Skip to content

The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Tequila:  Gran CentenarioAñejo

The Books:  Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I’m in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There seem to be angels everywhere, including in a shop devoted to painted angel wings. The tequila’s label celebrates the “Angel of Independence” and in this part of the country the history of the struggle for Mexican Independence is all around me. It’s a good place to be reading a Mexican writer with a spirit of rebellion.



Bright amber in the glass. On the nose, spice overlaying sweet agave. On the taste buds, smooth yet eager to display notes of caramel and cinnamon, oak and agave. Very satisfying. (38% abv)


In 1895 tavern owner Lazaro Gallardo started selling tequila to customers, calling it Gran Centenario, in celebration of the upcoming turn into a new century. (He is also said to have called on an angel to keep a close eye on his agave plants.) By 1920 his son Luciano began marketing the tequila in an Art Deco-inspired bottle similar to the one used today.

The basis of the añejo is 10-12-year-old Highland Blue Agave, estate-grown in the high altitude, iron-rich soil of Hacienda Los Camichines, Jalisco. The agave is roasted for 72 hours (longer than is common for most tequila production), then aged in French Limousine oak for three years. Gran Centenario uses something it calls Suave Selección, the blending of different barrel batches, the sum making a premium tequila.

Gran Centenario also markets a plata (aged for 28 days) and a reposado (aged 10 months). It is still thought of as carrying on a long-standing family tradition of tequila-making, although it is now one of several spirit brands in the portfolio of the U.S-based Proximo Spirits, owned by the Beckmann family of Mexico.


200px-Juan_villalobos_2012Juan Paulo Villalobos grew up in Mexico, but has lived for many years in Barcelona. It would seem he cannot escape the deep impression the country of his youth made on him. Not that we would expect him to, given the perplexities of Mexican society.

These are two short, exceptional books. Down the Rabbit Hole, Villalobos’s first novel (here expertly translated by Rosalind Harvey), is narrated by a ten-year-old boy, Tochtli. He’s the son of a drug lord, Yolcaut (a.k.a. The King), and except for a brief foray abroad, the story takes place inside his isolated, palatial fortress. The voice is not what one might expect of Latin American literature, and the novel is far from typical Mexican crime fiction, so-called narco-literature.

Tochtli is no ordinary lad. He has no friends his age. He spends his time, when he’s not being tutored, playing video games, organizing his vast hat collection, watching samurai movies, craving the addition of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus to the palace’s collection of exotic creatures, and studying the dictionary. His precocious vocabulary animates the narrative to something both amusing and unsettling.

“Today I’m devastatingly desperately bored. I’m bored because I don’t leave the palace and because every day is the same.” …”Yolcaut hasn’t been out of the walls either. He spends his time talking on the phone giving orders. Miztli says it’s fucking chaos outside.”

“Devastating” is a favourite word. So are “sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic.” Sometimes misused, often intensified with expletives, they echo Tochtli’s routine existence, surrounded by stockpiles of guns and money,  where the talk is of beheadings and disposal of corpses.

“Pathetic” as it is, the boy makes a life for himself. To Tochtli it’s normal; to the reader it’s the writer’s deft sardonic exposé of the Mexican underworld. Villalobos maintains the warped perspective, without the reader ever once doubting Tochtli is still a kid. We smile and ache for him, and wish there was a way for him out of these “sordid” surroundings.


Quesadillas, Villalobos’s second novel, is as off-beat as the first. It too has a boy narrator, 13-year-old Orestes, one of seven children named by their teacher father after classical Greeks. Orestes (Oreo for short) is second in line to his nemesis Aristotle. The twins, Castor and Pollux, bring up the rear. All seven are in severe competitions for food (i.e. quesadillas) in a dirt-poor family living in a dilapidated shoebox of a house, in a town where “there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints, and so forth.”

It is a bizarre rendition of 1980s Mexico, but again it is Villalobos jabbing his pen at Mexican social order, and at the magic realism mode of Latin American literature, while entertaining and unnerving the reader. When Castor and Pollux disappear in a supermarket, the family is thrown into a frenzy, although there is some consolation to be had in the fact that the quesadillas don’t have to stretch quite so far. And when a well-to-do Polish family shows up in the neighbourhood, with a lifestyle in disheartening contrast to what he knows, Orestes strikes out on his own and straight into a series of bizarre escapades. Eventually the path leads him back home and to more oddity in the form of work in the vividly-depicted business of bovine artificial insemination.

The narrative is wacky and outrageous, engaging in itself, but it’s also a front to mock the corruption long rooted in Mexican politics. With Quesadillas (again adeptly translated by Rosalind Harvey) Juan Paulo Villalobos once more steps out of the mainstream of Mexican literature with a novel that’s at once impressive and provocative.


Tags: , , , , ,

The Whisky:  The Lakes DistilleryThe One 

The Books:  The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The whisky billed itself as “the one and only British Isles blended whisky.” The books needed to be distinctly British. I reread Ishiguro’s Booker-winning masterwork, forever a favourite, and his more recent dystopian novel, also much admired. Calm, controlled, British.



Light gold in the glass, and to the nose — sweet spice, with a faint note of smoke. On the palate it ramps up — creamed vanilla, nut spice, and more pronounced smoke. Pleasing, showing a depth of character, easy going down. Nicely done.  (40% abv)

The Lakes Distillery in scenic Cumbria, UK opened in December of 2014, in what was once a Victorian Model dairy farm, from the 1850s. It is the only distillery to be situated within both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a smashing complex, the old buildings of local stone and slate refurbished with glass and metalwork. Its entrance gates have become the showpiece of a distillery that already attracts over 100,000 visitors annually.


It markets gin, vodka, and liqueurs, has a first-class bistro and a shop with a voluminous array of themed merchandise, but its first single malt is not due for release until later this year. In the meantime, founder and managing director Paul Currie (formerly of the Arran Distillery, which he started with his father) has come up with The One, a blend that draws from several whisky distilleries around the British Isles. Which distilleries exactly, nobody is saying. It’s a very clever marketing strategy, for the first time mixing whiskies from the few distilleries in England and Wales with the multitude to be found in Ireland and Scotland.

Its hand-crafted copper stills draw water from the source of the River Derwent high up in the Lakeland fells near Bassenthwaite Lake. It has sourced the finest of materials including its sherry and bourbon casks, tasking itself with creating an outstanding distillery from scratch. There will be a lot of eyes focussed on its single malt. Time — that all-important component of whisky-making — will tell if the expert team behind the brand will be rewarded with a standout whisky.


I was cheered by the announcement last fall that Kazuo Ishiguro had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (as cheered as if it had been the long overdue Philip Roth). The Remains of the Day has been an unqualified favourite since I first read the novel shortly after its 1989 publication.


As a controlled study of character within the structure of a first person narrative I know of few books to match it. It is a fascinating, ultimately saddening account of the emotionally repressed Stevens, butler to the household of one Lord Darlington. Now beyond his best days, Stevens can only tentatively question the direction his life has taken, given how all consuming has been the persona he adopted. It has been duty and dignity above all else, even when Nazi sympathy showed itself in the political meetings his master hosted during pre-WWII England.

The single ray of hope for Stevens ever being touched by the love of a woman is in Miss Kenton, another member of the Darlington staff. But his unwillingness to let his stiff professionalism abate for but a crucial moment, causes her to slip from him, eventually marrying and moving away. The novel is set within the framework of a motoring expedition Stevens undertakes some decades later, after the estate has been sold and he is now butler to a rich, breezy American. He is headed for a reacquaintance with Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, following correspondence that hints at an unhappy marriage and her wanting to return to her old position.

As stubbornly proper as Stevens remains, no matter the circumstance, the reader is taken in by the man, a tribute to Ishiguro’s attention to emotional and physical detail. The writer remains unfailingly true to the world he has created. A book of exceptional understated power.



Never Let Me Go is in some ways a very different book. It is at once contemporary and futuristic, set in an alternate reality. Yet, in its narrative restraint, in its choice of subtle over explosive prose, the novel is trademark Ishiguro.

The narrator Kathy, and her closest friends Ruth and Tommy, have grown up in Hailsham, a boarding school in the secluded English countryside, where they come to think of themselves as special and in need of constant protection from the wider world. Over time (and Ishiguro lets it unfold quietly, steadily) we come to realize these adolescents are in fact clones, brought into the world, sterilized, and kept in the best of health so that eventually, as adults, they will give themselves over to a sequence of organ donations, and eventually death.

The questioning that is inevitable as they grow up and leave the confines of Hailsham is held in check by the frightening level of comfort they take from the role assigned to them. They have always borne the knowledge they are different (sex comes as needed, for example, and never with the fear of pregnancy) and their fate is largely approached as inevitable.

While the reader may want them to rage at what is happening, the characters are not about to react in this way. Again, that restraint, that control is where the novel derives its greatest strength, and Ishiguro demonstrates his finest gift as a writer.

Tags: , , , ,

The Whiskies:  Jack Daniel’sSampler

The Stories:  A  Christmas Memory & One Christmas by Truman Capote

It’s been a particularly busy Christmas (what with nine house guests and all!), but there has to be time to revisit my favourite Christmas story, this year accompanied by its companion piece, accompanied by some samples of Southern whiskey. Truman Capote’s aging cousin, Miss Sook, would surely approve.



The flagship Old No. 7 Tennessee whiskey: amber to the eyes, vanilla and caramel to the nose, and on the palate a lightly honeyed, alcohol bite cutting the sweetness. Smooth and inviting, surprisingly good.

Tennessee Honey: A honey liqueur blended with whiskey. Label says it all.

Tennessee Fire: A cinnamon liqueur blended with whiskey. Label says more than enough. Liquid candy.

Gentleman Jack: Thinner than expected. Smooth and light. Gentlemanly.

Single Barrel Select: Amber glow. Sharper profile to the nose. Coming on strong on the palate at 47%. A more powerful punch. Spicy, sweet edge, but with a smart, more distinctive flavour mix: pepper, dark fruit, nut. The finest of the lot.


Produced in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s has grown into one of the great success stories of American spirits, with 500 employees and annual sales of more than 11 million cases of the square-bottled, black-labelled No. 7, in 160 countries. It is hardly the folksy operation that its image might suggest. Marketing, in fact, has done wonders for it.

And whiskey it is, not bourbon. Charcoal filtering (using New England sugar maplewood, charred on site) is the distinguishing aspect of production. The distillate  from the copper stills is dripped through a 10-ft column, what the company calls “mellowing”, before being stored in JD’s own handmade oak barrels.

tl-horizontal_mainJasper Newton “Jack” Daniel, of Scots-descent, was born around 1850 (the exact date is unknown). He was the youngest of his mother’s ten children (his father had three others). His mother died not long after Jack was born and eventually he fell under the care of a callous stepmother (and mother of a few more to add to his father’s count). Jack ran away from home as a young teenager, and was taken under the wing of a local lay preacher and, as fate should have it, a moonshiner. Dan Call taught him the trade, though some now suggest it was really the man’s black slave, Nearest Green, who did the teaching. Jack and Call teamed up to found a legal distillery. Before long the preacher’s faith caused him a change of heart, and Jack become the sole owner.

By the mid-1880s the Lynchburg distillery had expanded to become the second largest in the county. A dozen years later the square bottle was adopted and an iconic whiskey made its first appearance on the production line. Jack died in 1911 but the Old No. 7 (the distillery’s original government registration number) would live on to become the No. 1 selling American whiskey in the world.


Truman Capote was also shaped by a troubled childhood. He was born in 1924 in New Orleans. When he was four his parents divorced, his mother took off to New York, and Truman was sent to live with her relatives in Alabama. They were an odd lot, though the boy found refuge in his relationship with an aged, but childlike cousin, whom be called “Sook.” She called him “Buddy.”

truman and sookThe pair seemed inseparable, until at age 8, Truman was returned to his flighty mother, now living with her new husband in Manhattan. He was soon showing promise as a writer, but within a few years they sent him off to a military academy to toughen him up. It proved a disaster. Estranged from his family again, he gradually developed a persona as an entertaining story-teller, a raconteur, a bon vivant. Among his classmates it made him the centre of attention. It would carry him through life, and make of him a legendary literary figure, the author as well known for his story-making antics among the social elite as for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood.

The roots of his two poignant Christmas stories go back to the years he spent as a young kid in Alabama.  “A Christmas Memory” was originally published in Mademoiselle magazine in December of 1956.

“Its fruitcake weather!” And Sook and Buddy set out into the countryside, hauling their “buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage”, to gather pecans needed for Sook’s annual Christmas cake-baking marathon. Whiskey was a central ingredient and their encounter with the old bootlegger adds to the story’s edge of nonconformity, as does the scene of the pair getting tipsy on the leftover booze.

Its appeal is in the evocation of rural Alabama in the 1930s, together the portrait of a boy who struggles to find love and acceptance as a stern reality swirls around him. It is as affecting as anything Capote wrote.

truman and father“One Christmas” was the last of Capote’s short stories, first published in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1982. He would die two years later of complications brought on by alcohol and drug abuse.

In this story Buddy leaves his beloved Sook for New Orleans by bus, forced to spend Christmas with a father he has never known. He is thrown into an adult world of restaurants and parties, and his father’s gigolo lifestyle. Buddy plays on his father’s need to gain his affection and when he heads back to Alabama at the end of the visit it is with an expensive model airplane. And a child’s fragile understanding of a father’s imperfections.

Together the stories allow glimpses into Capote’s erratic childhood and the emotions that underpinned a highly creative, unorthodox life.



Tags: , , , , , ,

The Calvados:  Christian DrouinPays d’Auge – Pomme Prisonnière

The Book:  Madame BovaryGustave Flaubert

Could one liken Madame Bovary, psychologically imprisoned in rural Normandy, to an apple captive in a bottle of Norman calvados? Ummm, yes, at the risk of sounding banal.



Light straw in colour, with a golden glow. Apple (of course!) coming through on the nose. Warm and fruit-forward. Light on the palate, but with a reassuring lilt of creamy stewed pomme, its goodness now freed. Yet not without a subtle alcoholic bite.  (40% abv)

So, to get directly to the point, how did that apple get in the carafe? Very carefully.

In 1980 Christian Drouin, after 20 years of calvados production, began a partnership with Didier Alleaume, an arborist who lives near Honfleur, not far from the Drouin estate. Alleaume had for years been capturing pears inside bottles and filling them with calvados as special gifts, especially for weddings. (Bride beware.) Drouin persuaded him to experiment with apples. And after testing some 28 varieties, they found success.

pomme prisoniere

The key is timing. The growing apple embryo must be placed through the neck of the carafe at just the right time. That means Didier Alleaume and his son Thibault must work furiously over a few days in May. With the embryo inside the carafe, it is inverted, then attached to the tree branches by two wires. Through the days of summer sun, the apples grow. And then at the end of August, the bottles are unhooked and the apples snipped carefully away from the branch. About 50-60% are well formed enough to take the carafe to next step of cleaning and transport to the Drouin estate.

There they are filled with 3-year-old Calvados Pays d’ Auge, and allowed to macerate for a year, giving the apple flavours a chance to blend with those of the calvados. Several thousand bottles are produced each year.

The history of Christian Drouin Calvados goes back to 1960 when Christian Drouin senior, an industrialist from Rouen, bought a farm in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy, with the express purpose of distilling premium calvados. Soon his son Christian was part of the enterprise and now Guillaume Drouin, representing the third generation, shares the reins.


This “Coeur de Lion” estate is traditional in its approach — in the low-yielding, high stemmed apple trees (balancing bitter, bittersweet, sweet and acidulous varieties); in the fact that there is just a single pressing of the fruit mash. Once distilled, the spirit is aged in oak casks of various sizes, and carefully stored under optimal conditions. Christian Drouin is one of the France’s most prodigious calvados estates, esteemed for its vintage calvados, winner of numerous medals, and awarded a European Prestige Grand Prix for the whole of its production. Its calvados is sold in 40 countries world-wide.


For Madame Bovary, my bookshelves offered up three choices of translator: Eleanor Marx-Aveling (1886), Geoffrey Wall (1992), and Lydia Davis (2010). I kept returning to the Davis translation. And occasionally to that of Marx-Aveling, if mostly for the wonderful illustrations in the Limited Editions Club edition of 1938.


Flaubert set forth no simple task for a translator, considering he worked on the novel for up to 12 hours a day for months on end, abandoning far more of the writing than he kept. He was in a constant struggle for exactly the right phrase. Sometimes he had to be content with taking a week to produce a single page of manuscript. He once wrote, “A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” And then again, “Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.” Woe the translator.

It took Davis three years, and while any translation has its detractors, that of Davis (a very fine writer herself) has been much-admired. I felt an ease of writing, a spirit in the prose that gave it a contemporary feel, without sacrificing the 19th century sensibility.

Flaubert strives for us to appreciate the plight of Emma Bovary, if not to admire her character. She swirls though the habits and obsessions of the provincial  bourgeoise society with an indifference that would be endearing were she not so self-absorbed. She seems constantly and hopelessly in love with anyone but her doctor husband, Charles. She has little time for the dullard and even less for her young daughter. She is eager to give up everything to the promise of romance, but when her lovers turn out to be more often cads than gentlemen, the heartbreak sends her spiralling to an excruciating early demise.

220px-Gustave_Flaubert_youngEven if we tire of Emma’s narcissism, we still relish the writing. That literary doggedness on the part of Flaubert paid off wonderfully. The woman and the world surrounding her are rendered with exacting prose unmatched by any novel that came before it. It is a seminal work of realism, a novel that changed the way novels were written.

Take this passage, coming after Emma has been seduced by one of the aforementioned cads:

“The evening shadows were coming down; the horizontal sun, passing between the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all around her, patches of light shimmered in the leaves or on the ground, as if hummingbirds in flight had scattered their feathers there. Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.”

Or, more in keeping with thoughts of an apple imprisoned in calvados, there’s Flaubert’s rending of the feast laid for the doomed marriage of Emma and Charles:

“It was in the cart shed that the table had been set up. On it there were four roasts of beef, six fricassées of chicken, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and, in the middle, a nice roast suckling pig, flanked by four andouille sausages flavored with sorrel. At the corners stood the eau-de-vie, in carafes. Sweet cider in bottles pushed its thick foam up around the corks, and every glass had been filled to the brim, beforehand, with wine. Large plates of yellow custard that quivered at the slightest knock to the table displayed, on their smooth surfaces, the initials of the newlyweds drawn in arabesques of nonpareils.”

Tags: , , , , ,

The Whisky:  JuraProphecy

The Book:  Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

To visit the Scottish island of Jura, as I did some months back, is surely to feel the combined auras of the single malt and a good book. The island of 200 inhabitants is home to the Jura Distillery. It is also where, in an isolated cottage in the north of the island, George Orwell wrote the iconic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.



In the glass — amber red. On the nose the peat fire takes the lead, with anise following, and citrus spice a few steps behind. On the palate, not the rough-and-ready peaty chaps from neighbouring Islay, but nonetheless there’s lots of smoke to meet any challenge. Just enough in fact to let the pepper and spice and dried fruit show through. Very nice, now or in the future.  (46% abv, non-chillfiltered)


[The ferry from Islay arriving in Jura, with Islay’s Caol Ila Distillery in the distance.]

The Jura Distillery is much more than a side trip while touring the big distillery guns of Islay. It’s a whisky world unto itself. I’ve never had a better distillery tour than the one Rachael gave me and my wife and a troop of six Danish whisky chums.

Commercial whisky production on Jura is rooted in the early 1800s. That era’s distillery eventually fell on hard times and in 1901 ceased operation. With the island’s population dwindling, in 1963 plans were set in place to revive the industry. A new distillery took shape in Craighouse, the island’s largest settlement, under the ownership of Glasgow whisky producers Whyte & Mackay (now owned by the Philippines-based Alliance Global Group). In recent years sales of Jura whisky has grown by leaps and bounds and the distillery looks to be a permanent fixture on the Jura landscape.



That landscape has far more deer than people, and plenty of peat. In the early decades of the revived distillery there was no sign of it in the whisky, however. Its customers preferred light spirit, for use in their non-peated blends. First, with the release of “Superstition”, and most definitely with “Prophecy”, the peat is making a name for itself. The label calls it “heavily peated”, which it certainly is by Jura standards. There’s also an eye-like symbol on the bottle. I would suggest it was partly put there to keep an eye on this peated leap of faith.

The distillery would tell you otherwise, that there’s a one-eyed storyline in the island’s past. In the early 1800s the Campbells, rulers of Jura at the time, evicted an old seer, who set upon them a curse, prophesying that the last Campbell would leave the island one-eyed and with his worldly processions in a cart drawn by a white horse. Supposedly, it all came to pass in 1938 when poverty-stricken Charles Campbell, blinded in one eye during WWI, gave up Jura, escaping in, yes, a white horse-drawn cart. It’s a great back story to a fine whisky.

But I like to think that George Orwell’s writing of his prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four would make for a even better one.

(In 2014 Jura Distillery did pay homage to Orwell with a limited release – 1,984 bottles – of a 1984 vintage whisky. It’s well out of my price range, however, as it edges ever closer to $1984 on the secondary market.)


Is there a 20th century novel that has added more words to our political discourse? Big Brother. Newspeak. Thought Police. Doublethink. Orwellian. When White House Councillor Kellyanne Conway spoke of “alternate facts” did it not send an Orwellian chill up our collective spines?

Nineteen Eight-Four has reemerged as essential reading. To follow Winston Smith into the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical documents and destroys the originals in order to produce what the state would have as the official history, is to enter into a manufacturing centre of “fake news.” To proclaim that 2+2 = 5, as the infallible Party would have it, is to view the photographs of Trump’s inaugural crowds and then in a White House press briefing hear it declared “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

UnknownAn iconic work of world literature to be sure (translated into 65 languages at last count), but it might come as a surprise to know just how close we were to never having this dystopian benchmark. George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Blair) struggled to write Nineteen Eighty-Four in the final few years of his life, much of that time marked by very poor health, including a bout with tuberculosis. Just six months after it was published in 1949, Orwell was dead, aged 46.

He had come to Jura from London in May of 1946, to an isolated house, Barnhill, owned by his friend David Astor, editor of the Observer. He came to escape the demands of journalism, plagued by an urgency to take on the writing of a complex novel that he’d had in mind for some time.


He was hardly in a state of mind to begin, still grieving as he was for his wife who had died suddenly the year before. He was left with a young son, Richard, a boy he and his wife had adopted the year prior to her death. After a time he was joined at Barnhill by Richard and his nanny, as well as Orwell’s sister, Avril, who took over the cooking and household chores, to give Orwell uninterrupted time to write. And to spend time with his son, whom he adored.

That first winter was desperately cold. There was no electricity. They burned peat to keep warm and if Orwell wrote after dark it was by a paraffin lantern. Yet, perhaps not strangely to people who knew Orwell, the isolation of the Hebridean outpost suited him. And despite persistent respiratory problems, by the spring of 1947 he had written a substantial portion of a first draft.

Over the summer near tragedy struck. Orwell, together with Richard, Avril, and some friends came close to drowning when when their motorboat overturned near the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool in the frigid waters off Jura. They were rescued, but Orwell’s health deteriorated further. He pressed on with his writing, but by November was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was taken to a hospital on the Scottish mainland.

At the time there was no cure for TB. His friend Astor arranged for a new experimental drug to be shipped from the United States, and by the spring of 1948, still weak from the debilitating treatment, Orwell was declared free of the disease. He returned to Barnhill. Under pressure from his publisher, he plunged back into the book, working most of the time while propped upright in his bed, including the tedious job of retyping the manuscript so overwritten with revisions that only he could decipher it.


By December of 1948, a fresh copy of the manuscript was on its way to his publisher, his deadline met. By June of the next year it was in print, to almost universal acclaim, considered a masterpiece from the very beginning.

Orwell was not to enjoy the acclaim for long. At the University College Hospital in London, on January 21, 1950 Orwell died. He was buried in a cemetery in Oxfordshire. The headstone reads “Eric Arthur Blair”.  There is no mention of his pen name, nor the writing that would forever stand as a warning to the uncertain world he left behind.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Bourbon:  Booker’s

The Book:  The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Booker Noe was a one-of-a-kind distiller, Eric Hoffer a one-of-a-kind philosopher. Together, can they ever help me understand how Trump ended up President?


Straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered, Booker’s is pure orange-mahogany and, at a whopping 64% abv, not to be intimidated. Intense nose  of caramel, oak, and nutty rye. Lots of sweet heat in the mouth, complex waves of wood and spice. An outlier. A tough Southern charmer. (batch 2015-15, aged 6 yrs 7 mths)


Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam, was master distiller at Beam distilleries in Clermont and Boston, Kentucky from 1965-1992. He liked to choose favourite barrels from the centre (fifth and sixth floors) of the rackhouse, where he believed the temperature and humidity made for perfect maturation, and from these bottle a little bourbon for his family and friends. In 1988 the idea went public and Booker’s Bourbon was born. It revived interest in premium bourbon. After he retired Booker travelled widely as a Beam ambassador, telling stories about his Kentucky roots, a glass of his beloved Booker’s never far out of reach. He was 6 ft. 4, of ample girth, a straight-talking man with a ready smile, full of homespun wisdom. When he died in 2004 he was already a legend.


Booker’s is one of four “small batch” bourbons marketed by Jim Beam, together with Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden. It’s generally considered the best of the bunch, although each has its champions. Jim Beam, the world best selling bourbon brand, is now under the umbrella of Japan’s Suntory Holdings, but Beam decendants are still very much in evidence. Booker’s son Fred is now the master distiller, carrying on the tradition of releasing premium products that stir up the market. Booker’s Rye, the first rye whiskey under the Booker’s brand was named “World Whiskey of the Year” in the 2017 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

Booker would be proud.

Would he have voted for Trump? He strikes me as a man who bucked the system, and Kentucky went 62.5% in favour of the Republicans, carrying all eight electoral seats. I’d give Booker the benefit of the doubt. I won’t let it stand in the way of a good slug of his bourbon.


Eric Hoffer was born in New York City in 1898. His parents had emigrated from Alsace, then part of Germany. Hoffer learned to read at an early age but when he was 7 he suddenly went blind and for the next 8 years remained that way, never returning to school. When he suddenly regained his sight, he devoured books, fearful he might go blind once again. Hoffer was a self-taught man, had no academic training, spending much of his working life as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. He didn’t marry and in his off hours could often be found in the public library. He filled countless notebooks with his own thoughts about what he read. From 1951 to the time of his death in 1983, he published ten books on moral and social philosophy. His first remains his best known — The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.


Interest in the book spiked when Dwight Eisenhower listed Hoffer as his favourite author. Sixty-five years later Hilary Clinton was distributing copies to her staff during her campaign for president. Needless to say, Trump wasn’t. His acolytes would have recognized Hoffer’s description of a mass-movement leader:

Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable. The main requirements seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it…


I came to this book after seeing repeated references in articles that attempted to explain how a bombastic reality show host / real estate tycoon with no political experience massed a following big enough to send him to the White House. Although the book moves about in various directions, my own interest spiked when I read, as I did time and time again, hypotheses that seem to fit Trump to a capital T.

The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world. . . .There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.” 

The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.

Hoffer’s book was written shortly after the end of WWII, with the rise of Nazism and Fascism still fresh in the author’s mind. They serve as ready reference, but so does Christianity and Islam, and an array of other political revolutions. What’s fascinating is the thesis that there are common elements underlying all mass movements (no matter if they end up for the good or not), often a reflection of the human willingness to turn a blind eye to reason.

Hoffer style is terse, with a steady stream of aphorisms. He packs a lot into a page, so much so that it is an effort to retain all the points he makes. I took to adding check marks in the margins, at points I would return to…

All mass movements, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, reverent hope, hatred, and intolerance.



Tags: , , , , ,

The Pastis:  Henri Bardouin

The Books: Suspended Sentences and Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

France has had it hot this summer. I suspect there’s been a lot of sipping of that favoured French summer drink — pastis. Where I live, an August not quite so hot, but made for a sip of pastis, together with a pair of books set in Paris and Provence.



Most prefer it with water, often as an aperitif. I take it chilled and neat. Straw yellow in the glass, with herbaceous green highlights. On the nose, a potent aromatic mix, liquorice/star anise holding forth. On the palate, the anise stands its ground, surrounding a complex, intriguing infusion of 65(!) plants and spices, among them cardamon, mint, rosemary, chamomile, wild thyme, mugwort, lemon verbena, kidney vetch, borage, garden angelica, grains of paradise. Some summer days I relish a vigorous, inspired aniseed drink, (as I did this year on the day a partial solar eclipse did a colander-cut across the bottle). (45% abv)

Pastis is the French branch of the family of anise-flavoured spirits. Others include sambuca, ouzo, arak, raki (see the blog entry for January 2015), and mastika. The mix of the multitude of plants and spices to be found in Henri Bardouin pastis is the creation of Distilleries et Domaines de Provence, located in Forcalquier, a small town in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France. The distillery was established in 1898, refining the centuries-old tradition of making tonics and digestifs from the abundance of medicinal plants to be found in the terroir of the Montagne de Lure. Pastis means “mixture” in the Provençal language, and while all makers of pastis combine many different ingredients (foraged locally or imported), none use so many with quite the same refinement.

Henri B

The dried plants and spices are first macerated, each in its own optimal quantity of alcohol, at a strictly-regulated temperature and duration of maceration. Distillation follows, again the approach varying from one plant or spice to another. And finally the various flavour components are brought together, in a precise order dictated by decades of experience.

It makes for an uninhibited drink of earthy proportions.


When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, much of the literary world outside France was left confounded. Few Anglo-American readers knew anything about the author, given that only a handful of his many published works had been translated into English, and most of these were long out of print.

Publishers rushed to catch up. Suspended Sentences brings together three novellas from 1988-1993. It has been said of Modiano that “he is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature.” There is a distinctive similarity among this trio, indicative of the style and preoccupations that fill the author’s total literary output since his first book was published in 1968.


If there is a starting point to understanding Madiano’s work it is his discovery of his own father’s past during the WWII Nazi occupation of France. A Jew in Paris, he refused to wear the yellow star, and was detained by the Gestapo, Auschwitz his likely fate. However, he was released due to the intervention of a friend. As an older teenager, his son (born in 1945) came to the realization that his father survived the war because he did business on the black market and was associated with the Rue Lauriston gang, the French criminal underworld in league with the Gestapo.

It is a circumstance that underlies the whole of Modiano’s fiction. Though his writing might surround itself with the Paris of the post-war period, it consistently turns back to the Nazi era, seeking, but never finding, a satisfying understanding of it. It is fiction with the author never far removed from a storyline shaped by inadequate memory, overlaid with a directionless melancholy, while thinly embodying the genre of the detective novel.

The three novellas — Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin — are portraits of Paris, of its streets and cafés, and the secretive lives lived behind its shuttered windows. It is fiction that weaves in and out of stories, never with a firm grasp, struggling to makes sense of a fragmented past. Fiction fascinating in its momentary detail, and fascinating as variation on a single theme.


Honeymoon (1990) opens in a stiflingly hot Milan in August. At a hotel bar to escape the heat before catching a train to Paris, a documentary film-maker, Jean, learns that a Frenchwoman, Ingrid, has committed suicide in the hotel two days before. And he is astounded to discover that, as a young man of 20 hitchhiking in the south of France, he had encountered the very same woman, together with her lover Rigaud.

Jean casts aside his film plans and disappears into the outskirts of Paris, in pursuit of the story behind Ingrid’s death. Not surprisingly, to those who know Modiano’s work, it leads back to the time the Nazis occupied the city. And in this case also to Provence where Ingrid and her lover had escaped on the pretext of a ‘honeymoon.’

The fragility and inconclusiveness of the story is to be expected of Madiano, and to be relished. His words, spare and illusory, never quite reach a point of clarity, assuredly capturing the desolation of its human narrative. The novel circles the unknowable, exposing the entanglements of memory. It is fleeting and evocative, as atmospheric as a ‘film noir’ scene set in a Parisian café along an all but deserted street in the 1940s.


Tags: , , , , ,