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.”
The Whisky: OLD PULTENEY 21 years
The Book: MOBY DICK by Herman Melville
Call me classic.
Amber gold, with a devilish good nose — brimming with a complex, lively mix of caramel, spice, fresh fruit. When the spirit does finally reach the mouth there’s a sensation so warmly sophisticated it makes the taste buds glow. Rich, notes of dark chocolate, with sea-salt heat that slowly fades to a grand, extended finish. This is whisky for all time. (46% ABV)
It’s an exceptional whisky from what until just months ago was mainland Scotland’s most northern distillery. (That distinction fell into new hands with the reconstruction of Wolfburn Distillery in Thurso.) Located in the coastal town of Wick, the history of Old Pulteney dates back to 1826 with its founding by James Henderson, at the height of the region’s herring boom. (A herring drifter graces the bottle and its box.) Its name comes from Pultneytown, a settlement built to house fishermen at a time when upwards of a thousand herring boats fished out of local harbours.
All those fishermen needed their drink. It is said that in the 1840s the population consumed 2,230 litres (500 gallons) of whisky per day. Not all Old Pulteney to be sure, but it seems there was a tidy profit to be made without incurring much in the way of transportation costs. The townsfolk eventually took a sobering turn for the better, but Old Pulteney soldiered on, through good times and bad. The Depression and a local stint of Prohibition proved too much, however, and in 1930 the distillery shut its doors. For 20 years it stood silent. When it did reopen it was with renewed interest and a boost in cash flow. And in recent years Old Pulteney has hit its stride, its reputation extending far beyond its northern waters. A pinnacle of sorts — depending on your faith in the Whisky Bible — came in 2012, when Jim Murray’s best-selling guide named the 21 year old “World Whisky of the Year”.
Old Pulteney has a unique pair of bulbous, flat-topped stills. The shape of its bottle pays homage to them. The unorthodox still design seems somehow to enhance the character of what the present owners, Inver Distillers, like to call the “Genuine Maritime Malt”. They like to play up its salty air. The 21 year old certainly has it, but a far greater influence is the wood. Part of the spirit is matured in air-dried, ex-bourbon American white oak, the standard wood program at Old Pulteney. Another part, matured again in American oak, uses casks previously filled with Spanish fino sherry. The combination is inspired.
It blends very well with a classic maritime tale, American at that.
Is there a more famous opening line than “Call me Ishmael”? I don’t know of one.
It is interesting to compare the use of the line by the two best illustrators of the book — Rockwell Kent in 1930 and Barry Moser in 1979. Kent takes it as rather inward and reflective, while Moser gives it the full force of the unforgiving ocean. The book has always roused contrasting emotions in readers, perhaps even more now that whaling as an industry is in such disrepute.
Not that Moby Dick needs illustration to enhance its prose. It has to be some of the most memorable in American literature, and no one would dare quarrel with its ability to stand alone on the page.
Moby Dick sold very poorly within Melville’s lifetime, a few more than 3,000 copies. Early reviews on both sides of the Atlantic were often scathing. The genius of the work went unrecognized until interest in it revived in the early 20th century, well after the author’s death. A book that is now firmly planted in the American canon at first struggled for attention, causing the author to retreat to work in a customs house to make a living for himself and his family. His obituary in the The New York Press read, “Probably, if the truth were known, even his own generation has long thought him dead, so quiet have been the later years of his life.”
Herman Melville was a writer leagues ahead of his time. The unorthodox approach to the story, the marriage of fact and fiction, the unreasoned obsessiveness of the central character (the captain Ahab) proved easy prey for critics. An author’s honourable recourse is to continue writing, which Melville did, to continued disinterest. Within six years his career as a published author had ended. When he died 34 years later, the now much-admired Billy Budd was still in manuscript form.
It goes without saying that Moby Dick is one of the finest sea-faring tales ever written. In 1841-42 Melville had spent 18 months as an ordinary seaman aboard a whaling vessel. As all writers do, he blended his own experience with that of others he had known personally or read about, and enhanced it all with the thrust of his imagination. He drew broader meaning from uncommon events, and did it with intense dedication. His wife noted that at the height of his marathon effort to finish Moby Dick, he would work at his desk all day, not even stopping to eat until late afternoon. It seems he was as madly driven to complete his task as Ahab was to his.
Likely he would have stopped for drink, though I don’t know how strong. If it was whiskey, then it was probably American rye. His character Stubb, second mate aboard the Pequod, makes the sole reference to the spirit in the narrative, exclaiming at the sight of blood spouting from a lanced whale, “Would now, were it old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela!” All were types of rye whiskey common in mid-19th century America. Monongahela, from western Pennsylvania and reddish-brown in color, was particularly prized. (Long gone are the distilleries in these places, American whiskey production shifting to Kentucky and Tennessee.)
Still, I can picture Melville with the salty air of a seafarer’s dram on his lips. Production of Old Pulteney was into its third decade when he penned Moby Dick. After all, his ancestors on his father’s side had crossed the northern seas from Scotland, whisky and the salt-sea air in their blood.
The Whisky: Penderyn – Madeira
The Books: The Twin and The Detour (in the U.S., Ten White Geese) by Gerbrand Bakker
Penderyn is the first (legal) distillery to open in Wales in a hundred years. Since its production line commenced in 2004, it has been in every way a solo act. It has garnered world attention for its distinctive dram, exporting to more than 25 countries. Not bad for an operation with only one still.
Gerbrand Bakker‘s The Twin and The Detour (set in Wales) have been praised far beyond his Dutch homeland, to the tune of a couple of rather prestigious international awards. Not bad for a gardener’s first two novels in translation.
Here it is then, straight from the Glencairn glass.
Golden in colour with a slight amber tint. A rich raisiny wine nose with a charmingly mellow alcohol profile. Inviting. On the palate — cream toffee, vanilla, sharpened and crisp. At its best moments, a silky freshness that holds the fruit notes to the end. Distinctive. (46%, non-chilled filtered)
It’s matured three and a half years in ex-American bourbon casks (including first-fill Buffalo Trace), then another six months in madeira casks from Portugal. The wood plays a strong role. But so does the still itself. Constructed from a design by David Faraday, it’s a single still linked to a pair of rectifying columns that allows for the distillate to emerge from a single pass, to a level of 92-86% abv. (Scotch is on average about 70% abv.) The result is a purer, lighter base, before bourbon and madeira-soaked wood leaves its imprint. And before that, malted barley sourced, not within the distillery (as is the law in Scotland), but from Brains Brewery in Cardiff, where the folks know their yeasts and provide malt with “a really fruity punch.” Adds Gillian Macdonald, Penderyn’s distiller until 2012, “It sets us apart.”
Spiritually and physically apart. Penderyn is located in rural southern Wales, in Brecon Beacons National Park, the sole whisky distillery in the country. From the start the owners set out to define their own space, to produce a whisky unlike any other, something uniquely Welsh. They have succeeded. Unique, but also very good.
Rarely do I read two novels by the same author back to back. I so liked The Twin that I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in Bakker’s second novel to be published in English (both superbly translated by David Colmer). These are my kind of novels: quietly told but richly layered, written in precise but unobtrusive prose. The author allows the stories to unfold gently, sharply, where what is unsaid is as important as what is said. They brought back memories of my first reading of Hemingway’s short stories.
The Twin (in the original Dutch “Boven is het Stil”, All Quiet Upstairs, which I prefer as a title) is set in Dutch farm country. The father is dying and the son Helmer doesn’t much care. The accidental death decades before of his twin brother Henk, the father’s favourite, has been a continuous thorn in their relationship. When Helmer reconnects with Riet, Henk’s girlfriend at the time of his death, and agrees that her son can come to help out on the farm, emotions long suppressed are pushed to the surface.
The Detour is no less captivating. Again the setting is an isolated one, this time in a remote area of northern Wales. A country-length away from the Penderyn distillery, but sharing a rural sensibility.
At the centre of this story is a female university professor, whose academic and spiritual focus is poet Emily Dickinson, who is on the run from Amsterdam, escaping the scandal of her liaison with one of her first year students. She settles into a cottage in the shadow of Mount Snowdon and immerses herself in the rigours of the landscape. Her attempts at taming it exhaust and frustrate her, adding to the burden of grief she already carries.
There is relief and some revitalization of the spirit when a young man, Bradwen, stops by, only to take up residence.Their lives weave together awkwardly, while back in Amsterdam her husband sets off to find her.
The strength of these two Bakker novels is in the telling. The author’s restraint, the slow burn of relationships make for books that let the reader into the stories bit by measured bit. The settings seep into pores, the characters who traverse them never quite willing to make themselves fully known. There is mystery at their core, and when the mysteries intersect, the results are often unforgettable.
Bakker is by training a landscape gardener. He also worked for years as a sub-titler of TV soap operas. I suspect he knows about cows. Landscape is a strong element in these books and Bakker has said his TV work attuned him to eliminating the unnecessary in his prose. As for cows — well no life skills are wasted on a novelist. Now he has very quickly gathered an international literary reputation. The Twin won the Impac Dublin Award and The Detour the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Well deserving of a celebratory drink, or two.
The Whisky: Nikka Whisky from the Barrel
The Book: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë
This excellent Japanese blend is in need of an innovative work of Japanese fiction. Something beyond geishas and cherry blossoms, yet not the whirlwind of Murakami. I suggest an intriguing work by a writer who reshaped Japanese literature following WWII.
Nikka from the Barrel is a simply-packaged, yet multi-dimensional dram. A Personal Matter is a simply told tale, yet bold and uncompromising. I see the whisky as a moderating influence on what could be a maddening read.
Single malt fanatics balk at the idea of blended whisky, but a well-made blend can be as rewarding as top tier single malt. Cast off the additional prejudice that Japan couldn’t possible produce whisky to rival anything coming out of the distilleries of Scotland, and you are in for a treat.
Nikka from the Barrel, in fact, has a distinctly Scottish temperament. Not surprising, given the fact that Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka (and often called the Father of Japanese Whisky), studied the art of whisky distilling in Scotland and brought back that knowledge (together with a Scottish wife) to Japan in the 1920s. Today Nikka operates two of the approximately ten distilleries active in Japan. Whereas in other parts of the world blended whisky commonly brings together whiskies produced in a variety of distilleries under multiple ownerships, often far removed from each other, in Japan the practice is for blends to be produced ‘in house’ so to speak, using a range of products from the distilleries of a single owner.
Nikka from the Barrel is a coming together of grain and malt whiskies from Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery and malt from its Yoichi distillery (pictured). The matured whiskies are married, then re-casked for a further time in first-fill bourbon casks. The result is an enriched blend, with malt characteristics predominating. Presented in a stubby, unpretentious 50cl screw-top bottle, it’s terrific value for the money.
And how does it rate? In a word, it’s a standout.
The colour of dark warm oak in the glass. A rewarding spicy nose with aromas of caramel and woodgrain. Lovely. Fine sherried palate arousal. Very pleasant spice heat further flavoured with chocolate and brown sugars. Yet not overly sweet. A finish that warms mouth and heart in equal portions. (51.4%)
Whisky swirls about this book repeatedly. Often it is Johnnie Walker and often is not savoured, but consumed solely for the purpose of intoxication. A more thoughtful, measured approach to the dram on the part of the reader is recommended!
The central character, Bird (a childhood nickname), is a self-centred malcontent, unhappily married and dreaming of cutting all ties to his present life and rushing off to Africa. In the meantime he escapes into the abyss of the bottle.
However, there is no escaping the consequences of his fathering a son born with what is believed to be a herniated brain. This is the story at the centre of the novel. The boy has no chance of survival unless he undergoes an expensive operation, and at that is given little chance of anything resembling a normal existence. Even some doctors see the child’s death as the best course of events. The money for the operation, of course, would consume Bird’s savings for his African getaway. This begins his spiral into moral chaos. He loses his job as a teacher in a “cram school”, binges on sex and alcohol with an ex-girlfriend, and all the while his wife and child lie in hospital. Decisions have to be made, and Bird’s thinking around how to solve his problems is anything but uplifting.
Bird is in many ways despicable. Yet the reader is gripped by his dilemma and how much the author is willing to invest in him. One can only think the book was an unnerving piece of fiction when it was published in Japan in 1964, distant as it is from classical Japanese literature. My sense is that even today such a story would be met with stony silence by most publishers, especially in North America, so far removed is it from what the marketers would think of as a saleable novel.
In his work Oë is credited with dealing with the weight of Japan’s shame following WWII, and this novel, likely his best known outside Japan, is unabashedly direct in its portrayal of moral drift.
All this with the added caveat that Kenzaburo Oë himself is the father of a son brain-damaged at birth. So what we have is a novel very much influenced by the true life experiences of the writer. The interplay of imagination and the author’s own experience bring to the reading of the book a fascinating and compelling dimension that ultimately leads nowhere and in another sense leads everywhere.
The 1994 Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oë puts it simply: “I am writing about the dignity of human beings.” How he reaches that goal in A Personal Matter makes for a remarkable piece of modern literature.