and having a warming tot of whisky, head around to the back of the hillside.  After the bleakness of the high valley Dalwhinnie sits in, Strathmashie forest is a magical surprise. Lush green trees surround a swimming hole in the dark water of the River Pattack. Stones at the edge of the water ripple with flecks of fool’s gold. When I went we destroyed the peace and calm by pulling off our swimsuits, twirling them around in the air and whooping. Then we saw the people enjoying the viewpoint above Pattack falls.  Running over peaty slopes is how the River Pattack’s water is tinted dark. Lochan an Doire-Uaine, a lake in the green grove, picks up peaty flavours in exactly the same manner, by water from flowing over peat to reach Allt an t’Sluic, the burn where Dalwhinnie gets its water.  Dalwhinnie creates whiskies with a softness that makes them accessible to people who aren’t yet whisky fans, well worth a visit for those dipping a toe into whisky-tasting.

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River Spey - Inshriach

www.facebook.com/Inshriach/

Of all the places to host a foraging and distilling weekend this is the one I picked. To start with the first time I met Walter, who makes Inshriach gin and whose family runs Inshriach house, he instantly endeared himself to me by telling me where the best swimming spot was in his stretch of the Spey. There are plenty of places to get in the Spey as it is Scotland’s second longest river. Inshriach is the best equipped. Amongst the multitude of creations Walter has filled Inshriach with is a wood fired sauna; Scandinavian comfort right on the bank of the Spey. As a distillery Inshriach is extra special – with botanicals for the gin picked on site and the still in a shed next to a saloon bar. Walter doesn’t run regular distillery tours but the house and glamping options are available to rent. Through the year there are also events at Inshriach involving the distillery so keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

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Hushinish beach – Isle of Harris Distillery

www.harrisdistillery.com

You can’t miss the Isle of Harris Distillery perched on the seashore metres from the ferry dock at Tarbert.  Swimming is not a good idea at the port but Tarbert is where the Isle of Harris narrows to an isthmus so it is only a few minutes walk across to the Atlantic side.  But this isn’t my favourite swim on Harris. Neither is the famous Luskentyre beach. Before the Isle of Harris Distillery was built I rummaged around the Isle of Harris looking at plants and working out which ones should go in the Isle of Harris gin. One afternoon I walked and crawled around the pert hillside of Cnoc Mòr with the wildlife warden. I showed him the silky feeling leaves of carnivorous butterwort, which can be used to make yogurt. We fed a horsefly to a sticky sundew plant.  It was a blue-sky day under hot sun and the turquoise water of Hushinish beach was irresistible.  Sheltered by the Harris mountains and Cnoc Mòr the sea was flat and ripples were cast in the sand of the seabed.  We had crystal clear views of the seaweed. Hushinsh is an exquisite swimming spot and that mutually visible landscape of sea and mountain was one of the reasons I selected Sugar kelp for Isle of Harris gin.

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Fairy Pools – Talisker Distillery

www.scotlandnow.dailyrecord.co.uk

How many pool swimmers have been tempted outdoors by the underwater rock arch and clear water of the Fairy Pools in the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye?  On how many swimmers’ bucket lists does it feature? They certainly cast a magic sparkle on the day I went there. My friend Cassie sat on a rock enjoying the view and drying in the sunshine. She caught the eye of a painter who asked if Cassie would stay a little longer so that she could be painted into the landscape. Even on an overcast day the water worn rocks and Fairy Pools like a zipper down the hillside make it seem that the earth is spilling its secrets.  At the foot of the Cuillins the Talisker Distillery stands on the salty shore of Loch Harport. Pop into the distillery shop to pick up hard-to-find bottles of their malts.  Above the distillery, with views of the loch and Cuillins, we toasted the Fairy Pools, ate delicious local oysters and drank whisky out of their shells. After whetting our appetites in the chilly Fairy Pools, warming whisky with a briny whisper of the sea preceded by the oysters themselves was just perfect.

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River Derwent – Lakes Distillery

www.lakesdistillery.com

While the Lakes malt is still steeping in casks and won’t be whisky until 2018, I had a sneak preview of the raw spirit direct from the still.  Before aging in wood its flavour was phenomenal – full and complex. Likewise even at over proof strength the Lakes Vodka was surprisingly smooth. Swimmers who don’t swim before touring the Lakes Distillery will suffer. The tour includes a film, which from an airy viewpoint traces the path of the River Derwent, the water source for the Lakes Distillery. Streams running down green hills gather, pause in Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake, and then wind as a fat river to the sea. In the upper reaches of the River Derwent are plunge pools, in the lower reaches more space for swimming. Bassenthwaite Lake is technically the only lake in the Lake District, other bodies of water are ‘meres and ‘waters. Make a day of it and take a few dips in different spots, or let Wild Swim Map help you narrow down the choices.

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Lough Erne – Boatyard Distillery

www.boatyarddistillery.com

Lough Erne consists of a river, a lough and two lakes. It’s an aquatic shape-shifter in County Fermanagh, which is perhaps the most waterlogged county of Northern Ireland. Even underground water flows as rivers and waterfalls in Marble Arch Caves. Jo, the founder of the Boatyard Distillery, showed me an old poteen still hidden to conceal illicit distilling.  To see it we went through a waterfall, down into a cave until daylight and the cave entrance disappeared and we only had the light of our torches. Back up on the hillsides stepping on peaty soil squeezed water out of it and brushing against the buds of bog myrtle scented the air. Even the woodland walks through water in County Fermanagh. It has most of Northern Ireland’s fen carr – woodland trees growing in wetland. In the morning mist, we lingered around Lough Erne, and picked fragrant leaves of watermint and meadowsweet that grew at the water’s edge. For swimmers Lough Erne with 300 square miles of water and 154 islands is a place to explore. Why not land on the jetty at the foot of the Boatyard Distillery.

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