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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 May 2023

On the Scottish island of Islay, Malcolm Guite savours a few drams of whisky

I AM writing this in the kitchen of a farmhouse nestled in the folds of a hill on the island of Islay, looking down from a window at the blue-green waters of Loch Indaal washing on to white sands.

I’m here with a few friends to catch up on each other’s lives, to enjoy the wild remote beauty of the place, and, it goes without saying, to visit a distillery or two. There is something magical about finding that Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Bowmore and Bruichladdich, are real places on the map, places you can visit, as well as the names on bottles of the malts that you have savoured over the years. Drinking a dram in the place where it was made has a special savour, like finding the source of the river.

But I found another and unexpected benefit. Each tour ends with a tasting; and, if I say that, stepping out on to the wild Islay shore after a fine whisky-tasting, I found that my delight in and appreciation of the pure clean wind, with its little touches of salty tang, and my appreciation of the subtle gradations of colour in sea and shoreline were all enhanced and somehow more intense, you might be forgiven for thinking that I was describing a spirituous rather than a spiritual experience.

But this would not be entirely true; for a good whisky-tasting, like a wine-tasting, is a call to attention. It is an invitation to be utterly present to something that should never be consumed, as we so often consume things, absent-mindedly, almost oblivious of the good things that we are given. So, the person guiding our tasting asks us to notice an aroma and stay with it, so that that scent may give taste a little hint of what is to come, and prepare it for the feast. We are to notice colour, translucence, and viscosity, as we swirl our sample around in the glass. And then, when it comes to tasting, just a little can be a far more intense and complex experience than anything that we’d downed less consciously, less deliberately, before our visit. And, with whisky, of course, that taste of the first sip is only the beginning; for then comes a long, lovely, subtly different finish.

When you step out from such a tasting into the keen clear wind, and all the lovely island sights and sounds, how can you not afford them the same courteous attention, the same concentration? It is no wonder, then, that they become so much more intense.

Walking along the shore, imbibing great lungfuls of that glorious fresh air, I also had one of the great Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean’s songs, “Feel So Near”, running through my head — a song that might have been written for the occasion:

And we may take a glass together

The whisky makes it all so clear
It fires our dulled imaginations
And I feel so near, so near

I feel so near to the howling of the winds
I feel so near to the crashing of the waves
I feel so near to the flowers in the fields
I feel so near

While I wouldn’t go as far as A. E. Housman, who wrote that “Malt does more than Milton can, To justify God’s ways to man,” I would certainly say that there are occasions when it inspires a joy in creation, and a hearty thanksgiving.

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