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.
The Whisky: GlenDronach – Revival 15
The Book: The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories edited by Alberto Manguel (also published as The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories)
An usually heavy snowfall this Christmas. But with it came a whisky, sherry-aged and good, and a marvelous collection of Yuletide stories. O white Christmas, such pleasure do you bring me.
There is a sherried heart to this whisky that is undeniably rich and inviting. Non-chillfiltered and without added colour. A whisky shaped by an extensive period in Oloroso casks. In the glass – mahogany. On the nose – chocolate, leather, nut meat, all toned with sherry. On the palate – spice bite circling a chewy, full-flavoured (that would be sherry again) dark fruit and nut cake. Whisky to warm a frosty Christmas, to take you striding o’er the snow into the new year. (46% abv)
There is something heart-warming, almost Christmas-like, in the recent story of GlenDronach. A distillery with a rich past, steeped in tradition, lost to the vagaries of multi-national acquisition (indeed closed from 1996-2002), only to return to independent ownership in 2006, when it was bought by Billy Walker and his partners at BenRiach Distillery. With it came a renewed sense of quality, a much-widened range of bottlings, and a markedly stronger presence in the marketplace.
GlenDronach sits in rural Aberdeenshire, in the Scottish Highlands, yet on the edge of Speyside. Its history goes back to 1826, when a group of local men, led by James Allardice and supported by the laird, the Duke of Gordon, built the distillery. Its charm and character outlasted a devastating fire a dozen years later, and several changes of ownership. Some of the early buildings remain (there was a time when all the workers and their families lived on site), but the sense now is of a distillery taking the best from the past, but eager to move ahead.
As Walker told whisky writer Gavin Smith, “We have totally reinvented GlenDronach. We’ve brought in new wood management, extended the range, and made the whisky more muscular.” Although some of the production now finds itself in ex-Bourbon casks, maturation in sherry wood still dominates. As sherried whiskies go, the revived GlenDronach competes with the best of them.
Gone now is the use of coal in firing the stills (the last Scottish distillery to do so), but the visitor is still welcomed by the sight of nesting rooks, a feature of the distillery since the days their cawing warned of the approach of excise men. Some things can’t be improved on.
Alberto Manguel‘s personal library must be astounding in its range of fiction. The internationally acclaimed anthologist never fails to bring together a refreshing array of stories, a combination of established writers in English and less familiar writers in translation.
I knew better than to expect the heart-warming, sentimental fiction in which the holiday season abounds. Rather, something richer, more arresting, more memorable. My favourite is there – Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” – as wonderfully evocative as when I first discovered it. It never fails to linger well past its reading. (Its reference to whiskey only an incidental, if pleasurable, detail!)
To it I would add new favourites. “The Turkey Season” by Nobel laureate, Alice Munro. Quiet, profound insight into human relationships set in a turkey slaughter house. Who but such a gifted writer could make it work?
“The Zoo at Christmas” by Jane Gardam. A playful reshaping of the nativity scene from the animals’ point of view, using Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Oxen” as their starting point. With emphasis on the hoofstock.
Graham Greene’s classic “A Vist to Morin”, in which a young man encounters a religious writer he has long admired, only to discover the man has fallen away from his beliefs.
“The Night Before Christmas” by the little known Eastern European author, Theodore Odrach, who spent the last decade of his life in Canada. His story, set in territory occupied by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943, is as gripping as any in the anthology.
“Saint Nikolaus” by the Nicaraguan writer-politician Sergio Ramírez. A Nicaraguan émigré to Berlin takes a job playing Father Christmas, and finds himself in the home of an affluent German and his immodest, drunken wife.
As you might suspect, Christmas celebration is on the periphery of many of the stories. Yet, they all fit under what Manguel calls “the merry canopy of Christmas”, giving us pause to reflect on the myriad experiences of the season across the globe. And as Manguel says in his engaging introduction, “Every reader knows that the best stories have no ending but continue beyond the page in the reader’s own world.”
The Whisky: Teerenpeli Kaski
The Book: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Finnish whisky? For a novel set in Helsinki? Written by an Italian, the man behind Europanto, an international auxiliary language invented to allow communication between people of different countries who do not share a common language. Makes perfect sense to me.
Golden dark amber, and rising from it a warm, sherry nose. Chocolate honey, with a bare whiff of smoke. For the palate, cheering, warming notes of dried fruit and spiced sherry. Easy-going but flavourful, youthful but becoming self-assured. Pleasing Finnish. (non-chillfiltered, no added colour, 43% abv)
Teerenpeli whisky has a short history, only to 2005, with the distillery’s first release. Three years earlier, Anssi Pyysing, a restauranteur and brewery owner, imported two pot stills from Scotland and installed them in the cellar of his Restaurant Taivaanranta in Lahti. He matured the whisky in casks shipped to Finland from Speyside Cooperage. At first the production only found its way to his tables upstairs, but by 2009 it was being bottled for Finland’s state-owned liquor stores. Two years later saw it on shelves in Sweden and the UK, which is where I picked up this bottle.
This is the newest version of Teerenpeli, a turn beyond the standard 8-year-old bottling, a whisky matured in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Kaski, first released in 2012, uses sherry casks only. Both whiskies make use of top grade local barley and are lightly peated. Kaski has no age statement but is thought to have been matured for about six years.
A fine young dram it is, too. Whisky distilleries are popping up in Scandinavia and surprising the Scotland-centric whisky drinkers. Mackmyra in Sweden, which made an appearance in this blog some months back, has led the way. Good on them all. They are enriching the world of whiskies and having fun doing it.
And note the packaging. Seriously innovative.
It is no coincidence that author Diego Marani is a leading European linguist, inventor of a quirky language that has no grammatical rules and mixes together several European languages. (A joke in Europanto might begin “Zwei scozzeseman are bebiendo whisky dans een bar…”). Marani’s infatuation with language marks every page of his novel.
A sailor, beaten almost to death, has lost his memory. Discovered on a quayside in Trieste in 1943, he is led to think he is Finnish, but only because the doctor who examines him concludes he must be. After all “Sampo Karjalainen” is stitched on the sailor’s jacket.
New Finnish Grammar is a novel of language deprived of context. There is the hope that being sent to war-weary Helsinki will revive something in Sampo’s brain and trigger a return to a world he must have once known. But it turns out to be a failed hope. Despite the charismatic teacher who takes him under his wing, the nurse who falls in love with him, the encounter with a family who has lost a son with the same name, despite it all, nothing works. No reconnections made. Sampo Karjalainen remains unconvinced that Finland is where he belongs.
Diego Marani raises some profound questions. What are we without a past? Can an invented past serve as a real one? To what extent are we defined by language and culture?
Beautifully translated by Judith Landry, New Finnish Grammar has been a bestseller in Europe. To what does it owe its success? Perhaps the reverse psychology of its banal title and the grey cover of the original English edition. Perhaps the fact that Finnish is such a hellish language to learn – nouns might have 15 grammatical cases!
Very strong reviews helped. But it is my guess that it was word of mouth – in any number of languages.
The Whisky: SPRINGBANK – 15 years
The Book: WHISKY FROM SMALL GLASSES by D. A. Meyrick
A Scottish crime novel set in the region of Campbeltown with whisky in the title, penned by a former manager at Springbank Distillery, paired with Springbank’s own 15-year-old. The stars are surely aligned.
The yellow-brown colour of late autumn leaves. Sightly cloudy and flavour-rich, a touch oily, a touch smoky. Sherried nose, caramels and worn leather, fruits and dark chocolate. From strength to strength. Warming the palate with tannic spice, caramelized coconut. Lingering to the point of huge respect. (46% abv, non chill-filtered, no colour added)
Campbeltown is at the southeastern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula, not an easy place to get to even by Scottish standards. The isolated coastal town once boasted over 30 distilleries. It billed itself as the ‘whisky capital of the world’. But in the early decades of the the 20th century quality gave way to quantity. The Depression hit and so did Prohibition in the United States. The railway gave easy access to the whiskies of Speyside. By 1930 only three distilleries remained.
Springbank was one of them. Founded in 1828 by the great-great grandfather of the present owner, Hedley Wright, it has remained in the hands of successive generations of the J & A Mitchell family. Springbank is the oldest independent distillery in Scotland and prides itself on its traditional methods. If you were to visit one distillery in the country to get a feel for prime whisky-making from another era, this would be it. Springbank continues to be held in the highest regard, not just by traditionalists, but by whisky enthusiasts everywhere.
It is the only distillery in Scotland to carry out the total production process on site, and the only one to malt all its barley by traditional floor malting. Continuing from its unique two-and-a-half-times distillation and long fermentation, through to the bottling, the whisky is truly ‘handmade’. Springbank is proud to note it employs considerably more people than most distilleries its size.
Unlike other Springbank whiskies, the 15-year-old is matured solely in ex-sherry casks. It makes for a fuller, richer experience than the younger bottling. It is somewhat sweeter, with a measure of peat showing through. It is often thought of as an after-dinner drink, with or without the cigar. By all accounts a grand dram. The perfect accompaniment to a good page turner.
Whisky is mentioned by brand three times in the novel – Springbank (of course), Highland Park, and Talisker. For our central character the double dram would seem a common refuge at the end of a long day toughing it out on the crime scene. Whisky weaves unobtrusively through the story, set somewhere on the Kintyre Peninsula, a locale likely modelled on Campbeltown.
The fictional coastal village is Kinloch. Washed up on shore at Kinloch is the first of the three dead bodies that set the story in motion. It prompts the arrival of Detective Chief Inspector Jim Daley, impatient, overweight, freshly done in by an unfaithful spouse. He has been sent from Paisley to take charge, together with his pal, DS Brian Scott. The pair play off each other with a vernacular dexterity that continuously enriches the book, just one example of the author’s smack-on skills with dialogue.
Once the reader bonds with the lead characters, the story flies, as incident builds on incident, all flavoured with the banter of well-drawn characters traversing the Scottish landscapes, and its adjacent waters. In fact one of the best scenes takes place on the rough open ocean, where seasickness adds that extra measure of grimy realism to the crime scene. Throw in a boatload of Latvian drug smugglers, together with high-level police corruption and there is all the reason a reader needs to keep the pages turning.
Author D.A. Meyrick credits his co-workers at Springbank with being inspiration for some of the humorous characters that show up in the novel. Meyrick later had a stint as a Glasgow police officer, which no doubt has also served him well. When a bout of ill-health forced him to give up that job he turned to writing, a life-long interest, as a form of therapy. Whisky from Small Glasses is the result.
And a great success it has been. A follow-up novel – Death of Remembrance – is not far from publication, this time with a big name publisher in Edinburgh. A beginning writer off to a terrific start.
I’m not normally drawn to crime fiction, and I have to admit it was the title of the book that caught my eye, as did several enthusiastic reviews, propelling me into ordering the book from the UK. Now it’s the novel I’ve chosen for the next meeting of the guys at the book club. Seven of us sitting around discussing its merits, mimicking the accents, lapping into whisky-flavoured edibles, and raising some small glasses of Springbank 15-year-old. Sounds rich to me.
The Whisky: Talisker - 57˚ North
The Book: A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Something northern needed. Something that grips, without the drinker/reader always understanding why. The 57˚north latitude cuts across the Isle of Skye to Scandinavia. All good reasons to bring the dram and the drama together.
Dark amber gold. A nose of fruit and spice, smoke and chocolate. Rich, creamy sharpness in the mouth, touched by the sea. Cask strength intense. (A drop of water helps!) Smokin’ with the trademark Talisker peppery vigour. Fades eventually, but in its own good time. (57% abv, appropriately enough)
Talisker is the sole distillery on the Isle of Skye, set between Loch Harport and the open sea, a spectacular setting with the Cuillin Hills rising behind it. It’s the raw northern latitude that gives this bottling its name. 57˚ North is a 2008 addition to the Talisker line-up, from a distillery which has always been noted for its modest range of bottlings. The 10-year-old and the 18-year-old have been the standard bearers for some time. In recent years a few other releases have added to the lure, including a well-received Distiller’s Edition.
In 1880 Robert Louis Stevenson included Talisker in his trio of favourite whiskies, calling it ‘the King o’ Drinks’. By that time Talisker had already been in business for fifty years. It has survived, and often flourished, as now, though many times against the odds. A lowpoint came in 1960 when fire destroyed the distillery. Two years later it was up and running again, stout-heartedly back in the business of producing its distinctive Hebridean dram.
Just what accounts for that unique Talisker profile, that engaging peppery snap along the taste buds? The multiple springs running through the peat and heather of Skye? The supply of peated barley from Glen Ord? The long fermentation in wood? Many would point to the uncommon inverted U-shaped lyne arms of the stills, which cause most of the vapours (some say 90%) to be returned through the purifier pipe into the stills for another go-round.
Talisker 57˚ North is matured in American ex-bourbon oak, though it has no age statement. The goal is maintaining that intense, cask-strength profile, making 57˚ North a fine Talisker dram, always noteworthy, always confident in what it is. Some find it just too intense, but classy concentration is what Talisker is all about. Embrace or move on.
Karl Ove Knausgaard is all about intense. Intense with the deeply personal, intense with what would be, in the hands of a lesser writer, the mundane. No matter the turn of story, A Death in the Family is frightfully engaging.
This is Book I of a six-volume memoir/fiction that has proven a sensation in Europe, especially in Knausgaard’s native Norway, published there under the provocative Hitlerian title of Min Kamp (My Struggle).
Half a million copies have been sold in Norway alone. That in a country of only five million. The books have been so much discussed that some workplaces have declared “Knausgaard-free days”.
Norwegian publishers are not in the habit of publishing tell-all memoirs. Surprising then (or not), one in ten of Knausgaard’s countrymen are buying his books. The public outrage of some of the author’s relatives has likely boosted sales. But the reasons for its runaway success at home and abroad go much deeper. Paramount is the language. On the surface simplistic, this is courageous, penetrating writing that touches the fragility lying within us all.
The story wanders about in disorder. It shares the pages with acute observations on what life has handed the author. A boy passes out of an adolescence punctuated by rock music and persistent escape into alcohol. He is alone much of the time, on the fringes of his parents’ lives. He writes, he marries, all the while bucking his doubts about whatever path he takes. His marriage falls apart. He writes on. He is left to make sense of the scarred relationship with his father. He is left to bury him and literally clean up the sordid mess his father has left behind.
In fact much of the latter part of the book is about just that — clearing away the filth and scrubbing clean the rooms his father last inhabited. (The reader learns more about Norwegian cleaning products than he could ever predict.)
A Death in the Family hasn’t the shape of a story that should expect to gather a readership. Knausgaard himself doubted if it would even be published. But the book grips with its naked truths. Holds fast with its literary voyeurism. The awkwardness a reader might feel at learning so much about the author’s personal life is tempered by the conclusion that in its vividness it could only have been shaped by fiction. No memoirist would recall such exacting detail as Knausgaard brings to this book. The fact that it is billed as a novel turns to something of a relief.
The dram that is in my hand is not an easy-going drink. Fitting, then.
By the last page, there is enough 57˚ North left to bring along to the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir/fiction — A Man in Love. Maybe enough to save a dram for each of the four volumes yet to come.
The Whisky: Compass Box – The Spice Tree
The Books: Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Spice is key here. It defines the flavour of the whisky. It defines the food culture of Africa embedded in the novels.
Amber with a mahogany cast. Rich opening lines of oakish vanilla, sweet spice. Herbs and florals. A snare for the palate. A peppered, creamy maltiness. And spice, of course. Through to its longish end. (46% abv, non-chillfiltered)
Compass Box has been an extraordinary success story. Founded in 2000 by John Glasner, its artisanal blending of malt whisky from a few carefully chosen distilleries, produced in a range of innovative bottlings. Smartly fashioned, smarted packaged, Compass Box whiskies have quickly gathered a troupe of loyal consumers. Some might say they are too easily excited by a deft marketing hand, except that the best whisky writers are also in the queue, eager for the next offering. That would right there behind Asyla, Oak Cross, The Spice Tree, Peat Monster, Hedonism, Orangerie, Great King Street, etc, etc.
The Spice Tree has taken its own unique road to success. The first offering in 2005 quickly raised the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association. Taking a page from the wine industry, Glasner had stepped-up the maturity of the whisky by introducing free-floating oak staves into the casks. Not the thing to be doing said the SWA. Keep it up and we’ll take you to court. The Spice Tree left the market. Only to reemerge in 2009. Experimentation with heavily toasting the cask heads was found to produce a similar flavour profile. Case dismissed.
The Spice Tree brings together northern Highland single malts, the majority Clynelish. Most are 10-12 years old. Before the toasted French oak (oak sourced from the Vosges, 195-year-old, air dried and very expensive) it is treated to ex-bourbon casks , first-fill and refill American oak.
Another instance where a well-made blend can stand proudly with single malts.
The challenge was to find a whisky that would do honour to these books while at the same time reflecting their setting in some way. I think The Spice Tree works on both counts. And if innovation is a key ingredient, we have that, too.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came onto the publishing scene in 2003 and met with immediate success. Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria, where Adichie herself grew up. She tells an affecting, forceful story with delicacy and the touch of a mature writer, if yet one to come to the fullness of her talents. It is charged with memorable characters. Very early on we learn that the life of the teenaged Kambili is defined by an abusive father, a man who has taken his Catholic faith to inhumane extremes, yet a man who is constantly revealing new sides to a complex personality. A strength of the novel is that the other members of the family (and the extended family) emerge with fullness of character able to withstand the looming presence of the father.
Kambili is at the centre through most of the book, and in some senses she could be growing up anywhere. But what sets this novel apart is that it is not anywhere, but strife-ridden Nigeria. The menace of brutal civil unrest penetrates deeper and deeper into the story. The turmoil of adolescence is cast against the more profound turmoil of an ethnic conflict. This is a rich and penetrating first novel and at the time of its publication Adichie was hailed as a fresh new voice from the African continent.
from Purple Hibiscus — The pungent fumes of kerosene smoke mixed with the aroma of curry and nutmeg from the kitchen. ”Let me see if my jollof rice is burning!” Aunty Ifeoma dashed into the kitchen.
from Half of a Yellow Sun — In the kitchen, Ugwa stirred the pot of pepper soup. The oily broth swirled, the hot spices wafted up and tickled his nose, and the pieces of meat and tripe floated from side to side.
Adichie’s first book would hardly prepare a reader for her second. Half of a Yellow Sun is much longer, and an altogether richer and more complex novel. It vibrates with humanity, from its most tender to its most brutal. It takes us from years of relative contentment in early 1960s Nigeria to the savagery unleashed by the secession of Biafra. It unfolds for the most part through the eyes of three characters: Ugwa, the houseboy of a liberal university professor; the professor’s wife, Ilanna, the beautiful, London-educated daughter of a wealthy Nigerian businessman; and Richard, a well-meaning, if sometimes inept, white Englishman, partner of Ilanna’s twin sister. Through them we are gradually and skillfully drawn into the fascinating, disturbing tableau that was Nigeria as it descended into the horrors of war. A war of starvation, as those of us looking from the outside at the time recall.
The fact that the events she builds her story around took place well before Adichie was born is testament to her talents as a writer, and equally to a belief in an understanding of the past being critical to finding a way forward to a more constructive future. It is very much the story of her father’s generation, but one Adichie was compelled to write from the moment she turned seriously to fiction. Astonishingly, she was only 29 when the novel appeared. It led the great African writer Chinua Achebe to comment “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”