The same guy who gave Ron Swanson a snifter at Lagavulin was the same guy who taught me how to pull whiskey from a barrel, a skill I’ve never used since. In 2016, he was smaller than on TV, only to my shoulder, and I wondered how we shrank over time and in real life, how dehydration and wind on an island on the edge of the world could shrivel us to bone. That day, I was five deep by 11 AM, notes of vanilla and splintered oak and 35-year-old spirit inflating my lungs. Men in their fifties who looked like my dad but with noses riveted with alcohol asked us why two women in their mid-twenties bothered with a place like this.
We liked whiskey, wasn’t it obvious?
That same day, we burnt the rashers and eggs because we forgot to pick up oil and the Airbnb didn’t have it which felt cheap and wrong but also was no surprise because there was one grocer on the island and the shelves were bare of vegetables. I stood outside, on the edge of the Atlantic, charred pan in hand to air it in the November mist, blinking in the smoked white light. It was so quiet I could hear the water tripping over beached pebbles, the gasp before being pulled out to sea. It never got louder. We missed the only bus that ran every three hours and instead walked the asphalt road hemmed in by hilled emerald to Laphroaig. We tried to chip away a layer of the white paint that coated the distillery, every distillery, but it was white all the way down. We were alone except for sheep staring at us through bleary eyes and wondering
At this rate, how long are these two going to last?
That same day, we walked out on a concrete ballast balanced a quarter-mile to sea, the sun splitting clouds like god was about to drop into the water. It felt like Islay wasn’t an island but we were the Island in that moment, the wind tugging at our hair. Later, we walked between sills three stories high and watched clear liquid sluice through transparent pipes. Our guide told us that this whiskey would be ready ten years from now and we looked at each other and said we’d return in reunion to taste it. To see how it had grown up in that time.
How did those days feel like a lifetime?
That same day, we followed the single road to the top of Islay and the skies poured down on us, our only jackets fed with water, heavy as we walked down the dirt road walled by high dried grass so all we could see was sky and wind. When we arrived at Ardbeg drenched and thirsty, the guide brought us to a tasting snug filled with leather armchairs and soft gold light that backlit the decades-old bottles and gave us each a small carry away of Alligator. I saved it for months and then, when I finally opened it in my Cambridge apartment, realized it had gone off.
I learned then not to save nice things because they too age out.
The same day, we sat around a Caol Ila tasting table, like the others with its stark white buildings surrounded by aquamarine water, and a guide in her early twenties told us how to smell the liquid, noses to the tip of the scoped glass. She told us what to look for in tasting the honeyed pool and later said she’d gone to Glasgow for university but had to return to Islay after six months because the mainland was too large, too overwhelming, too loud. It all just burned at this point even though we hummed and nodded and talked about sweet dates and amber mouthfeel and we found ourselves making friends with a couple from Sweden, their first trip since their son had recovered from Leukemia.
Drinking makes you give up your deepest secrets sometimes and sometimes, make them up.
That same day – or maybe it wasn’t the same day at all, maybe all the days felt like one long day on this island untouched by time – we shared a cab with the Swedish couple and raced high above cliffed drops. We ended up at at the only bar, owned by the same woman who owned the olive oil-less Airbnb with a Canadian from England and a few of the younger locals kids, all of us drinking two-finger thirty-year-old pours for two pounds and sitting under signs that said “you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.” We got lost that night between rows of houses that looked our height but weren’t and fought about not trusting each other, the heat in the rooms overwhelming and sticky with dried whiskey.
Things mean so much one moment and so little the next.
When we woke up that morning, we left in sober light and boarded the propeller plane with a five-day hangover and thought about how it was the only place we’d drink whiskey like that in the morning and that this place was where beautiful things came from but also terrible things and all of it left us dry and spent.
Everyone leaves someday and some never come back.
Salena Casha’s work has appeared in over fifty publications in the last decade. Her most recent words can be found at Funny Pearls, trampset, FlashBack Fiction, and Bending Genres. She survives New England winters on good beer and black coffee. Follow her on twitter @salaylay_c