Islay is a place of gorse and green. Bumps and ripples of land are neatly carpeted, and along the island’s sandy edge, flocks of sheep and clumps of cattle come very close to the sea. At the Bowmore distillery, the tour guide lets us climb up to the kiln used for drying barley and pad around on the beach-like dunes of grain. One ingenious man flops down to wave his arms and make a barley angel, something everyone has to try.
One of my favorite places on the island is the pub on the ground floor of my hotel, the Port Charlotte. The menu is full of filling classics like bangers and mash and savory pies. There always seems to be someone playing music in here, which leads to patrons singing, which leads to sort-of-Celtic dancing, which leads to stumbling into bar stools as the evening wears on.
The Ardbeg distillery in the village of Port Ellen is almost as lively. There’s a SPECIAL — TODAY ONLY! at the on-site café: “The Islay Lamb and Haggis Burger.” It’s topped with Cheddar and, according to the sign, with an “Ardbeg-infused 10-year-old special sauce.”
Just as I’m thinking of ordering one, my tour group is joined by Hamish Torrie, one of the company’s top managers. He’s sporting a pair of pea-green tartan slacks and is eager to tell us about a test tube full of Ardbeg that at this very moment, is being “aged in space.”
“It’s an experiment, you see,” explains Torrie. “A bit of whisky, a sliver of barrel-wood. Shot that off to the International Space Station.”
But why? inserts a visitor.
“Science!” says Torrie. “We wanted to see how Ardbeg ages in zero gravity.”
What will happen? interrupts someone else.
“To be honest,” says Torrie. “We have absolutely no idea.”
I’m down to my trip’s last dregs. One more tasting to do — at Lagavulin — and it is a good one. Maybe it is the coziness of carpet, the plates of marmalade and jam, a pre-drink bite of a scone. But the whiskies here turn out to be my favorites of all, including a 16-year-old single-malt that seems a perfect blend of Irish easiness and Scottish strength of character: something distinctive in the nose and, slowly, sunset-to-gloaming, sliding down.
As we tourists complete our work with rows of glasses, we’re told to blurt out impressions of what is on the tongue.
“Berries!” says a man.
“I rather think it’s raisins,” corrects his friend.
“Some salt and pepper.”
“Caramel or toffee.” “Biscuits!” “Biscuits and tea!”
I’d like to shout my own impressions, but it would not go well. I realize that my tastes are strange.
They’re mixed up with the names of coopers. With a mill wheel. With not quite seeing the puffins.