My former editor insisted one day that I write a story on single malt whisky. Now I have never been one for whisky, let alone pretensions of knowing one single malt from another. Plus I was young and callow. You know how youth will have its way and make you feel like you are all-knowing. I was always ready to take on any subject, learn a bit along the way, dream of new professions as a result, but this was a task I was not equal to. I did not Like whisky. There I have said it. Have my head, you there nursing the tan liquid in your glass. But an editor shall not be denied his idea and so I trudged to a few whisky bars in Delhi, letting many a dram of single malt dribble down the throat, leaving in their wake a warm burn.
I toodled back to office after the legwork and wrote a piece. Even as I drummed the words out, I knew I was delivering drivel. My editor changed every word in the copy – he knew his whisky – and I could not fathom why he could not have undertaken it in the first place. Naturally, I did not want the byline. But as a junior correspondent there is only that much you can do.
When the story saw the light of day, the CEO and owner of the newspaper – your atypical cigar-smoking, whisky-swigging media baron – called up my editor. He was aghast. Bad story about whisky! Unpardonable stuff. But here was the silver lining. My editor called me into his cabin to let me know about the gravity of the call. Involuntarily the words left my mouth, ‘But it is your story P. The idea And the words.’
Years later I was in the land of that earthy brand of single malt, Talisker, that Robert Louis Stevenson had declared ‘the king o’ drinks’.
In the boggy landscape of Carbost where myrtle grows thick and furious, the smell of peat palpable in the air, we made our way to an almost two-century-old distillery. Adi loves his single malt and would not be denied a visit to the Talisker Distillery. So there I was, the same person who a few years ago had blanched at the taste of whisky, tasting an aged single malt and actually appreciating it. The classic 10-year-old Talisker.
If you tell me now that I was hallucinating, I might just believe you. But it tasted robust. Peppery and spicy. A few sips and I could think of it being paired with a strong meat. Not for the weak-hearted.
Maybe it was the atmosphere – the land itself had got to me. For Talisker is indelibly linked with the landscape of Skye and I was experiencing a way of life. That good ol’ London lover, who had decided for all of us that if we are tired of London we must be tired of life – yes indeed, Dr Samuel Johnson (Cuptain Cupcake shall have a cupcake ready for clever you) – had travelled to the western islands in 1773. He had made notes about the morning habit of a Scot. “A man of the Hebrides, for of the women’s diet I can give no account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whisky.” And how Johnson himself loved his dram of Talisker.
At the distillery, an islander told us stories. Of the distillery, of liquor brewed the traditional way, the peaty nature of the brew. That the dark notes of Talisker are derived from the water that flows over peat and down the summit of Cnoc nan Speireag (translated means ‘Sparrowhawk Hill’).
The warm sensation of Talisker making my toes curl, I could well believe in fairies, I will have you know. We devoured salmon baps at a nearby oyster farm, regardless of the ammoniac vapour of seafood, and sped off to chase fairies in the Waternish peninsula.
Fairies are a part of the peninsular charm of the area. There is a fairy bridge, some fairy pools and then Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the MacLeods, where a fairy queen is supposed to have left behind her flag as token of her presence in the world. Fight that. She is said to have married one of the MacLeod chiefs and one day walked out on him. I wonder, could it have been the haggis that did it?
On a more upsetting note, the otters eluded us at the coral beach near Dunvegan. A woman at the tea shop nearby had told us gleefully about them, the whiskered boys who like to float on their back in the waters there. But not a single one showed up even though we stayed hours on the beach catching the glow of the setting sun upon the long grass that climbs over the hill leading to the white crescent of the beach, the ebb and flow of crystal clear water that glinted a heartwarming shade of turquoise and the strange bleached bones of Maërl, a red coralline seaweed that gets bleached by the sun and collects on the shore.
But I will not be denied an otter. So when I met Oscar at a small farm shop in a crofting village that sits in the shadow of the mighty Cuillins, he came home with me. Now he just makes the occasional trip to Skye when he needs his diet of wild fish.