The Water of Life

“What would Ron Swanson do?” I asked myself, as I stared at the amber bottle of Lagavulin 16-year-old single malt Scotch Whisky sitting on the table before me. I had taken the bottle directly from the shelf of the Lagavulin distillery store while on a trip to Islay, the Scottish isle famous for its whisky. I only recently discovered that I enjoy whisky, during a tasting on my first trip to Scotland. Prior to that, my experience with whisky was limited to Jack and Cokes consumed on crowded dance floors, resulting in hangovers and vows to never drink whisky again. In fact, I had avoided whisky altogether since college. But, inspired by my newfound appreciation, I began exploring the whisky aisle of my local liquor store. I learned that Scottish whisky is my preference, and so when planning a return trip to Scotland I decided to sign up for a four day tour of Islay from Edinburgh. The first time I went to Scotland was to go on an Outlander tour. But this time, I would be following in the footsteps of Ron Swanson and his iconic journey to Lagavulin on an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Back home, I now cradled the delicate bottle in my hand, debating whether to break the seal and pour a dram for myself, or continue to save it for a special occasion. While I had visited seven distilleries over the course of the Islay tour, I only purchased one bottle of whisky, this diminutive seven-ounce treasure that could neatly fit into my carry-on. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to buy a bottle at all, thinking that I was just there for the experience. After the tour, I would be spending the following week in Edinburgh, where I knew I would be buying souvenirs. I needed to consider how much extra space I had in my small suitcase. But as my new friends and I walked towards Lagavulin, the penultimate distillery on our tour of Islay, I knew I would be purchasing a bottle.

Our tour began that day at Ardbeg Distillery, where we had the most comprehensive and enjoyable distillery tour of the trip, followed by lunch at the distillery’s restaurant. Then our Islay tour guide presented us with a choice. We could either go with him to visit a castle or walk down the road on our own to Lagavulin, where we would be unable to get a tour but could enjoy a tasting. Joyfully inebriated from my experience at Ardbeg, I hesitated, wondering if the castle would be the more responsible choice. “What are you doing?” my new friends asked me. “Of course, you’re coming with us to Lagavulin.” We said goodbye to the rest of group and later waved as they drove past us in the van, heading east. We were going west.

Feeling nostalgic for an experience that was so recent yet already felt long ago, I broke the seal on the bottle and poured some whisky into my glass. No need to wait for the perfect moment, I reasoned. Enjoy it now. But inhaling a whiff of the whisky’s peaty aroma was like a slap in the face, reorienting me to my present surroundings. The whisky suddenly seemed out of place in my current latitude. Why had I opened the bottle? I had become caught up in the memory of my walk from Ardbeg to Lagavulin. It started raining as soon we left Ardbeg. As our small group of hooded travelers continued along the path, unsure of how far we had to go, I thought about Ron Swanson and his journey to Lagavulin, starting on a train from London, then on a boat, then on foot. It therefore seemed only appropriate that we would also be making a pilgrimage, even if ours only lasted twenty minutes.


But still, just to get to Islay, we had to take a two-hour ferry over choppy waters. Not all of us survived the nausea. On the ferry, we were still strangers. But now, two days later, we were an unexpected group of five new friends. Five wet, chilly, and, walking into Lagavulin, moderately sober friends. We each ordered a tasting flight. The intensity of the peat warmed my body and delighted my senses. Huddled around our small table, listening to the rain outside yet oblivious to the chatter of others, I couldn’t imagine enjoying anything else as much as the whisky I was currently sipping.

But now, back home, the peatiness was too much. Why had I purchased this bottle? What was I thinking? Even though it was November, it still felt too warm outside. There was no rain, no friends, no feeling that I had earned my dram through physical exertion. I finished my drink, of course, and put the bottle away. Would I ever drink this whisky again? Should I have just enjoyed it back in Scotland? I had considered it many times during my week in Edinburgh following the tour of Islay. It was my third trip to Scotland, and I wanted a full week to explore the neighborhoods of Edinburgh, as well as museums I had missed on previous visits. The October weather was nippy, and after days spent walking outside and frequently getting caught in the rain, the temptation to open my bottle of Lagavulin upon returning to my room each night was strong. I could always buy another one before leaving, I considered. But ultimately, I decided the bottle was too special to open. I would save it for that moment when I needed to remember Scotland. As if I could forget.

And yet, drinking the Lagavulin for the first time back home, I had forgotten. I had forgotten the conditions under which I first tried it. I had forgotten that the peatiness makes sense when your hands are cold and the bottoms of your jeans are damp, when you are standing on a pier looking out at gray skies, gray water, and gray stones covered in the most brilliant green moss. When the clouds part and suddenly you see the mountains hidden behind them. When you turn around and observe the water gently lapping against the shore, and just beyond that, the whitewashed brick of the distillery, its name written in large black letters so that the ships know where to dock. When you drink Islay whisky under these conditions, you’re not so far off from Ron Swanson’s own experience.

What would I do with this bottle now? Drink it, regretfully? Save it forever? I put it away, deciding to buy another bottle of whisky that was better suited to my North American mid-Atlantic climate. But two weeks later, the temperature dropped. A late fall rain that came with strong wind gusts shook the last of the leaves off the trees in my yard. The next day, I went outside to rake them. After a few hours, my yard was clean. I stepped inside the house. My cheeks were cold and the bottoms of my jeans were damp from the wet leaves. I got out the bottle of Lagavulin and poured a dram. It was delicious. The conditions were right this time. I made a note that this would be my snow-shoveling reward as well, then put the bottle away, already excited about when I would get the chance to drink it again.