James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Whisky in the UK’s Most Remote Pub

Whisky in the UK’s Most Remote Pub

Whisky on Knoydart

Mountain climbing as a pursuit appeals primarily to the very cautious and the very stupid, or ideally some imprecise combination of the two. We buy special pants, shirts, boots, and coats, and use it to climb into snowstorms and across fell lands, into places where if we were to fall and break a limb no one would find us for days. Whatever we might ascend to see, we mostly spend our time looking at the mountain itself. And we willingly do it over and over again.

This is why, in early May, I am climbing Ladhar Bheinn on Knoydart, a Scottish peninsula with no in-roads, covered by a network of slumping dirt paths and with only a single town, Inverie, boasting the remotest pub in the UK. Today I scramble about a thousand feet straight up the side of the peak, rain coming on, turning the air purple, the wind moving through it like a wave in the ocean. When I reach the ridge I get blown near-backward by this wind, which flares in my poncho like a sail.

The mountain itself is rounded in the way of most Highland peaks, a jumble of sloping curves in the vast columnar basalt, and the glacial valleys the Scots call glens cup the ridge on three sides. I hike up the cornice and horseshoe around an arête, two thousand sheer feet on either side, and then just keep walking. Around hour four, realizing how outmatched I am but too far along to turn back, I put half my mind to watching the path while the other half plays bits of songs, runs through Van Damme movie titles, goes over chunks of Mike Birbiglia comedy routines. My feet crunch through snow and my socks get wet, and I huddle down into a ball when the wind almost throws me off the ridge. Whenever I look back the mountain wall climbs into cloud and falls down to an unseen glen and the whole thing terrifies me.

It is probably while eating a rock-hard granola bar at about hour seven that I make myself a deal: I finish this hike, and I can order a drink and dinner, too, to hell with the price. So after eleven hours I climb the final summit and essentially fall down the Inverie side of the mountain, startling a lone buck in the process. I stamp into The Old Forge, order a whiskey and a bowl of soup and a vegetable pizza and without thought inhale all of them, one after another. I’m shivering and my feet are beat to shit and every piece of clothing I’m wearing is soaked but I’m here and I’m alive and when I take a drink I shoot it down, Talisker fire reaching through my limbs like electricity, a toast to all us cautious idiots and the stupid decisions we without hesitation make, and remake, again and again.

Sláinte.

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