Arts & Culture

Life Lessons from a Llama Named Whisky

Pour one out for Whisky—and raise another to his sidekick alpaca, Cinnamon—who linked an animal-loving family from Charleston to Vermont

A black llama

Photo: Courtesy the Diegos

Whisky the llama.

He stood in a pasture overlooking Lake Champlain in one of the oldest parts of Vermont. All six and a half feet, four hundred pounds of him, a beast of brown fleece, crowned with huge ears, inky black eyes, and a distinctive, long-toothed underbite. “Whisky the llama,” my boyfriend’s mom announced, “is the leader of the barn. He checks out everyone and makes sure they’re okay.”

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Including me. I had just flown up from Charleston to meet Max’s entire family for the first time—parents Chris and Krista, brothers and their wives, grandparents, and the whole barnyard. “Have you been around farm animals much?” Krista asked me. Perhaps this was my first test. (Truthfully, I had only grown up with dogs.)

Baaaaaaas and bellows suddenly drowned out our conversation. In the nineteenth-century post-and-beam barn (heaven!), a Charlotte’s Web scene unfolded—light streamed through the doors on sheep, goats, and alpacas. The animals bleated and then retreated. “They think anyone new might be the vet,” Krista explained. 

photo: Courtesy the Diegos
Wiggly Goat Farm in Vermont.

Whisky the regal llama entered after he’d secured the barn perimeter. He cast his eyes to me and then Krista. “It’s okay, Whisky, she’s with us.” He stood stoic, calm and assured, granting—I hoped—his quiet approval. The other animals hushed and returned to their tasks. Hannah the ewe munched straw with her sheep sisters Phoebe and Freya. Goat brothers Art, Pumpkin, and Mac opened their tiny lips into a sideways smirk and went back to chewing.

A copper-colored alpaca tagged alongside Whisky, in the shadow of his enormous chin, taking two steps for each of the llama’s giant gaits. “And this is Cinnamon, Whisky’s best friend,” Krista said. “They’re a bonded pair. Cinnamon is older and he basically raised Whisky from a tiny, leggy little thing. Whisky doesn’t know he’s bigger than Cinnamon now, and Cinnamon doesn’t know he’s an alpaca, not a llama.” Cinnamon and Whisky. Just like a shot of Fireball.

photo: courtesy of the diegos
Chris and Krista Diego lead Whisky and Cinnamon, with sheep in tow.

That first trip, I learned two lessons from Whisky:

Leadership can be quiet.

Celebrate friendship, even if your best friends are a little different than you.

On each visit to Vermont, I got to know the family better. I leaned into my comfort zone of asking questions, and I learned a lot more about llamas. They’re sacred animals in South America, beloved for their gentleness and pack-carrying abilities (they helped the Incas build Machu Picchu!). The community of llama folks in New England is tight-knit, and Krista was always learning about what offspring were going where, and where the best and nearest large animal vets were. It’s a myth that llamas spit regularly—it’s a last resort when they’re feeling threatened. They don’t like to be touched, and an outstretched hand looks like a claw to them. They might bump noses or sniff another llama or alpaca they know, though. Llamas protect the herd—goats and sheep included—by scaring off pretty much any predator with their sheer size and have been known to run straight at a fox or coyote. Krista had watched some of her llamas lay across the threshold of the barn door when new sheep or goats were born inside. Llamas also stomp snakes, and Whisky has stomped frogs he thought were threats.

I also learned that Whisky was kind of famous. They named him after Scotch Whisky, spelled without an e. When Max’s family had managed a historic grand hotel in New Hampshire, Krista took care of a whole barn full of animals there, and Whisky was a guest favorite. A beautiful portrait of him even landed in Yankee magazine. Krista walked him with a lead to greet visitors at the hotel’s front porch. “Please don’t pet him,” she’d say. “He’s gentle and calm, but llamas love their space.” Now that the family had moved to Vermont, Whisky had become something of a local mascot for Krista’s Wiggly Goat Farm fiber and soap business, and cyclists and drivers often slowed to gawk at his majestic stature.

photo: Courtesy the Diegos
Whisky stands in the pasture overlooking Lake Champlain.

On one of my visits to Vermont, I watched Max’s family introduce their new border collie puppy, Maeve, to Whisky. Sniff test, gentle nod. Approved. On another, when Krista inherited a flock of chickens from a neighbor, she held one up, Simba-style, to Whisky, who seemed to give his blessing—he would not stomp the chickens as they clucked around the pasture.

photo: Courtesy the Diegos
Whisky gives new chickens the sniff test.

Next lessons:

It’s okay to be a little suspicious at first.

Address problems head-on.

But when you find someone you trust, expand your circle.

While shucking oysters around the firepit one winter day in Charleston, Max asked me to marry him. Through salty tears, right then and there we started scheming about a small family wedding in Vermont—with the entire family’s permission, four-leggeds included, of course.

photo: Courtesy the Diegos
Max Diego carries the author’s bridal arrangement.

Max, who is a florist in Charleston, flew some flowers up North and foraged for greenery on the farm. In one of my favorite pictures of that happy August day, he carries my bridal arrangement past the barn door, where animals who have known him since he was a teenager stood watch. Sheep Sweetpea and Finn, Beca the alpaca, and Whisky the llama watch the flowers in Max’s hand, gazing with either encouragement or straight curiosity, Whisky’s enormous underbite stealing the show. (Whisky’s second time in print: A shoutout to that moment in G&G’s bourbon issue editor’s letter.)

photo: Courtesy the Diegos
Whisky, Max, CJ, and Cinnamon Diego.

Lessons six and seven:

Stay curious.

Let the little things bring you joy.

This past winter, Whisky started losing weight. This spring, he didn’t want to eat. My in-laws tried different foods. The vet checked his teeth and ordered supplements. When he tried to eat mud, the vet ran more tests. Whisky was in kidney failure, and he didn’t have long.

And then one afternoon Whisky laid down in the pasture and didn’t have the strength to stand back up. Cinnamon nudged him and pulled at his ear, and my father-in-law had to help lift him. Whisky was declining rapidly, his body no longer processing food, and the most humane thing was to let him go. Cinnamon stood by his friend’s side until the vet’s arrival spooked him back to the barn.

After the vet pulled out of the driveway, Chris used the tractor to move Whisky’s body, gently laying him deep in the ground alongside the resting places of his llama half-brother Moose, and an alpaca named Nutmeg. The plot overlooks Lake Champlain, not far from the road where cyclists stop and take in the sight, along the edge of the pasture where the pumpkins grow.

Cinnamon has spent the last few days looking in every part of the barn and pasture for his best friend. It’s all still fresh. Even still, the tight-knit llama mama network has been working its magic. Krista heard about two young llamas who need a new home. That bonded pair is on their way now to a certain little farm in Vermont, and they have some big, padded footsteps to follow in. Hopefully, they’ll have a bit of grace with an alpaca who thinks he’s a llama. 

We know that the other animals, including Cinnamon in his own time, will teach their new barn mates some of the lessons Whisky taught us. His quiet leadership. His curiosity, his gentle trust. Most importantly, the reminder that all any of us really want is to feel a part of a family, whatever that might look like.