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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Spirit of HvenTycho’s Star

The Books:  Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and Mirror Shoulder Signal by Dorthe Nors

A Scandinavian triad — a whisky from Sweden, novels from Norway and Denmark. Peaty, but not noir.



Nutty brown and shining in the glass. A medium-peated nose, nicely balanced with dark, dried fruit and spice. On the palate the peat leads and the spiced oak circles behind, together with the herbs. Earthy, yet sophisticated. A sure, fine dram. (41.8% abv, non-chillfiltered, no colouring, certified organic)

The island of Hven is situated in the strait of Öresund, between Sweden and Denmark. The ferry to mainland Sweden takes about an hour and half to reach Malmö, and another hour (via the 8km long engineering marvel, the Öresund Bridge) to central Copenhagen. So relatively remote, at least by European standards. The island is home to roughly 400 inhabitants and to the family-owned Spirit of Hven distillery. In the 16th century it was home to astronomer Tycho Brahe and in tribute to its most famous resident, the distillery has named its flagship whisky.


Spirit of Hven is one of the world’s smallest commercial distilleries, part of the much larger Backafallsbyn resort, consisting of hotel, conference centre, restaurant, and pub. It is owned by Anja and Henric Molin, who developed the property while dreaming of one day distilling whisky.

Actually, whisky makes up only 15% of the distillery’s production. Vodka, gin, and aquavit, and something called “summer spirit” make up the rest. All are distilled on site under strict organic processes, and bottled in their signature triangular bottles that are individually hand waxed. The whisky is packaged in a wooden cage. Both distinctive and tasting first rate. A dream come true.


fullsizeoutput_34e4Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author Per Petterson is a novel hardly to be contained within its 264 pages. Generational give-and-take between rural families shape a voluminous story that sustains a fine literary weight. The prose is not particularly stark or simple, as one might expect of a brief novel. Rather it is palpable and layered, while the story unfolds with restrained emotion.

Trond Sander is 67 and wanting to set a course of his own choosing for what remains of his life. His wife and sister have both recently died and he leaves Oslo behind for a remote cabin. It needs repairs and he himself must prepare for the winter ahead. There should be plenty to occupy him during the day. He has his dog, the BBC to listen to during the day, and Dickens to fill his evenings.

His past is not so easily escaped, however. His closest neighbour, Lars, turns out to be the younger sibling of a boyhood acquaintance. Lars, as a child, had accidently killed his twin brother. Although they never raise the matter it sits at the heart of a chain of boyhood memories. As does the sudden desertion of the family by Trond’s father, a lifelong burden Trond has yet to resolve.

The novel moves back and forth between his coping with the challenges of his new rural reality to past teenage experiences with his father, to the time of the German occupation of Norway during the war. It makes some of the connections necessary for an understanding of Trond’s present state of mind, but nothing is entirely settled. Only when his daughter shows up unexpectedly do circumstances sharpen to the reality of modern life.

Out Stealing Horses is a fine achievement. Definitely a book to return to.


fullsizeoutput_34e6Mirror Shoulder Signal by Danish author Dorthe Nors is a very different novel, though the narrator Sonja is also lonely and disoriented. She recalls her rural upbringing in Jutland, but her life now is in the metropolis of Copenhagen. She’s kept busy, if bored, by her job translating the work of a Swedish crime writer. She has a medical condition that can cause sudden dizziness. Her preoccupation through much of the book is even more frustrating. She’s a middle-aged woman learning to drive and the business of shifting gears causes her no end of grief.

A rather mundane endeavour on which to centre a narrative one might suppose, but Nors’ strength is language, and with it she solidifies the reader’s interest, with Sonja struggling over the gear stick. Her past life swirls in the background, as she attempts to come to terms with what an urban future might hold.

Nors has been quoted as saying, “I write minimalism that is under attack from within. There’s always something bursting out of this very tight structure.” From the rigidity of the driver’s seat emerges the portrait of a women determined to set herself free from the malaise of her everyday existence. Nors accomplishes it with warmth and good humour, and prose that controls the narrative with a firm grasp on the wheel.

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The Whisky:  BenRiachArumaticus Fumosus

The Book:  Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

Dark and smoky. Mysterious. Unpredicted. The Heart of Speyside meets the Heart of Darkness.



Warm gold in the glass. The nose — peaty but clear, with notes of rum, hints of banana. On the palate it glows peaty rich. Endearing give-and-take between the spice and the rum. Flavourful, surprising. Well done! (46% abv, no colour added, non-chill-filtered)

Speyside is not noted for its peated drams, but some distilleries do venture into the smoke territory. BenRiach is one of them, and with very good success. Here’s a limited release, a heavily peated 12-year-old from a few years back, complete with a Latin-ish moniker, Arumaticus Fumosus (i.e. smoky), and further standing out from the crowd in purple labelling.

Neither is it particularly common to have whisky matured in dark rum barrels. (In this case from Jamaica.) Obviously BenRiach has no hesitation in experimenting.


BenRiach dates from 1898, when it was built by John Duff, not far from Longmorn, another distillery owned by Duff. Production lasted but two years, at which point the whole whisky industry in Scotland fell on hard times. The distillery lay idle for several decades, although it continued to supply malted barley to Longmorn. BenRiach had a rebirth in 1965, changing multinational hands before becoming independent in 2004, when it was acquired by The BenRiach Distillery Company. It is currently owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation, which has 25 brands of spirits and wines worldwide, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh included. The new owners seem keen to draw on the expertise of the distillery and its ability to shape a unique take on Speyside distilling.

BenRiach continues to source its mineral-rich water through a bore hole underground from the Cairngorm Mountains. It uses only locally grown barley. It has reestablished floor malting for some of the grain, a tradition long out of favour in most distilleries. Their bottlings are able to draw on an inventory that goes back several decades, while at the same time maintaining a tradition of outstanding, innovative cask finishes. All to the good. Exciting times ahead.



Heart of Darkness was first published over three issues of Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. It remains a remarkable novella, if, especially in recent decades, a controversial one. It came from the pen of the writer who had not learned English until he was 20.

Joseph Conrad was born in what is now Poland. At 17 he left Kraków for Marseilles where he signed on to the French merchant marine, serving for four years before joining its British counterpart. He sailed under the British flag for another fifteen years, rising to the level of captain. It would be his perilous journey up the Congo River, as captain of a Belgian trading steamer, that would provide the background experiences for the writing of Heart of Darkness.

The book opens on the River Thames. The narrator, Charles Marlow, recounts his childhood fascination with the vast river penetrating the dark, unknown centre of Africa. His life as a mariner eventually leads him there, commanding a vessel owned by a company engaged in the menacing pursuit of ivory.  The pitch black beyond the riverbanks is almost as much a character as the near mythical Mr. Kurtz,  the company’s agent ensconced deep in the interior. It would take most of the book before Marlow and Kurtz finally meet. The anticipation generated by Conrad’s astonishing prose shapes itself into the core of the novel.


[a modern day version published by Four Corners Books in 2015]

Heart of Darkness was little noticed when first published and Conrad himself didn’t consider it one of his major works. Yet by the 1960s scholars had placed it solidly within the canon of western literature. There were few books more widely analyzed and discussed. It would underlie the Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film Apocalypse Now. Then, with the advent of postcolonial studies, it suddenly took a severe battering, especially from African writers, most notably Chinua Achebe.

Despite that fact that the novel is anti-imperialist in nature, it was written at a time when empire building was at its nefarious worst, and there is much within it easily taken as racist. If it were written today it would likely wither on a publisher’s desk. But any novel has to be seen in the context of the era in which its author lived. Marlow is not Conrad, any more than Huck Finn is Twain. Characters reflect a point in time, though that should never stop the reader from measuring their faults and vigorously debating their injustices.


[fine art edition, etchings by Sean Scully, set against an African mudcloth]


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The Whisky:  DalwhinnieWinter’s Gold

The Books:  A Meal in Winter and Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli

April can be the most unkind of months. Where I live it hands out a taste of spring, then quickly drags itself back to winter. There’s a cold grip in both this whisky and this pair of books. Fortunately, they do ignite the mind.



The distillery suggests that Winter’s Gold spend time in a freezer prior to serving. That accomplished, the aromas of this golden yellow single malt are still classic Dalwhinnie — spiced oak, stone fruit, honey. From the glass it is clean and fresh, the spices seemingly checked at the freezer door, but the spirit is quick to warm and fill the palate with newly cut fruit and playful peppery notes. The switch from cold to heat does a body good. (43% abv)

Dalwhinnie is Gaelic for “meeting place.” In 1897 this area of the western Highlands was a transportation hub, and it was here that three local businessmen took advantage of location and constructed a distillery. It remains one of the highest distilleries in Scotland, at 1,164 feet (355 meters) above sea level. It has the distinction of being the coldest, with snow a regular feature of winter. It sits in the heart of the splendid Cairngorm National Park, roughly 40 miles from Inverness.


Dalwhinnie draws fresh spring water from the Allt an T’Sluic (much of it from snow melt) and uses local peat in its mildly peated production. The spring is a tributary of the river Spey, and over the years there has been considerable discussion as to whether the distillery can legitimately call what it produces a Highland malt, rather than cast its lot in with Speyside.

Today, Dalwhinnie is owned by the multinational Diageo, with its classic 15-year-old being the distillery’s signature dram. Winter’s Gold is a relatively new addition to its core range, having first come to market in 2015. It, too, takes advantage of Dalwhinnie’s wooden worm tubs, some of the very few still in use in Scottish distilleries, and producing a distillate more sulphuric in nature. It purposely uses only casks that have been filled in the coldest months of the year, October to March. They are mostly ex-bourbon casks, racked on site, waiting out the winters so to speak. Waiting for the whisky to chill out and mature to something worthy of its name.


These novellas by French writer Hubert Mingarelli are an outstanding pair. They have much in common, in style and plot, and reading them back-to-back as I did, the stories merge somewhat in my mind. What has settled there is a deeply affecting picture of war from the perspective of young soldiers who are for the most part on the fringes of violence. The books expose the raw humanity behind their ragged uniforms.

In A Meal in Winter (translated by Sam Taylor) three German soldiers — Emmerich, Bauer, and the unnamed narrator — head into the frozen Polish countryside in search of Jews to capture and bring back to camp. It’s their way of escaping the assignment had they stayed in camp — joining the squad of soldiers whose job it is to shoot the Jews already captured.


The trio have retained a measure of humanity, warped as it is by the war. We see it in Emmerich’s conversations about his son left back home. We see it in the narrator’s fixation on a hand-embroidered snowflake on the wool cap of the young Jew they ferret out from his forest hideout.

Much of the story takes place in a hut they happen upon, and around the cooking of a beggarly pot of soup, with their prisoner cast into a room nearby. The tension rises when a virulently anti-Semitic Pole shows up, and is eventually forced to sit across the table from the Jew and share soup with him.

With the return to camp imminent, thoughts of what will happen to the young Jew crowd their minds. A decision has to be made. Will they let the fellow free, knowing their commanding officer will be no wiser when they go back to camp? Or will they return with their prisoner, knowing that with one success they will be allowed another day of escape from the camp.

The book is written in stark and simple prose. Much is left unstated, making what remains on the page all the more arresting. A Meal in Winter lingers on long after the final sentence.

I found that even more so with Four Soldiers, Mingarelli’s earlier but more recently translated novel, translated as well by Sam Taylor.

Here the fraternal lot consists of four soldiers. This time it is the Russian Civil War, near the border with Romania.


With spring approaching their regiment is bound to move off and into the brunt of war. But for now, with each man in his own way coping with the deprivation they’ve already endured, there’s comfort to be found in simple gestures and unspoken affection for each other. They find it in harmless taunts. In a stolen watch that holds the picture of a beautiful woman.

And, most profoundly, they find it in the journal writing of the fifth soldier to join them, a teenage kid who shows up in the camp unannounced, eager to enlist. Resented at first, the lad’s ability to make a written record of the escapes the five make to a small pond known only to them, becomes supremely important. For illiterate young men it is their way of making the tranquility real, perhaps for all time. The simplicity of this act, told in Mingarelli’s concise, honest prose reverberates to the end.

That end, as much as the reader anticipates what might befall the men once the call to advance finally comes, is devastating.

The novella form has been in the hands of a master.



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The Vodka:  StolichnayaElit

The Books:  Demons  and The Idiot by Foydor Dostoevsky

If there’s a good reason for vodka to be the spirit of choice three months in a row, it’s Dostoevsky. The vodka is Stolichnaya (Stoli, for short), bottled tall and elegant. Altogether, Russian (well, half Latvian actually).



A lofty pour into the chilled vodka glass. Standing crystal clear. Crisp winter freshness, with light aromas of rye and lemon ice. The taste of citrus-coated, frosted grain. Smooth and balanced, with slight measured sweet tones to offset the dryness. A fine, polished cut of bracing alcohol. (40% abv)

Stoli Elit originates with rye and wheat from Stolichnaya’s single estate in the Tambov region of Russia. Carefully inspected grain is fermented, then triple distilled. The raw spirit is transported to Latvijas Balzams AS, Stolichnaya’s long-standing production facility in Riga, Latvia. Mixed with artesian well water, it undergoes a series of filtrations—twice through quartz sand, then through birch wood charcoal, before undergoing the patented freeze-filtration, in which the spirit, chilled to -18˚C and viscous, passes ever so slowly through ion-charged filters. It breathes a chilly sigh of relief and rests, before being transferred to its distinctive, elongated bottles.


The first production of Stolichnaya vodka goes back 70+ years. Its recent history, however, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has been tumultuous. In the late 1990s a private company, SPI Group, chartered in Luxembourg and owned by the jet-setting Russian oligarch, Yuri Shefler, purchased the rights to Stolichnaya and dozens more vodka brands. Five years later a Moscow court ruled the sale illegal. The Russian government unilaterally claimed the trademark and set up a state controlled company to produce and distribute Stolichnaya in Russia.

That Stolichnaya Russian vodka (said to be a cheap, inferior product) has nothing to do with Stolichnaya, the international brand sold across the world. The Russian government also made it illegal to export bulk vodka, forcing the SPI to export only the raw alcohol to Latvia, where the production to premium vodka is completed.

Oh, the intrigue of vodka-fuelled Russian politics. Dostoevsky would have had a field day.


Demons was first known in English as The Possessed, and later as The Devils, and now, in the hands of award-winning translators Pevear and Volokhonsky, the novel has its more suitable title. It is Dostoevsky’s response to the social upheaval which plagued Russia in the latter half of the 19th century. Tsar Alexander II had freed the peasant serfs from centuries of bondage, while at the same time attempting to reform the government, all in an effort to modernize Russian society and align it more with Europe. It led to political chaos, failing the lower classes especially. They were suddenly ripe for any number of political ideologies, many of which Dostoevsky viewed as socially destructive.

fullsizeoutput_329dMoscow’s Dostoevskaya Metro Station: Dostoevsky mural by Ivan Nikolaev

The writing of Demons was in part prompted by the the widely publicized criminal case of activist Sergey Nechayev. In 1869 he was involved in the murder of a young student who had disagreed with his revolutionary tactics. The character of Pyotr Verkhovensky in the novel is based on the young Nechayev.

Verkhovensky is a nihilist. His logic could have been gleaned straight from Nechayev’s manifesto, Catechism of a Revolutionary,  in which Nechayev had written that a revolutionary must “aid the growth of calamity and every evil”, while at the same time “aggravate the miseries of the common people, so as to exhaust their patience and incite them to rebel.”

The once peaceful provincial Russian town in which the novel is largely set is ill-prepared for the outside agitator Verkhovensky or his compatriot Nikolai Stavrogin. They spread rumours of acting on the ideals of a mysterious Committee set up somewhere abroad, then slowly but deliberately go about infiltrating the town with their anti-intellectual, impulsive preachings. Ordinary people turn indecent and violent. It leads to reckless confrontation, and eventually to dehumanizing acts of arson and murder. It is a bleak picture, and to the modern reader it foreshadows the tragedies of Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda.

As one expects of Dostoevsky, a considerable portion of the novel, as interesting as it is, is background material, leading to the arrival of the nihilists. It is setting the stage, as well, for what Dostoevsky believes is the answer to the forces of fanaticism — affirmation of Orthodox religion and a strengthened nationalism.


The Idiot, in contrast, has at its centre a person Dostoevsky himself described as “a completely beautiful human being.” Prince Myshkin is often compared to Christ, and the novel might be viewed as a mediation on how such a moral figure would be received in a world rampant with sensual passions and the clash of political wills. It is in many ways Dostoevsky’s most personal novel. And one written under the most chaotic of personal circumstances.

The Idiot draws on the author’s own life in several ways, most pointedly in the perverse tale of a mock execution. A young Dostoevsky had himself been arrested for revolutionary activities and sentenced to death. Literally minutes before the scheduled execution, with Dostoevsky standing in place on the scaffold and prepared to take his last breath, it was announced that the Tsar had commuted his sentence to hard labour in Siberia.

Like Dostoevsky, Myshkin suffers from epileptic seizures, and is separated from his family for extensive periods. We first meet Myshkin on his return train journey from Switzerland, where he had undergone years of medical treatment.

It was in Switzerland that Dostoevsky wrote much of the novel. He and his wife had fled Russia to escape irate debtors, and was living most of the time in acute poverty, a situation further aggravated by the author’s addiction to gambling. His epilepsy added to the turmoil, especially during his wife’s labour and the birth of their daughter Sophia. Dostoevsky would forever blame his delay in getting to a midwife for the death of the child three months later.

fullsizeoutput_329cMoscow’s Dostoevskaya Metro Station: The Idiot mural by Ivan Nikolaev

Not surprisingly, the novel was written in spurts without much notion of where the plot was headed. Yet the result, if often criticized as poorly structured, is for many readers one of the most engaging of the author’s works. It is said to be Dostoevsky’s personal favourite.

The character of Myshkin is much of the reason for its popularity. As epileptics often were, Myshkin is judged, on first meeting, as being a simple-minded idiot. The innocent forthrightness of his opinions only reinforces that view. His articulate assessment of the world around him comes as an outright surprise to many of the people he encounters. That would include, as the book opens, his fellow train passenger, the wealthy heir Rogozhin.

Rogozhin would become his good friend, but also his rival, as both vie for the attention of the beautiful and wildly unpredictable Nastassya Filippovna. The three are the central focus of the book. Passions run very high, as they tend to do in Dostoevsky novels. As meek and innocent as he appears at times, Myshkin and his encounters with the 19th century Russian society are all good reason to hold firmly to this, the last in my stack of Dostoevsky’s major works. It’s been a rewarding three months, to say the least–my thought as I again sip very good vodka.

fullsizeoutput_329bDostoevsky’s gravesite, St. Petersburg


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The Vodka:  Legend of Kremlin

The Book:  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Canadian winter. (-20˚C some days.) Dostoevsky. (Frosty sibling rivalry.) Vodka. (Ice-cold Russian.) Invigorating!



Crystal clear. On the nose: a dusting of pepper, a whiff of vanilla, scant scent of fresh bread. On the palate: soft and thinly creamy, a mild pepper bite edging past the sweet, grain notes. Smooth, but not without its fire. (40% abv)

Best drunk like a Russian would—neat, chilled, and with an assortment of snacks, preferably pickled.


Legend of Kremlin is made at the ITAR Distillery in Kaliningrad, the westernmost region of the Russian Federation. Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave, washed by the Baltic Sea and sharing borders with Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland. Moscow is 1200 kilometres away. Kaliningrad is a free economic zone, freeing its port city of import and export taxes.

ITAR, founded in 1995, is only one of six distilleries in Russia to hold a Certificate of Appellation of Origin, allowing its labels to use the term “Russian Vodka.” It produces eight of its own brands for domestic consumption, and another eight under license, including Stolichnaya, Moskovskaya, and Legend of Kremlin.

Legend has it that in the early 15th century, in the Chudov Monastery where the Kremlin is now situated, a Russian Orthodox monk by the name of Isidore created the first Russian vodka. Legend of Kremlin is a premium spirit that is, shall we say, inspired by Isidore’s work. It is the official vodka Purveyor to the Kremlin, the Duma (parliament), and various government agencies.

fullsizeoutput_325cThe Internet is thin on details about the workings of the distillery. It uses premium local grains and soft artesian well water from a depth of 100 metres, “extracted from the ecologically clean water basin” of the region. It appears that oatmeal and honey are introduced at some point. There’s a five-part distillation/filtration process, following which the spirit is reduced in special copper vats before bottling. Its distinctive bottles are reminiscent of the carafes that centuries ago held the finest vodkas in Tzarist Russia. It bears the double-headed eagle, ancient symbol of the Tzars and, following the collapse of the USSR, the symbol of the modern Russian Federation.


This is Dostoevsky at his boldest, his most provocative, his very best. It is also his longest and most wide-ranging novel, filled with overlapping sub-plots, enriched with the minutiae of day to day life. It is not a book to approach lightly, but its rewards are worth every page.

The Brothers Karamazov (here wonderfully translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)  was Dostoevsky’s final work, published in 1880. He would die less than four months later, at age 59, following a series of pulmonary haemorrhages. He had worked for two years on the book, much of it in poor health, and, one suspects, he wanted to include what his life had taught him, because he saw it as near its end.


The three brothers of the title are Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitri. They are a varied lot, but what they have in common is an intense dislike of their father, the reprehensible Fyodor. The man comes to a murderous end, and much of the novel follows the multifarious actions of the brothers. Which one, if indeed either, is guilt of the crime? As with most of Dostoevsky’s work, the action can be highly pitched, to the level of melodrama. Yet, looming over it are deep philosophical and ideological debates, the question of the existence of God at the core. The fragmented nature of 19th century Russian thinking is everywhere evident.

There is suffering and vice at every turn in the plot. Yet the characters (most at least) manage to rise beyond their lot. In narrative voice rich in tone and nuance, laced with exuberant dialogue, we gain their hardheaded perspectives on what has befallen them and what, for each, is the path to redemption.

Virginia Woolf said of Dostoevsky, “Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.” The Brothers Karamazov was a particular favourite of Einstein and Freud. Its influence on philosophers and writers (Kafka, James Joyce, Camus among many) has been profound.

It has not grown old. It’s a favourite book of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps it is what he and Donald Trump discussed behind closed doors.



“Above all, do not lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love. . .”  The Brothers Karamazov



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The Polugar:  Rodionov and SonsClassic Rye Breadwine

The Books:  Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, The Adolescent, The Double & The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

When immersed in winter, think Russia. Think Dostoevsky. Pour some breadwine or vodka, add a wool sweater and blanket, and settle in for three months of the master.



Crystal clear inside the chilled glass. A fresh, rye bread nose, with a slight entry of almond. Rich and creamy on the palate, and a peppery grain flavour quick to win you over. Smoothly rustic, yet sophisticated. A most pleasing discovery. (39.5% abv)

Until 1890 Russian vodka as we know it today didn’t exist. A few years earlier a conniving Tsar Alexander III purchased 300 of the newly-invented rectification towers and had them set up across Russia as distilleries for vodka, something only they had the technology to produce. The Tsar then declared all non-vodka spirits illegal.

fullsizeoutput_322cOvernight polugar (also known as breadwine), the spirit Russians had been drinking for centuries, disappeared. It was lost for 120 years. Until, in the early part of this century, a well-known Russian scientist and vodka historian, Boris Rodionov, delving into old books and historical documents, rediscovered how to make it, using a copper pot still not dissimilar to those  used in the production of whisky.  He was charmed by the results.

Legislation in Russia still forbids the making of polugar, so Rodionov and his sons set up operations in a restored distillery in rural Poland, not far from the Russian border. They now produce 100,000 bottles a year and distribute to a dozen countries.


The Polugar Classic Rye is triple-distilled using carefully sourced grain, natural yeast, and untreated spring water. It is clarified in the traditional manner with egg whites. Filtration through birch wood charcoal follows. Its distinctive thick, square bottle is a recreation of one used by Tsarina Elizaveta Petrovna in the 18th century.

And, yes, while reading Dostoevsky it good to be drinking what he (and Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekhov) would also have had in their traditional “lafitnik” glasses.


What is sometimes called The Golden Age of Russian Literature all but escaped me. The time has come to take on the bear. The goal—all seven of Dostoevsky’s works published as part of Everyman’s Library. My January has been filled with these four.


Crime and Punishment is, of course, the best known. Despite frequent flips back to the list of characters to refresh my mind as to just who’s who, the grip of the story is unrelenting. Ex-student Rodion Raskolnikov, in desperate need to root himself out of the poverty-ridden pit he has fallen into in St. Petersburg, brutally murders a dishonest old pawnbroker and steals her money, rationalizing the act as getting rid of an aged, hopeless soul in order to allow a more deserving one to resume his education and advance society.

The novel quickly turns inward as Raskolnikov struggles with the moral dilemma and mental torment brought about by his morbid deed. His dealings with his family and circle of acquaintances make for a thickening web as the investigation of the crime unfolds and Raskolnikov’s rational self falls apart. The characters and plot twists flare about the pages in striking prose, wonderfully translated by the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators of all the books in the series).


The broader purpose of this and most of Dostoevsky’s work was to generate discussion about the direction of Russian society, here the radical arguments of nihilism, its rejection of authority and promotion of violence to achieve its ends.

Such purpose is even more evident in Notes from Underground, written two years earlier. Again the discourse swirls around nihilism, but also what had been termed “rational egotism”, the philosophy that an action is rational only if it is shaped by self-interest. Dostoevsky used his novella to generate debate about his deep distrust of both ideologies.

The book has two distinct parts. In the first the unnamed and unreliable narrator, an ex-civil servant, holed up in a crawl space so to speak, expounds on his own character and that of the world above him. The second half of the book is story-driven and the reader gets to see the underground man dealing with that world and his failure to live up to what he expects of himself as part of it. In Dostoevsky’s hands, far from dry, predictable stuff.

Notes from Underground has been one of the most influential books in modern literature, often thought of as one of the first existentialist novels, a profound influence on Kafka and many other 20th century writers.

More accessible perhaps are the pair of novellas The Double & The Gambler. In the first, the life of civil servant Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin descends to surreal madness when he encounters his exact double, a doppelgänger who astutely usurps the man’s position in his workplace and social circle.

The stories of fellow Russian Nikolai Gogol were a definite influence, not surprising, given the story is an early one, coming at a time when Dostoevsky was assimilating the work of writers who preceded him. Yet, he firmly makes the story his own, foreshadowing the masterworks that would follow.

The Gambler draws on personal experience to a greater extent that most of Dostoevsky’s writing. He himself was addicted to gambling for a stretch of about eight years, beginning when he first sat down at a roulette table in the German city of Wiesbaden in 1863. The novella was in fact written to get him out from under a mountain of debt, much of it accrued from gambling.


Indeed the liveliest parts of the story take place around the roulette tables of the German town where the narrator Alexei Ivanovich has gone, accompanying a Russian family in his role as tutor for the children. On the scene as well is a Frenchmen and an Englishman, allowing Dostoevsky ample cause to dwell on their national character, in sharp and hilarious contrast to that of the Russian matriarch who shows up unexpectedly and promptly gambles away a small fortune.

Ivanovich is an impetuous 24-year-old. Alyosha Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, is 20; Rodion Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, is 23. Dostoevsky often chooses young protagonists. Their personalities are fluid, their views of the world open to change. They are game to take chances, perfect vehicles for Dostoevsky’s exploration of Russian ideologies.

Arkady Dolgoruky, the confused hero of The Adolescent, is 19. The illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, Versilov, he’s had little to do with his biological father and more to do with the man his mother left to take up with Versilov. It’s a convoluted dynamic, with a hormonal young man struggling to find a place in Russian society plagued by class and opposing currents of social change.

The novel, often overlooked and certainly not celebrated in the way that others of Dostoevsky’s works have been, is more deserving than some critics would have us believe. It is the only one of the author’s longer novels to use first-person narration, a deliberate, fervent choice on the part of the author. The voice has a tangled immediacy that serves the story well. It is 54-year-old Dostoevsky’s testament to the boundless trajectories of youth. And, yes, there is lots of drinking of what must have been polugar.


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The Rum:  Bacardi FacundoEximo

The Book:  Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

The premium rum proved to be a perfect accompaniment to a snowy Christmas season. But finding a reading counterpart was challenging, not unlike waiting for snow in Havana.


It pours dark walnut from its heavy glass decanter. On the nose is vanilla, caramel, cinnamon — spice-rich fare that continues on the taste buds. Semi-sweet dark chocolate, with a smooth oak-cut of fire. Exudes a warm spicy richness, perfect complement to Christmas cake before an open fire.


The history of Bacardi goes back to Facundo Bacardi Masso, who emigrated from Spain to Cuba and in 1862 founded the company, which, through innovative distilling processes, was able to produce a distinctively smooth, light-bodied rum. It would prove a remarkable success. Today Bacardi is the largest privately owned spirits company in the world, with over 200 brands in its portfolio.

Like the other three premium sipping rums of the Facundo Rum Collection, Eximo honours the legacy of Facundo Bacardi Masso. It is made up of rums blended together in the Bahamas, where it is aged for 10 years in ex-bourbon American oak barrels, before being shipped to Mexico, where it is reduced to 40% abv and bottled. Neither location is one the Cuban founder would have expected of a Bacardi.

The company’s exit from Cuba followed Castro’s rise to power and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, after which all private property was banned and bank accounts confiscated without compensation. Fortunately for Bacardi, some years earlier it had established itself in Porto Rico and Mexico, as well as the Bahamas, where it had moved some assets and the ownership of its trademarks.


The Cuban Revolution is at the core of Carlos Eire‘s memoir. So is Christmas and Castro’s decision to ban religion and the celebrations that went with it. His outlawing of Christmas became a symbol of all the young Carlos had lost. His privileged life as the son of a judge had been torn away, and at age 11 he was boarded onto a plane for Miami, send off without his parents, as were his brother and 14,000 other Cuban children, in an operation known as Pedro Pan. Years would pass before his mother would be reunited with her sons. His father he would never see again.


Carlos Eire, who eventually became a professor of history and religion at Yale, would never again set foot in Cuba. Yet his life would be defined by the rich pastiche of his boyhood on the island. The retelling has all the inventiveness of a novel, in style and detail — a boyhood to glory in, one to intensely lament at its loss.

Set against the anticipation of the deep societal changes that were to come, the boy’s risky, fear-laced exploits — daredevil games with firecrackers and ammunition, discoveries of maggot-ridden carrion and a backyard pool filled with sharks, escapes from the clutches of sexual perverts — seem all the more weighty and profound. Of course, not every young Cuban has a father who believes he is Louis XVI reincarnated, nor a mother whom he refers to as Marie Antoinette. Life for Carlos generates constant reasons for escape, often into the world of American movies, comics, and baseball cards. When the Revolution unfolds and the TV screens are filled with the executions of dissenters rather than cartoons, the fear of what the future holds overtakes his every thought.

Still, he endures, emerging from the humiliations of his immigrant life in the United States (and that of his mother) to thrive academically, and eventually capture his story and those of the larger-than-life characters who surrounded him. There lies the abiding beauty of the book — that out of tragedy can come decency, out of injustice renewal. It is an unforgettable memoir.

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The Whisky:  Box Destilleri – Dálvve Single Malt

The Book:  The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed

The whisky is from the award-winning, youthful Box Destilleri in northern Sweden. The book is also from Sweden, an award-winning debut novel by Tomas Bannerhed. Both translate very well.



No chill filtration, no colour added. I say ja! to that. (Although YouTube tells me residents of northern Sweden have an odd alternate way of expressing “yes”.) So it’s pale gold in the glass, and on the nose a colourful mélange of vanilla, dried fruit and nuts, and clear floral oakiness. Very welcoming. On the taste buds, spice and pepper, toasted oak with mild peaty notes, salty on the end and made to linger. Young only in age. A well-crafted, mature experience. (46% abv).

Box Destilleri (also termed High Coast Distillery) is refreshingly forthcoming in what goes into the making of its whisky. Never have I seen a distillery reveal itself it such detail. Obviously it has nothing to hide, and much in the results to be proud of. What follows is probably far more that you really want to know, but here it is, Box dálvve, batch no. 1:

The Recipe:

63.48% is 5.24 year old unpeated whisky from
200-litre 1st fill bourbon cask.
24.13% is 5.23 year old peated whisky from
200-litre 1st fill bourbon cask.
12.39% is 5.07 year old unpeated whisky from
135-litre 1st fill bourbon cask.
dálvve is neither cold-filtered nor has colouring been added.


The Ingredients:

Yeast: Fermentis Safwhisky M-1
Unpeated malt: Pilsner malt from Vikingmalt in Halmstad, Sweden.
Peated malt: Pilsner malt from Castle Maltings in Belgium.
Peated to 39ppm phenol content using Scottish peat.
Ingoing barley: Tipple, Quench, Publican, Henley and
Process water: From Bålsjön Lake, filtered through sand and coal filters.
Cooling water: From the Ångerman River.
Ingoing batches: 27B, 40B–102B, 104A–104B, 129B–138A
Batch size: 1.2 tonnes of malt
Average fermenting time: 80 hours in stainless steel vats.
Distilled between 2nd May 2011 and 27th September 2011.

First cut of the run:
Unpeated recipe: 13 minutes head (foreshots)
Peated recipe: 30 minutes head (foreshots)

Second cut of the run:
Unpeated recipe: 67% ABV (20°C)
Peated recipe: 60% ABV (20°C)


There you have it. Let’s add that the distillery is in Ådalen, on the shores of the Ångerman River, surrounded by unspoiled natural environment. That the 63˚ parallel runs directly through it, making it one of the most northerly distilleries in the world. Cold and blanketed with snow for much of the year, with a wide variance in temperature from summer to winter, and in the amount of daylight, which all plays out in the non-temperature controlled warehouses. Warehouses that hold the spirit in 200-litre ex-bourbon barrels supplied mostly by Heaven Hill and Jack Daniels, as well as 135-litre quarter casks that have been rebuilt from the bigger barrels. All this deviation from the norm obviously does the whisky a world of good.

This batch of dálvve (which means “winter” in the language of the Sami people of northern Sweden) was distilled in the summer of 2011 and bottled just over five years later, in the fall of 2016, in a run of 14,015 bottles, the very first release of the distillery’s core range. A friend who lives in Sweden, visiting with us that Christmas, brought it as a gift. How wonderfully fortunate am I?


When I visited Sweden in the spring of this year I did notice that practically everyone dresses in black. It seems to fit the cliché of Swedish fiction as generally dark and brooding.

The cover of Thomas Bannerhed’s debut novel might be seen as reinforcing that stereotype. And in truth The Ravens is very dark much of the time. Yet it is oddly joyous at other points in the story. (And, I’m pleased to note, in the pictures I’ve seen of Bannerhed, he’s not wearing black.)


The Ravens is set in rural Sweden in the 1970s, following four seasons in the life of 12-year-old Klas, as he tries to cope with his younger sibling and his parents, in particular his long-suffering father Agne. It is a family smothered by the struggle to keep the farm running as the father’s mental illness threatens to destroy it.

IMG_9835The boy finds refuge in nature, especially in birds, and much of the novel is taken up with his tramping freely through the forest, and his restorative moments with a myriad of avian species, about which he knows a great deal. When humans do reenter his life they seem only to increase his stress, with pressures swirling around his father’s expectation that one day he will take over the farm, leading to questions of the boy’s own mental health. Only when Klas meets and falls in love with Veronika, a girl his own age visiting from Stockholm, is there a measure of normalcy.

The Ravens is stark and lyrical, commendable for its understanding of adolescents and how their mental wellbeing is fashioned by the adults who share in their growing up. What I appreciated most is how strongly the author was able to immerse his reader in the story. Never for a moment did I doubt the narrator, as complex as his reaction to the events surrounding him became. It is a mature literary work of the first order.

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The Grappa:  Stella di CampaltoGrappa di Brunello Riserva

The Book:  Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

On the scarred landscape of war, good drink is gold. It is Italy in 1916 and it is Hemingway. It is grappa.


A light nut brown in the glass. On the nose, a delightful balance of spice and fruit tempering the alcohol. Past the lips its refinement reveals itself — warming cream flavours of spiced vanilla and ground nuts. So surprisingly smooth. Altogether special.  (42% abv)


I have never been much attracted to grappa, but I was prepared to be impressed, given what the gent at Berry Brothers & Rudd in London had written about it. And the fact that the yearly production is only 700 bottles.


The talented Stella di Campato is behind the wine production at the San Giuseppe Winery, located near the town of Montalcino, an hour south of Siena. Abandoned in 1940, the estate was acquired by the family in 1992, and over time the wines have become a benchmark of the region.

Grappa is a by-product of wine production. It is made from fermenting the pomace, the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over after the grapes are pressed. San Giuseppe is a small, very carefully tended operation, with 5.5 hectares of Sangiovese vines. It has been biodynamic since 2002. Exceptional grapes make exception pomace.


The pomace comes from the grapes harvested to make Stella di Campalto’s most valued wine, the Brunello Riserva. The pomace is carefully transported a half-hour away to Distilleria Nannoni, in Paganico, where master distiller Priscilla Occhipinti oversees the grappa production. It is wood-aged for at least two years in barriques, before filling stylish, handblown bottles.


Colm Tóibín, in his introduction to a recent Folio edition of A Farewell to Arms, says it best. Hemingway’s prose, he writes, is “not like writing at all, with no sense of a writer at a desk attempting to create an illusion, but something that had been there already, in place before there was any writerly intrusion.”

450px-Ernest_Hemingway_1923_passport_photoIt’s what has always attracted me to the novels of Ernest Hemingway–that unadorned prose and crisp dialogue, its exclusion of all but the most necessary description. Hemingway allows the layers of emotion that underlie his prose to rise of their own accord to the reader’s consciousness; he allows the reader to fill in the detail and, in doing so, invest more in the story. If there is a cautionary criticism it is that sometimes scenes edge toward a stilted quality that undermines their naturalism. It is a small price to pay.

Frederic Henry is an American, and as did Hemingway, drives an ambulance for the Italian Army during the First World War. The camaraderie, especially with the doctor Rinaldi, is fresh and occasionally flavoured with grappa. Catherine Barkley is an English nurse, assigned to a military hospital near where Henry is encamped. The unfolding relationship between the two comes to dominate the book, juxtaposed against an ongoing war against Austrian and German forces that is not going well for the Italians.


When Henry is wounded and transported to a hospital in Milan, the nurse follows. By the time he recovers enough to return to the front, she is pregnant, fearful that, like another soldier she once loved, Henry will not return.

The breakthrough of the Germans at Caporetto has forced the Italian army to retreat. Hemingway’s depiction of the wretchedness of the withdrawal is some of the most compelling writing to come out of WWI. Frederic’s abandonment of the scene, and eventual escape with Catherine through the night by boat into Switzerland, is as visually arresting. War is tragedy and Hemingway, in his simple, crafted prose, gives the reader the brunt of it.

Years after the book was published in 1929,  the author recalled, “The fact the book was a tragic one did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and knew it could have only one end. But finding you were able to make something up; to create truly enough so that it made you happy to read it; and to do this every day you worked was something that gave a greater pleasure than any I had ever known.”

Perhaps, as did the soldiers he depicts, he enjoyed some grappa along the way. My pleasure too, enhancing the reading of a facsimile first edition of A Farewell to Arms, with its thick pages and early 20th century printing aesthetic, and iconic cover image by Rockwell Kent.



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The Whisky:  Bowmore 10Tempest IV

The Book:  The Plot against America by Philip Roth

For a tempestuous plot from an outstanding writer, in need of a whisky listed as kosher, this is the one. Here’s to you, Philip Roth. Your books will outlive us all.


Straw gold in the glass. A smokey nose accompanied by a lemony brine. Hits the palate where it counts– in its complexity. Offering up a creamy, citrus-forward bite. Spice and brine. Peat and oak. Pleasing tempest in a Glencairn glass. Well done! (55.1% abv, non chill-filtered)


Bowmore was one of the whisky distilleries I didn’t get to when visiting Islay last year. Just couldn’t fit it in during our limited time on the island. Bearing in mind a strong preference for peaty whisky, there were a number of other distilleries that were higher on my tour list.

That’s why this Bowmore Tempest came as a very pleasant surprise. While no more than “medium peaty”, it is a complex, assertive whisky that has much to recommend it.

imagesBowmore is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, said to have been established in 1779. Over the years it has changed hands several times, and is now owned by the Japanese spirit conglomerate Beam Suntory. Over recent years the spirit itself has also changed. Some of the whisky bottled in the 1960s is highly prized, whereas the bottlings a couple of decades later left a lot of people wondering if the flavour profile of the distillery had been compromised. Now Bowmore is on a major rebound, drawing back old clients, establishing new ones. It is plunged into the special editions market, of which Tempest is an example. Some others have not been so well received, especially when they come with a questionably higher price tag (I am thinking of the Vaults edition). But as with any marketing venture, it’s a matter of learning and refining, and hopefully lowering the price.

UnknownBowmore Distillery  is situated in the centre of Islay, and draws its water supply from the River Laggan close by. It malts about a third of the barley itself and imports the rest. Maturation takes place in the stone warehouses on Loch Indaal, including the legendary No. 1 Vaults, where the salt sea air plays a welcome role.

In the late 1980s Bowmore donated an unused warehouse in the centre of town, to be repurposed into a swimming pool and fitness complex. The only pool on the Island, it is heated by water recycled from Bowmore’s distilling process. The MacTaggart Leisure Centre is an outstanding community initiative. Makes me want to go for a dip when I return to Islay, before taking in the distillery tour.


Each fall for the past several years I would lament to friends that Philip Roth had been passed over yet again for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now, of course, with his death this year, it is too late. Then a fellow writer pointed out to me that he’s in very good company — Tolstoy, Nabokov, Joyce, Woolf, Borges, Chekhov, non-Nobel Laureates all. Roth joins their select, eminent company.

Unknown-2One of the aspects of Roth the writer I most admire is the fact he wrote substantial, critically acclaimed novels well into his 70s. And that he knew when to stop. The last of his 31 books, Nemesis, was published in 2010, when he was 77. Two years later he announced that book would be his last.

The Plot Against America came out in 2004. It resulted from Roth reading a line in Arthur Schlesinger’s autobiography in which it is noted that some Republicans were interested in having the aviator Charles Lindbergh, arguably the most famous man of his time, run for President against F.D.R. in 1940. Roth’s novel is an historical what-if. What if Lindbergh did run and was elected to the highest office in the land?

Unknown-1Lindberg, as his speeches of the time make clear, was very much opposed to America entering the war in Europe. He was also an anti-Semite. How would the course of America have changed had he come to office, and what would have been the effect on its Jewish population? Roth’s imagined history is the framework for the novel, but its power comes from its focus on one particular Jewish family (and their neighbours) in Newark, New Jersey. Namely, young Philip Roth, his parents and older brother.

It gives the novel an intimacy, a humanness, a harrowing unease at the impact of government measures to disperse a minority population and destroy its foundation. It reaffirms Roth’s prowess as a storyteller.

These days it doesn’t go unnoticed that the storyline would seem to foreshadow what has recently transpired in the White House. When asked in 2017 what he thought of Trump, Roth called him, as compared to Lindbergh, “just a con artist” and “devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”

In the era of Trump, Philip Roth is especially missed.


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