The Whiskey: Bulleit Bourbon – Aged 10 Years
The Books: Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner by John Williams
The drink and the books emerged from adjoining states – Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado. From another era, when times were less hurried, questionably rougher. A “Frontier” bourbon makes for a good pairing, if rather more refined than what was available to the characters.
I am not a huge fan of bourbon, but this I like, very much. The amber-copper in the glass, together with aromas of vanilla and spice in deft balance with the oak, offer a firm, but friendly, handshake. It promises nothing too sweet and delivers nicely. Again, a well balanced flow — of caramel, fruit, and rye pepper. The dryness reveals depth and a complex, but homely, precision. Smooth, dry, and hold the sugar. My kind of bourbon. (45.6% abv)
The man behind the company is Tom Bulleit. He gave up a law practice in 1987 to follow a long held dream, that of bringing back to life a recipe for a high rye content bourbon distilled by his great-great-grandfather in the mid 1800s. Augustus Bulleit, who kept a tavern in Louisville, Kentucky, had distilled countless small batches before he found what he was after, and today Tom Bulleit sticks to the small-batch approach, delivering to the market three versions — the standard Bulleit “Frontier” Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, and the newest product – the selected reserve Bulleit Bourbon 10.
Made with grain grown to Bulleit’s specifications, together with Kentucky limestone-filtered water, the limited release spends 10 years in charred American oak barrels. It is filled into Bulleit’s 1880s replica bottle, bearing its trademark thin, slightly off-centre label, and then packaged in an eye-catching orange replica box.
Bulleit Distilling is owned by the spirits multinational Diageo. Bulleit 10 is distilled under contract with Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Tom Bulleit is upfront about this, as he should be, considering Four Roses is one of the preeminent bourbon distillers in the U.S. Even so, he has worked hard to set Bulleit apart, to establish its distinctive reputation, based largely on its heavy rye influence, and on the pioneering story behind the founding of the company.
Butcher’s Crossing fits into the genre of the American western, though not comfortably. It’s revisionist western, western in locale and era, but hardly in sensibility. It’s a very fine book of any sort.
It is not a novel for anyone expecting the idyll of the lone prairie, but then the title would likely send that message anyway. The single-minded slaughter and skinning of thousands of buffalo, trapped in a high mountain pass, is told in overwhelming detail. As is near death from lack of water. As is survival in a ferocious winter blizzard. It is such believable detail that grips the reader, overtaking his senses, leaving him awed by the author’s descriptive powers.
It is a simple enough story. In the 1870s a young Harvard dropout, with a head full of Emerson, goes west to experience nature in its primitive, unpredictable state. He is looking for something to change his life and finds more than he bargained for. His destination is Butcher’s Crossing. It has a cheap hotel, a saloon, a “barbar” shop, hookers, bad whiskey, and not much else. There’s a big trade in buffalo hides and deals to be made. It’s the deal, and how it eventually weighs relentlessly on the four men involved, that propels the narrative.
It is the author’s first mature novel. (He wanted everyone to forget the first.) Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960 to little fanfare. John Williams would eventually go on to win the National Book Award for his novel Augustus (ah, another link to Bulleit). However, his writing remained little appreciated until the recent popularity of Stoner, the third of his four novels, a book first published in 1965.
Stoner, also largely overlooked when it first came to print, has reemerged after fifty years to become an international bestseller. It has been a huge hit in Europe, although, ironically, has still to gather much notice in the United States, where it is set. (A misreading of the title – the novel has nothing to do with drug culture – might be some of the reason, though likely not much.)
William Stoner’s is a life well-examined. He is a farm boy who goes off to college to study agriculture, only to be suddenly, and with some confusion, smitten by literature. His life turns abruptly and he goes on to spend most of it as a university professor. Literature gives direction to an otherwise wearisome existence. He has made a poor choice in marriage, he becomes increasingly estranged from his daughter, petty university politics threaten his career, a deep love affair finds no future. What has his life amounted to? Nothing that will be remembered. He has been a survivor and, with some small victories, a quiet hero. It is not how most Americans wish to see themselves. There is no cause for celebration. A likely reason as any for its failure to find a broad audience in its home country.
John Williams deserved much more. His writing is clean and thoughtful and expertly controlled. It flourishes in a way that causes truth to continuously surface. Both books (both very different books in setting and atmosphere) take the reader on journeys with characters whose time is often ill-spent and leads to heartbreak, but who are intensely human. The novels are a celebration of what literature can offer, in the way that nothing else does.
The Rum: Ron Diplomático – Reserva Exclusiva
The Book: The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
A turn in this posting from whisky to rum, bringing together two exceptional works from Venezuela. This rum has been gaining attention abroad. Alberto Barrera Tyszka, one of the country’s few writers in English translation, has been doing the same.
There is a companionship to premium rum that differs from that offered by premium whisky. Perhaps it is the controlled underlying sweetness, its unhurried, tropical good nature. Certainly this Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva has it in spades. A light, bright mahogany in the glass, it meets the nose with an inviting riff of spice, caramel, and vanilla. Pleasurable, enticing. In the mouth the flavours expand to a creamy nut-spice blend, with just the right heat to fill the mouth, the wood mixing in to make it a lingering, thoughtfully rich experience.
The roots of Diplomático rums (of which there are several bottlings) go back to 1932. Starting in the late 1950s, ownership fell to Seagram’s, then later Diageo and Pernod Ricard. In 2002, the multinationals shed their assets, in line with Venezuela’s new economic policies. Local investment gave rise to DUSA (Destilerias Unidas S.A.).
DUSA makes a variety of spirits on its 12 hectares, situated at the foot of the Andes at about 200 m above sea level, just outside the town of La Meil. The nearby fields of sugarcane benefit from a day-to-night temperature differential of more than 20˚C, which serves to concentrate the sugars in the cane. The resultant molasses and sugarcane honey from three local refineries, a constant supply of clear, pure water sourced from the forests of Terepaima National Park, and the high humidity during aging, all deliver something special to the fermentation and distillation of Diplomático.
Its flagship Reserva Exclusiva was launched in 2004 and blends 20% light, column-distilled rum with 80% dark, pot-distilled rum, aged up to 12 years in small oak, ex-bourbon casks. Master Blender Tito Cordero hand selects a few more barrels to bring the flavour profile up an additional notch or two.
The gentlemen whose postage-stamp image graces the green, frosted bottle is Don Juancho Nieto Meléndez, a 19th century rum aficionado who was constantly seeking ways to improve the quality of Venezuelan rum. Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva is produced in his honour, and also pays tribute to the maturing process of rum.
Tyszka’s novel is all about aging, and its human consequence. For anyone surrounded by illness (and we all are at some point) it is a one-time distant bell that’s become steadily, painfully louder.
Dr Andrés Miranda’s father has terminal cancer, and it falls on the son to be the one to relate the news. Of course, as a medical doctor, he has had years of experience of presenting such news to patients. Yet when it comes to his own father the situation falls aways from him. He just can’t bring himself to do it, despite his father’s repeated demands for honesty.
It is a simple scenario, and a profound reality, one that reveals the complexities of the father-son relationship (the mother has died many years earlier). In straightforward, emotionally-honest prose, beautiful in its simplicity, the reader is lead through a meditation on life, and death. “Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?”, a fellow doctor wonders at one point in the book. This view hangs over the story, seeming to cut through the medical jargon, though making the end no less difficult to deal with.
A parallel story, of a patient of Dr. Miranda, a hyprochondriac who bombards his office with emails demanding advice, provides relief from the central focus of the father’s decline. It is less engaging, but perhaps necessary for the emotional structure of the book.
The Sickness (La Enfermedad, superbly translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is set in Caracas, a city of intense contrasts as I saw when I visited many years ago. We see something of the poverty, in the hills surrounding the city core, through the eyes of the father’s caregiver, Mariana.
In addition to novels, Alberto Barrera Tyska has published poetry, short stories, non-fiction (co-authoring a biography of Hugo Chávez), and works regularly as a journalist. English translation of Venezuelan writing is rare, and as the quality of Tyszka’s novel suggests, we are the poorer for it. This country, as fascinating as any in South America whose writers are more celebrated, deserves a broader international audience for its literature.
The Whisky: Black Bull – 12 year old
The Books: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen
When in Pamplona, only a robust Black Bull will do. Running free in the street, in the glass, over the taste buds, over the page. An exceptional blend of word and whisky.
It’s dark golden amber in the glass. And on the nose malty cereal, a toffee nuttiness, rich and lively. Full flavoured in the mouth, with an oily, spicy impact. Lingers warm and confident. Very soundly constructed. Viva el toro! (non-chillfiltered, no added colour)
Black Bull is said to be the first 100-proof blended whisky imported and sold in the United States. That was 1933, in the wake of the repeal of Prohibition, a prime time for a strong market move. Bottled 50% abv and at the unusually high ratio of fifty/fifty malts to grains, it quickly became a best seller. It lasted through to the 1970s, after which it fell out of production. In 2001 Duncan Taylor & Co. took over the brand and the famous image of the Highland bovine was resurrected. Black Bull presently markets a 12, 30 and 40-year-old, with (rumour has it) a 50-year-old in the offing. It reappeared on the shelves in 2007 with a good deal of muscle, stacking up several awards in a short space of time.
Duncan Taylor & Co. is one of Scotland’s largest independent bottlers of whisky. It is based in Huntly, near the Speyside whisky region of Scotland, which contributes a large percentage of the blend. The company’s whisky holdings are among the most extensive in the world, and it bottles about 200 different expressions annually. In recent years it has begun construction of its own distillery.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel, is a modernist classic. There was little prose like it before it was published, and it was much imitated after. The quintessential book of the post-WWI era, it reflected a shift in moral standards following the war, and very quickly established the author’s reputation as spokesperson for the so-called ‘lost generation’.
It is set for the most part in Paris and Pamplona, among the drifting expatriates who left America and Britain in search of more liberating societies. Life is one jolly interesting time after another, despite the lingering effects of war, at least for those with the family wealth backing them up. Jake, Robert, Lady Ashley and the others have moved away from the political, to where relationships between lovers, and between ex- and would be- lovers, seem their greatest concern. It gave readers of the 20s much to talk about.
Hemingway’s style, as it came to define his career, is straightforward and uncluttered, marked by smart, crisp dialogue. There is a rich world beneath the surface of the prose. Characters play themselves, rather than shape a story. It is a roman à clef and it would appear that the author’s friends were all clamoring to find themselves in the book.
The Pamplona scenes set the reader amid the frantic “running of the bulls” and then the death drama of the bullring. Hemingway gloried in the theatrical blood sport, and here allows it to charge the novel with an excitement beyond the various love affairs. There is a foreign, exotic quality to the book, made approachable to the American reader because it is seen through the eyes of one of their own. Life in America seemed downright mundane in comparison.
Tomorrow Pamplona is another fine novel in translation from Peirene Press, this one by Dutch author Jan Van Mersbergen. The characters are European, not outsiders in the way that Hemingway’s characters are. They drive with relative ease over several borders to get to Spain. Yet both are on the run, and are destined to come face to face with that same strain of unruly black bull.
Danny is a young boxer (as was one of Hemingway’s cast) with reason to run away. The situation he is escaping, the powerful backstory of the novel, is gradually revealed as the current story builds. Robert, the driver who picks him up on the outskirts of Amsterdam, is escaping, too, if doing so from something less explosive. It’s his yearly flight from marriage and kids, and a suffocating job.
They make an odd pair, with seemingly little in common, but their relationship coalesces into something workable. Interest in the book stems from the universal theme of whether to “run or fight” (as the author puts it), yet an equal draw is the contrast of personalities. The same could be said of Hemingway’s book.
The two books merge in Pamplona, and at that point comparison between them is inevitable. The fact that Jan Van Mersbergen enters territory so much associated with Hemingway is risky business. But his book stands on its considerable merits alone. The Pamplona section of the book is literary homage perhaps, but homage with its own story to tell.
Black bulls seem to bring out the best in writers.
The Whisky: Distillerie Warenghem – Armorik Double Maturation
The Books: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
A double-matured single malt from France. Like the books, matured in two languages. Translates to very fine experience.
This Armorik is bright, light copper in the glass. Spirited cereal on the nose, with a current of caramelized apple. A creamed, woodsy profile, spicy and dry. Peppery finish, tempered by a little salt sea air. Assertive, but very likeable. (46% abv, unchillfiltered)
Distillerie Warenghem has a history of making fruit liquors that goes back more than a century. For the past thirty years, it has turned its attention to the making of whisky. It’s one of several distilleries in Brittany, the most notable whisky-producing region of France. Warenghem is said to deliver the most Scotch-like single malt in the country, perhaps a nod to the region’s Celtic roots. Whatever the reason, it an expertly-made dram, with a reputation that now extends well beyond France.
At the helm are Gilles Leizour and son-in-law David Roussier, two men proud of their distillery being the first in France to produce a single malt. Distillerie Warenghem is situated in the Breton town of Lannion, a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. A borehole on the property, running over 100 metres underground, extracts granite-filtered, spring water for use with local wheat and barley.
Distillation is in two modified Charentais-type copper stills. The spirit is first matured for five years in oak harvested from Brittany’s Armorique Regional Nature Park. Breton oak is less porous than regular French oak and provides a slower, more subtle maturation. Another two years of maturation takes place in Spanish Oloroso sherry barrels.
Whisky production at Distillerie Warenghem has made award-winning strides in a few short decades, with the output of its single malt and blended products now reaching a quarter million bottles annually. An encouraging statistic in the country that consumes more whisky per capita than any other in the world.
Just recently I discovered the brilliant books of Peirene Press. I had noticed titles with distinctive, similarly minimalist cover designs showing up each year on the shortlists of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I purchased one, that led to another, then two more, and now I eagerly anticipate the arrival of still more titles from this London-based publisher of European novellas in their first English translations. Often less than 150 pages long, perfect for reading in one sitting, writing of exceptional quality, and by authors completely new to me. Literally, reading heaven.
These are three titles, all by female authors, all notably well translated, all particular favourites.
German-born Birgit Vanderbeke wrote The Mussel Feast in 1989, a few months prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A mother, teenaged daughter, and son wait at the dinner table for the arrival home of the head of the household. In the centre of the table, growing cold, is a large pot of cooked mussels. A wait of minutes builds to hours, and all the while a portrait of the absent, tyrannical father emerges.
Life with this man is related by the daughter, in hermetic increments. Through wonderfully nuanced prose we learn how each of the three at the table copes with the father’s skewed expectations. It is quietly intense, a riveting study in character, with political overtones that in the reunified Germany made it an instant, hotly-debated success.
Amazingly, it was Vanderbeke’s first novel. Born in what was then East Germany, she moved to the West as a young child, growing up in Frankfurt. As a beginning novelist, she lived with her husband and children in Berlin, but in 1993 moved permanently to southern France.
France is also home to Véronique Olmi. Beside the Sea is a hypnotic story of a mother and her two young boys, a story that slowly draws the reader into the minutia of their family life, leading to the point when there is no turning away from its disturbing, stunning conclusion.
The mother’s life is plainly lived, defined by poverty and mental distress. She dearly loves her sons, and wants for them what she cannot give. Neither can she imagine them being absorbed into the world outside her own.
From the moment the three board a bus in the opening lines, the reader realizes the trip to the seaside will go badly. The 105 pages it takes to find out just how badly allows us into the mother’s mind, sharing its moments of anguish and raw tenderness, knowing it is a mind we cannot fully comprehend. It’s a brave, unforgettable piece of writing.
Despite its success in Europe, it took ten years before the book appeared in English. Peirene Press, committed to publishing strong, innovative fiction in translation, chose it as its very first publication.
Its eighth publication is by Danish author Pia Juul. Despite the title and a setting at the edge of a fjord, the reader should not expect anything that would rest easy in a stack of recent Nordic murder mysteries. There is for certain a murder (page three) and finding out just who did it remains the great unanswered question. But rather than dwell on who might have pulled the trigger, the reader’s attention is taken up with figuring out just what Bess (the narrator and partner of the dead man) is all about.
Why is she not grieving more? What exactly was her relationship with the murdered man? Why, ten years earlier, did she abandon her husband and young daughter? All absorbing questions. Yet there are no straight-forward answers, no mysteries completely solved by the last page.
The Murder of Halland is a fresh take on crime fiction. Juul has played a genre-bending literary game, for those who like their murders, and narrators, particularly perplexing.
Three fine short novels, leading to more Peirene, please.
The Whisky: Forty Creek – Confederation Oak Reserve
The Book: The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
I know, there is something excessively patriotic about combining an outstanding Canadian whisky and a book by Canada’s Nobel Prize-winning writer. With the two rooted in history and in Ontario communities within 200 kilometres of each other, how could I not.
Light amber gold in the glass. On the nose, a warm revelation of vanilla, caramel, rye-soaked raisins. Pleasant layer of spicy oak. In the mouth a light tannic creaminess, a pepper-ish performance piece of several undercurrents — oaken toffee, smoky fruits, tempered spice. Lingers long, dry and full of promise for refreshing the glass.
In recent years a few innovative Canadian distillers have been turning heads with their small batch production. John Hall and his Kittling Ridge Distillery in Ontario lead the way. With the launch of Forty Creek whisky in 1992 Hall received kudos world-wide for his whisky-making. It was the first new, successful Canadian Whisky brand in over 70 years and the standard bottling of Forty Creek soon became the fastest growing whisky in North America.
As the distillery grew, Hall turned to a series of innovative bottlings. Having worked all his life in wine and whisky production, Hall knew very well the characteristics imparted by oak, whether European or American, the latter being the oak traditionally used in the Canadian whisky industry. But he had always wondered how whisky would taste if aged in Canadian oak, a slower-growing, denser wood than its American counterpart.
Speculation gave way to reality with the discovery of a stand of massive oak trees along the Grand River, just 65 km from the distillery, trees that were soon due for harvesting. The giants were roughly 150 years old, meaning they must have been planted near the time of the birth of Canada as a country. Hall purchased the trees, left the logs for a time to dry, then, with no cooperages in Canada, had them shipped to the U.S. for production into barrels. Following custom charring, back they came, thirsty for Canadian whisky.
In a process he calls “meritage”, Hall aged the rye, corn, and barley distillates separately before bringing all three together for a final maturation in the Canadian oak. The result is a unique, award-winning, ultra-Canadian blend. Confederation Oak Reserve — a touch of Canadian history blended with it.
The View from Castle Rock is an unlikely, perhaps inspired, combination — part memoir, part fiction, part documentation. It is an attempt to provide a book structure that brings together investigation into the author’s own family history with stories she considered too personal for previous collections. In the hands of a lesser writer it might prove tedious business. Although there are occasions when the narrative does fail the reader (yes, the spelling of whisky with an “e”!), these lapses are few, and are quickly put aside, for this may be the closest we will ever get to a Munro autobiography.
The starting point is a series of five stories about the Laidlaw branch of her family, Scots who boarded a ship for Canada in the early 19th century. The stories shift in and out of historical reality, drawing on letters and other accounts Munro has uncovered, but adding imagined elements when the research material proves inadequate. They are personal, occasional longish, pieces, but never without interest. Readers familiar with Munro’s stories will discover elements previously mined and reshaped. The stories move ahead chronologically, to the time of her father and his venture into fur farming, titled simply enough, “Working for a Living”. It’s an affecting memory of a time and place, and of a man, affecting because it speaks so thoughtfully through the heart of a daughter.
The second half of the book, titled “Home”, is made up of six stories, told in the manner we have come to expect of Munro. A maturing girl is at the centre of most of them, a girl at odds with the conservative nature of her family and her rural Ontario hometown. It is well-travelled Munro territory, but with less of a distance between author and subject matter. Munro’s modest yet masterly approach to fiction, reaching honestly and deeply without the circus tricks of much of contemporary writing, is here exemplified by such pieces as “Hired Girl” in which the 17-year-old narrator travels far from home to spend a summer working for a wealthy family vacationing on an island. A reader never comes away from a Munro story without having shared in the tidal flow of experience, coming away richer for it. These stories are no exception.
In The View from Castle Rock Munro, as she says in the epilogue, has been “rifling around in the past”, making connections to people and events, to fragments of stories, dates and memories. They are not the reader’s own, but in the hands of such a fine writer, they could be.
The Whisky: Langatun - Old Bear
The Books: The Tanners, Selected Stories, and Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
A little-known Swiss whisky in need of an underappreciated Swiss writer. Both in need of celebration.
The colour is dark amber, and for good reason, having been matured in Chateauneuf du Pape casks. The nose holds notes of wine and malt and spice, a nice touch of peat. Creamy in the mouth, fine balance of wood and smoke. Delectable. This Old Bear will never need to hibernate. (40% abv)
I found this whisky at a wine and spirits shop in Basel. Langatun Distillery has only been in production since 2007. At this point at least, you would be hard pressed to encounter its products outside Switzerland and Germany. A shame, for its Old Bear is a very appealing whisky. Well-made and distinctive. And it has a good story behind it.
It begins in 1857 with the return of Jakob Baumberger to the family farm after graduation as a brewmaster in Munich. He immediately founded a distillery, and then, three years later, acquired a brewery in the nearby village of Langenthal (known as Langatun in early written records). He viewed the quality of the water as a key ingredient in the quality of the spirit produced and was fortunate enough to acquire the rights to an exceptional spring above the village.
That water today feeds the newly created distillery of his great grandson, Hans Baumberger, and his partners. The hand-crafted Langatun whisky uses local barley, and, in the case of Old Bear, lightly smokes it using local peat. Unlike most European whiskies, it is triple distilled, in copper pot stills. Baumberger works with one eye on the future, with the intention of doubling production. As it stands, in any given year only half of the whisky distilled is sold.The other half is held in the barrels, with the intention of bottling whisky of longer maturation, an older Old Bear.
Swiss writer Robert Walser produced modernist prose that stands with the best written in the early 20th century. He was a favourite of Kafka and Hesse, and in recent times he has been celebrated by W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, and a few others. Yet his books remain relatively little known.
Sebald wrote an extensive essay on Walser, which has been translated and reprinted to serve as an introduction for the recent English language translation of The Tanners. It begins with this observation: “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether.” Walser’s early writing met with acclaim in pre-war Germany, but when the face of the country changed, the author retreated to his homeland and into a minimal existence. He owned almost nothing (Sebald contends not even copies of his own books) and as he grew older maintained relations with practically no one. His final works were written in minute shorthand of his own invention, on borrowed paper. From 1929 he lived in an asylum, and for the last two decades of his life gave up writing altogether. He is quoted as saying “I am not here to write, I’m here to be mad.” He died in 1956 at the age of 78 while out on a solitary country walk through the winter snow.
One of his most admired pieces is titled “The Walk”. A gentleman sets out on an extended sojourn through a provincial Swiss town and eventually into the countryside, encountering along the way individuals for whom he demonstrates an enthusiastic if distant rapport. In his observations, more revealing of himself than his subjects, are captured the gentle ironies of existence, in prose that is at once rhythmic and arresting, at times whimsical, often delightfully wise.
The Walk is the longest piece in Selected Stories. In most senses these are not stories at all, more often reflections, vignettes which drift into the reader’s mind and out again, but with the quick realization he’ll want to return to them. Few writers hold up to rereading as well as Walser.
He is at his best in short prose. Of his several novels, the earliest is The Tanners, a thinly re-imagined account of the author’s own early adulthood. Simon wanders aimlessly through life in a search for work that will hold his interest longer than the few days it takes to get used to it. A central scene is again a long walk. Walser excels when the attempt at plot falls away, when he lets the prose take what path it will.
Jakob von Gunten is generally considered the best of his novels. Here a young man enters a training school for servants, the Institute Benjamenta, run by an eccentric brother and sister, where, as the opening words announce, “one learns very little”, where students “shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.” The book was not destined for universal readership. But, again, Walser’s prose makes the uneventful rich, slyly invigorates the commonplace, leaving the reader smiling at the cleverness of it all. He deserves to be much better known.
“Bare reality: what a crook it sometimes is. It steals things, and afterwards it has no idea what to do with them. It just seems to spread sorrow for fun. Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it’s very valuable, very. It shapes one.”
The Whisky: Bruichladdich – Octomore 5.1
The Books: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
If you were to judge a whisky by its cover, it’s a dark dram indeed. Black bottle, black metal tube. A match for a pair of books dense with black type, not a paragraph break to be seen.
It is billed as the peatiest whisky ever made by a major distillery. You would think it would be like wallowing in a smouldering peat bog, but no. The first hint is the colour — a pale, unfired straw. Even the nose — well smokey, but much more restrained than might be expected. It’s smoke with class, tempered with a gentle sweetness, creamy almost. It’s on the palate that the smoke hits, in a biting wave, smoke cured meats with a thin crust of sea salt. Very likeable, but needing a few drops of water to open it up, into something unique and long lasting. Five years old, and with a dark heart of gold . (59.5% abv, no added colour, non-chillfiltered)
The brooding skies of Islay speak of a distillery capable of weathering any storm. Indeed Bruichladdich has had its fair share — “family feuds, recessions, industry cartels, deception, world wars and sheer bad luck”, to quote its website. The latest was in the 1990s when it was mothballed twice, the last time for six years. In 2001 it resumed production, under new, independent ownership, and since then has gone from strength to strength. Through the decade it released a broad variety of bottlings, settling into three main expressions — the standard, unpeated Bruichladdich, the moderately peated Port Charlotte, and the ‘off the scale’ peated Octomore.
Today it employs 50 people (making it the biggest private employer on Islay), in addition to holding contracts with many more, including the farmers who grow its barley. It stands as “the only major distiller to distil, mature, and bottle all its whisky on Islay”. Something Bruichladdich is justifiably proud of. “Proudly non-conformist” as it likes to say.
It seems to have been that way in the very beginning. Founded by brothers John, Robert, and William Harvey in 1881, Bruichladdich was a bold move beyond the commonplace farm distilleries. Using concrete, a newly invented construction material, it was the island’s first stand-alone, sole-purpose distillery. Most of the machinery used to first set the distillery in motion is still in use today.
It is an old but ship-shape body, sporting a fresh new mind. Bruichladdich prides itself on experimentation. “What if,” venerable master distiller Jim McEwan and his fellow workers pondered some years ago, “what if we distilled the most heavily-peated barley humanly possible, in the tall, narrow-necked Bruichladdich stills?” The result is Octomore. At 169 parts per million (ppm) phenoic, this version is just that, and a very long way from Laphroaig and Ardbeg, each running on either side of 50 ppm.
And what they ended up with was a whisky that defied convention, and conventional thinking about what could be achieved in a young whisky. Being the non-conformist has paid off handsomely.
That Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald is non-conformist in its approach to fiction is clear from the opening pages. Sebald himself called it “documentary fiction”. It blends fiction with fact, all the time moving about in a fashion where storyline is secondary to the melancholic presence of a life that can’t be truly understood, where history bears a weight that sinks the normal narrative. The use of grey, often unfocused, photographs throughout the text adds to the impression that this is the shadow of a story, rather than a story in the conventional sense.
The shadow is that of Austerlitz, a Czech Jew sent out of his homeland as a very young child, to escape the terror of Nazi occupation, something which his parents are not able to do. The Kindertransport leads the boy to Wales, where he is adopted by an elderly, religious eccentric, and his sickly spouse. As a grown man Austerlitz begins to learn about his past. The book follows his scattered treks to find out more, framed in the context of his academic study of European architecture.
It is hardly as straightforward as it might sound. Sebald deals us a new kind of reading experience. The book transposes the reader’s state of mind, allows him to feel the incomprehensible in Nazi history rather than fruitlessly attempt to truly understand the human consequences of it. The story is opaque, and being led through it in the way that Sebald writes causes a profound shift in how we experience a life overwhelmed by history. I have not read another book like it.
Yet I think of Satantango by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai as a parallel experience. Each of Satantango’s dozen chapters consists of a single paragraph. Each heightens the experience of fiction to something beyond story.
The story itself is simple enough. A modern day messiah leads a destitute few peasants away from their failed lives, only to find nothing is ever as one hopes, there is not a better world to be had. The setting is a sodden, decaying hamlet in Hungary, likely near the end of the Communist era, although that is not entirely clear. The rain is relentless, but so is the burden of existence, to the point that at times it is morbidly amusing. One escape is the satantango of the title, a late night dance in a spider-ridden bar where drunken neighbours ogle other drunken neighbours, skirt a grim euphoria, to and fro in damp wool and sweat, like a macabre performance piece. The dance mirrors the book as a whole. It is a central scene in the movie made from the book (see the trailer) which runs a challenging seven and a half hours! That’s a lot of Hungarian angst.
Like Sebald’s, Krasznahorkai’s novel (written in 1985, but translated to English almost three decades later) defies the conventions of fiction. There is an out-of-narrative experience that descends over the reader the further he reaches into the book. It is not a simple exercise, but is a deeply memorable one.
Octomore. Austerlitz. Satantango. Rich shades of dark.