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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Rum:  Bacardi FacundoEximo

www.facundorum.com

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.

THE RUM

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.

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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 BOOK

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.

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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

http://www.boxwhisky.se

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.

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 THE WHISKY

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.

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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
Sebastian.
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)

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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?

THE BOOK

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.)

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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

http://www.stelladicampalto.it/en/

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.

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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)

THE GRAPPA

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.

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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.

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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.

THE BOOK

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.

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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

www.bowmore.com

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.

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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)

THE WHISKY

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.

THE BOOK

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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The Gin:  CitadelleGin de France Réserve

www.citadellegin.com

The Book:  The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Barfly detective Philip Marlowe, like his creator Raymond Chandler, was a keener for gin. And neither fellow would turn down a good brandy or whisky. So a gin, distilled and wood-aged by a topnotch cognac producer, a gin tasting dangerously close to whisky, seems a just companion to The Big Sleep.

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Pale straw in colour. With a nose lead by juniper, citrus and vanilla, circled by a profusion of spices. On the palate, there’s smoothness accented by floral and herbaceous notes, enlivened by a spice-edged bite, tempered by an earthy finesse. No more complex a gin are you apt to encounter. (abv 45.2%)

THE GIN

It’s a gin for sipping and if you are going to add anything, let it be a single small cube of frozen premium tonic water. Avoid flooding out that great taste.

AGabrielCellar-min-250x250The story goes that Alexandre Gabriel of Cognac Ferrand, the gin’s producer in France, was looking to activate the distillery’s Charentais copper pot stills during the months they were not producing the signature spirit. Gabriel struck on batch gin, and, with the Reserve came the idea of aging it for several months in wooden casks.

Citadelle Réserve uses the long and diverse list of botanicals of the regular Citadelle gin: juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, cumin, nutmeg, almonds, paradise seeds, licorice, cubeb, savory, cinnamon, star anise, blackcurrant, iris, violet, fennel, orange zest and lemon, plus an additional three: yuzu, génépi and bleuet. (Several of the 22 call for a side trip to Wikipedia.) Using a patented method, the botanicals are infused in varying strengths of a neutral alcohol made from French wheat, for varying lengths of time, depending on the botanical.

Distillation is over an open flame in the small 25 hectolitre copper stills. Only the heart of the distillate is retained. The wood aging program that follows uses six types of casks: acacia, mulberry, cherry, chestnut, French oak that held Pineau de Charentes, and French oak that held cognac.

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The man behind Citadelle’s refined production values has taken the process one step further. After five months of aging, the gin is blended together and placed in an egg-shaped oak vat measuring 2,45 m high, where natural convection allows the gin to be in a state of slow, continuous motion. This is the only gin anywhere to use this process, further evidence that something very special eventually makes it to Citadelle Reserve’s rather well-bred bottle.

THE BOOK

The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first book. Published in 1939, it was, to use Chandler’s own description, “cannibalised” from two stories he published in the pulp magazine “Black Mask.” Despite the fact the method left a few loose ends (who actually killed the chauffeur?), it was a writing method that worked. The Big Sleep, although it sold only moderately well on publication, would come to define the work of one of the major American writers of the last century, an author who spanned the divide between crime fiction and the best of American literature.

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If The Big Sleep, often regarded as the best of Chandler’s seven Philip Marlowe novels, seems to lose its thread at times, it’s because Chandler was more interested in developing characters and in creating a distinctive atmosphere for them to inhabit. He was a prose stylist of the first order, famous for his subtly cynical turn of phrase.

How about: “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” Or: “Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a domed brown forehead that might at careless glance seemed a dwelling place for brains.” And again: “She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”

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The narrative voice is one of wry disdain for much of what he encounters. Marlowe’s a scarred bachelor, a loner who battles corruption, a hardboiled detective who walks about without a gun. He lives by his own code, with the humour to sustain it.

The Big Sleep is densely plotted, but the story is engaging more for its offbeat emotional tone, than trying to figure out who murdered who. By the end of it Marlowe is ready for a couple of double Scotches, quickly adding, “They didn’t do me any good.”

Perhaps he should have gone with gin.

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The Gin:  TanquerayNo. 10

www.tanqueray.com

The Books:  The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favourite tipple was gin. So when a gin comes along boxed in Art Deco design, and then I discover special editions of Fitzgerald’s books wrapped in Art Deco design, it looks to be a match made This Side of Paradise.

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THE GIN

Neat: Crisp and clean, with citrus leading the way past the juniper. On the palate, warm and creamy citrus (lime and orange especially) and a nicely integrated peppery note. Add to that a camomile undercurrent and you have a rich and classy gin. A match for its swank bottle. (47.3% abv)

In a Gin Rickey (Fitzgerald’s favourite): I can’t say the Gin Rickey did much for me. Rather watered down. As a cocktail, G&T would have been a better route. I’m thinking neat with one ice cube of tonic.

The premium Tanqueray No. 10, the first gin to use fresh citrus in its production, was introduced in the year 2000, to much acclaim. It has garnered a heap of awards and has continued to be a standout in the midst of all the recent buzz about craft gin. Its goes to show you can indeed teach an old gin maker new tricks.

Tanqueray was first distilled by Charles Tanqueray in 1830 in London. The 20-year-old had decided against following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-uncle, all of whom were clergymen. Charles was an inventor with a deep interest in science, including the science behind gin distillation. He set out to refine the process, and in doing so pioneered a style that became known as London Dry Gin.

Production would flourish into the new century, in the hands of his descendants, and would even survive massive damage in the London Blitz of WWII. The distillery eventually relocated to Essex, and then in 1995 to Cameronbridge, Fife, Scotland. Tanqueray is now owned by the spirits giant Diageo.

lovely-package-tanquerey-number-ten-4It is in Scotland that No. 10 was born, using the only still salvaged from the WWII bombings, the esteemed, hand-riveted Old Tom. Using the standard bearers of Tangueray — juniper, coriander, angelica, and liquorice — No. 10 sees the addition of fresh white grapefruit, fresh lime, and fresh orange, as well as camomile flowers. To safeguard that fresh citrus character only 60% of the final distillation continues on to the next stage and into that eye-catching bottle with a bottom shaped like a citrus juicer.

THE BOOKS

The Great Gatsby is generally considered F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s masterpiece, and the defining novel of the Jazz Age. It is the American Dream gone sour, and many critics would argue that a better American novel has yet to be written.

All posthumous praise. The book sold poorly upon publication in 1925 and when Fitzgerald died fifteen years later he did so burdened with the thought that as a writer he had been a failure.

f-scott-fitzgerald-books-0Fitzgerald had a famously troubled life. He dealt constantly with alcoholism and lack of money. He struggled through a fiery marriage with the unstable Zelda Sayre, played out among the style-setters of New York, Paris and the Riviera.

It did give Fitzgerald much to write about. The Great Gatsby is set among the well-to-do of Long Island, where the couple lived in the early 1920s. A shady young millionaire, Jay Gatsby and friends drift from party to party, in a decadent stupor much of the time. Only the narrator, Nick Carraway, seems able to maintain a perspective on the precariousness of their wealth.

Nine years later came publication of Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel. Despite the author’s great expectations for the book, it also met with a tepid reception and mediocre sales, and again its reputation was built largely when Fitzgerald was no longer around to enjoy it, or reap the financial rewards. In some quarters it is felt to be superior to The Great Gatsby, and I would hold to that assessment. I found it to be the more engaging of the two, with characters more nuanced and complex.

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At the centre of the story are Dick Diver, a young psychiatrist, and his wife Nicole, an heiress who was once his patient. Nicole’s mental state bears a distinct resemblance to that of Zelda, and, indeed the book draws heavily on real individuals and situations, including the sections focused on Dick’s affair with a young actress and his frustration at marrying a woman who impeded a promising career and led him to alcoholism.

The novel is set for the most part in France and Switzerland. (On a personal note, I was interested to discover a short scene set at the Beaumont Hamel memorial park near Amiens, referencing the many Newfoundland soldiers who died there during the Great War.)

The novel is imbued with the lifestyle of rich expat Americans. Like The Great Gatsby, it deals in lives characterized by excess, something that seems to define certain eras in Western society. Fitzgerald’s writing rang true in the self-indulgent 1980s as much as it did in the 1920s. Perhaps as much in Mar-a-Lago today as it once did in Biarritz.

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The Whisky:  LaphroaigCàirdeas 2017

www. laphroaig.com

The Book:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Laphroaig. Whisky to separate the fearless from the fainthearted. Last year I toured and tasted at the Laphroaig Distillery on Islay. As the sign next to the peat kiln said: “A fiery, peaty punch in the throat!” Monstrous. Unforgettable. Frankensteinian.

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THE WHISKY

To the eye a restrained yellow gold, preparation for a more subtle Laphroaig nose than I’m used to. Sweetish medicinal, layered with citrus and vanilla. But on the palate, that’s the Laphroaig I’ve been waiting for. Fiery, peaty, creamed smoke–a gentler punch in the throat than some, but no mistaking that Islay madness. Love it, and at 57.2% abv, love it more. (non-chill filtered, no added colour)

Laphroaig is a renegade among distilleries. It still malts some of its barley in house, a rare sight these days. Its product is distinct and pulls no punches. Either you love it or you grimace. There’s no fence-sitting on this one.

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Laphroaig as a commercial product had its start in 1815. The whisky being distilled by barley farmers on this particular section of Islay had developed a reputation as something distinct and rather impressive. Much of it had to do with the character of the Kilbride Stream water (soft, peaty, without minerals) and the Glenmachrie peat bog (heather, lichen, and a high ratio of moss). They gave the whisky a smoky, iodine/medicinal profile.

Over the years the various distillery owners and managers have each left their mark on Laphroaig, perhaps none more so than Bessie Williamson, who ran the place in the 1950s and 60s, one of the first women to oversee the operations of a major whisky distillery.

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These days John Campbell is the distillery manager. Each year since 2008 he’s crafted a limited edition malt he’s labelled Càirdeas (Gaelic for “friendship” and pronounced car-chass). Past editions have included maturation in casks that previously held port, Amontillado sherry, and Madeira. With Càirdeas 2017 the focus is on the use of quarter casks (as in the standard Laphroaig Quarter Cask bottling) and its release at cask strength.

To begin, 5-11 year-old spirit is matured in first-fill ex-Maker’s Mark bourbon casks of European oak, then combined before finishing for a further 6 months in 125-litre quarter-casks of American oak.

The result? To quote John Campbell: “A dentist, a farmer and a carpenter captured in a glass. Slainte!”

THE BOOK

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, a Modern Prometheus. It was January 1, 1818 that the 20-year-old Mary Shelley published (anonymously) a Gothic novel informed by the age of Romanticism, and one of the very first works of science fiction. It has become an enduring classic of 19th century literature, with over 300 editions, including this handsome Rockport anniversary release, with outstanding illustrations by David Plunkert.

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In the summer of 1816 Mary Godwin had started what would become the novel, during a sojourn with her lover, the already-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, to a villa on Lake Geneva, home of his friend, the poet Lord Byron. To relieve boredom during a bout of bad weather, Byron had challenged his half dozen guests to each write a horror story.

During the nights that followed Mary’s sleep was plagued by the image of someone reassembling body parts to construct a man and bring him to life, only to have the creature turn against him. It was the stimulus she needed to write her story. Then, at the suggestion of Percy, she took on the task of expanding it into a novel.

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It is surprising the novel was ever written, considering the domestic turmoil taking place around her. During the months she spent working on the book, her stepsister gave birth to Byron’s illegitimate child, her half-sister committed suicide, as did the pregnant wife Shelley had deserted to live with Mary. She herself was pregnant again by Shelley (their first child had died), and with only five weeks to the time the baby would be born she was putting the finishing touches to the manuscript.

Mary_Wollstonecraft_Shelley_Rothwell.tifShe feared the public reaction to such a frightful story, particularly one from a woman, so she chose not to attach her name to it. Even at that the attention the initial, 500-copy publication of the book did receive was often hostile. One of the reviewers wrote: “The author leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.”

Only in its second edition, four years later, did her name appear. As it happened, it was the early theatrical adaptions of the book that led to its increasing popularity. Even so, by the time of her death at age 53 Shelley could never have suspected the monumental influence the book would eventually have, in both literary and popular culture.

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