A Hiker’s Guide To (Not Quite) Drinking Whisky

MikeachimThe Everyday1 Comment

Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall

Fun fact! This post was sponsored by a well-known whisky brand. After the campaign ended, they asked me to remove the post and mentions of their brand, which made me sad because I thought they liked my writing, not the links. Ah well. Marketing. Anyway! This is my only directly sponsored post I’ve ever done. They paid me well, and it was fun to write, especially because they let me write what I wanted. Sometimes this sponsored thing isn’t so bad. Kinda.

Shivering uncontrollably, I peel my sodden socks off. Underneath are someone else’s feet: they’re the wrong colour to be mine, and when I poke them, I feel nothing. The electric kettle has just boiled, so I unplug it and curl my feet around it. No feeling at all…

But after a few seconds of kettle-meets-Mike, there’s a faint tingle and that’s when I realise this is a stupid idea. I know what happens next – my feet swelling up, turning molten with pain so they’re useless – and I can’t allow that to happen, not yet. Every part of me is cold, but I need to warm up the right way or I’ll stop being able to function as a hiker, even before I head out of this icy hotel room. I need to get back onto the hillside I’ve just left to finish my walk for the day. There’s a right way. This isn’t it.

I stuff a few items into my jacket pockets – including the silver, whisky-filled hip flask I got for Christmas. That’d feel really warming. I’d feel like I was warming right up if I glugged that back.

But I’d totally miss the point. Glugging isn’t what whisky is for.

whitby in winter

If you’re really cold and you have something alcoholic nearby, it would be best to avoid that temptation. That “warming glow” is your blood vessels dilating near the surface of your skin, pumping heat outwards from the core of your body. A swig of the good stuff may feel like it’s burning a hot path into the very centre of your being, but it’s actually accelerating the rate your body cools down – with potentially dangerous consequences. Furthermore, alcohol slows down your ability to make decisions – not the greatest thing to experience in the midst of an adventure. You’re best saving that glass for a toast at the finishing line.

So here’s an interesting question: why is whisky – no “e”, also known as Scotch – so commonly associated with outdoorsy pursuits? Take a stroll through images from whisky advertising over the last 50 years, and they’re dominated by views of hillsides and cliffs, glens and burns. Well, who could blame them? It’s Scotland. If you had that landscape on your doorstep, you’d associate yourself with it every chance you get. And there’s also the fact that whisky-making has a unique connection with the place it’s made. The water imparts an extraordinary range of flavours, so distinctive that experts will be able to sip a whisky and tell you precisely where it’s from, and probably when, as well. In a fascinatingly literal way, whiskies are made of Scotland.

So, I knew that whisky was seen as the drink of the tough, intrepid outdoors-person.

I also used to hate it.

And then I became an archaeology student.

whisky in glass

Between 2002 and 2005, I spent three summers digging on the island of Westray, in northern Orkney. The site was a Viking age rural settlement with a near-unbroken line of occupation right through to the early 20th Century. We probed, we followed the successive sequence of buildings up the hill, following an old Orcadian tradition – when your house crumbles, you build a new one on the end. We dug, and then we drank (sparingly – because archaeology requires a clear head).

At first, whisky was something we drank in the evenings because it was really good value. We’d been drinking tea all day so we didn’t feel any great thirst. The pub we were in was warm and cozy, but we were mostly housed in tents, and it’s really no fun drinking beer when it drives you toiletwards at 3am, forcing you out of your comfortable sleeping bag to stumble over guy-ropes until you found a place of relief. Next day, you’d be cranky and irritable. These were all factors for nursing tiny, potent shots of whisky all evening.

But that was only at first. Our taste buds started to appreciate the subtle flavours behind every sip. We tried a range of Islay (pronounced “eye-lah”) single malts. We tried some weird and wonderful things that probably shouldn’t be legally on sale in Scotland, or indeed anywhere. We tasted Orkney’s single whisky (Highland Park) and gradually, we all found our favourites. Mine was a wonderfully rich, peaty dram called [ahem ahem cough]. At first it was like sipping bonfire smoke, until I started to appreciate what that rich flavour was made of. A good whisky is complex, and [HONK AROOGA] is like drinking the Encyclopedia Brittanica – tastebud information overload. When I went back home in 2002 I bought my own bottle. It lasted me until the following year, because I savoured it.

This is the secret to whisky’s place in the great outdoors.

You don’t even have to drink it.

Just recently, adventurer Alastair Humphreys led a team of fellow adventure-sufferers around [BLAAARGH], on behalf of [this is where the name of the whisky used to be. Sorry. It’s a nice whisky, anyway. You’d like it.].

They didn’t have terribly good weather, by the looks of it. Which is often half the fun of expeditions in the remote corners of Scotland, with the deliciously brooding atmosphere that bad weather brings. But when the skies become hostile, the rain batters down and the temperature plummets…well, you need a wee bit of a pick-me-up.

This is where you don’t exactly drink your whisky.

sycamore gap, hadrian's wall

I’m half an hour out from my hotel room, I’m clambering up a steep cliff, and the circulation is returning to my feet. It’s like someone is driving upholstery needles into them, the kind strong enough to go through leather. I’m exhausted. I’ve spent 6 hours struggling along Hadrian’s Wall, in the most savage weather I’ve been out in for years, only to get to my pub-hotel to find the heating doesn’t come on until later and consequently that showers don’t have hot water, because they’re that British. The sun is making enough of an ironic appearance that going back onto the Wall seemed a good idea half an hour ago, but now my feet are on fire and I’m cold and bloody annoyed with myself and I’m almost ready to go home.

But not quite. And that’s why I’m climbing up the side of Sycamore Gap, in search of a view – and because burning off calories is the smartest and safest way for me to heat myself up, right now.

At the top I stop, my legs wobbly and my breath whooshing in and out, and I face north, towards Scotland. Ye gods, the Romans must have been cold up here at this time of year. It’s New Year’s Eve, and saner people are in their warm kitchens getting creative with turkey leftovers, but I’m up here, doing something I’ll no doubt come to regard as “life-affirming” when I’m nice and warm back home. But right now? Actually? The sunlight streams across the land, hot enough to feel on my wind-ravaged face, and it’s all rather nice really.

I reach for my hip flask.

hip flask

Here’s how you don’t-quite-drink whisky when you’re on a walking expedition.

Unscrew the cap of your whisky receptacle, close your lips, and lift the drinking-end of the bottle against them for a single slosh. Whisky should now coat the outside of your mouth, with maybe the feeblest trickle getting inside if you’re feeling uncontrollably rakish. Drop your hand again. Put the cap on. You did good. Now – taste.

As I’ve said before, whisky is a complex spirit. If you take more than a tiny sip, you’re wasting it. If it’s fiery, you’ve taken too much. Many expert whisky drinkers water theirs down, like the Romans did with their wine, because it allows them to enjoy the flavour more. Whisky goes an enormously long way, which is why we found it so affordable in Orkney. You could sit there for an hour or more with a single drink (as long as it hadn’t been a particularly horrible day, of course. On those days, the rules changed.)

Whisky and the outdoors go together because when you’re walking for hours and hours, your senses are heightened, including your sense of taste. The contents of your water bottle may slake your thirst, but you can really taste the metal they’re encased in. Smells are similarly overwhelming. The smell of freshly brewing coffee has the power to reduce you to tears. Everything is so much more. And whisky is not exception. Your taste buds are excited enough to be able to pull apart even the most fiendishly intricate flavour – and you have hours and hours of walking in which to do it.

Just a sip. Let it linger on the tongue. And now… walk.

That’s how you do it – and that’s why it belongs in your rucksack on those long days when the road goes ever on and on, and the rain comes ever down and down, and you can’t feel your feet anymore.

Disclaimer: So, as said at the beginning, this post is waving the flag for [redacted]. I’m being compensated for writing this post, while all opinions are entirely my own, all attempts at humour that fall flat are mine alone, etc. and so on – but really, it’s all so ridiculous. I was approached to write about my favourite whisky of the last decade, in association with my favourite style of travel, and to point you towards the work of one of my favourite travel adventurers, as supported by my favourite magazine. When the e-mail arrived, I actually laughed out loud. I guess that’s all my life’s supply of serendipity, used all at once. Ah well.

Images: Mike Sowden, SkyfireXII, Jimmy McIntyre, Dávid Kótai

  • Charlie

    As always, a pleasure to read! I love a glass of Scotch, especially when it’s chilly out and I’m in a cosy pub with a roaring fire. I’m keen on Balvenie as it’s generally quite smooth. There’s a lot I don’t know about whisky so I’d love to tour Scotland and some of its distilleries. For the time being I’ll have to make do with a visit to the Penderyn distillery in January. Welsh whisky may not be quite as well-known as Scotch but it’s still pretty tasty!