The Whisky: The English Whisky Co. – Chapter 7
The Book: The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
To a Scotch drinker a whisky made in England is nothing if not intriguing. As intriguing as a Victorian woman dressed all in white dashing along a moonlit path.
The decanter holds pale citrus gold, no added colour and non chill-filtered, both welcome attributes. A rum-sweetened nose, showing fruit & nuts and traces of marzipan. Malt and spicy citrus on the palate, with a hint of salt. Bears a subtle, earthy elegance. (46% abv)
The English Whisky Co. built the St. George’s Distillery in Roudham, Norfolk in 2006, the first English distillery for the production of single malt in over a hundred years! Scottish eyes rolled.
Founders James Nelstrop and son Andrew (with a 600-year family history of growing grain behind them) were unrelenting in their determination to get it right. They deliberately chose Norfolk for the ready access to local, top-quality barley. The chosen site also offered an excellent underground supply of clean, pure water. The Nelstrops commissioned Forsyths of Rothes to build their copper stills. They imported first-rate ex-bourbon casks from the U.S., together with a prime range of other casks that once held sherry, port, and rum. The highly respected Iain Henderson (recently retired from Laphroaig) came onboard to set it all in motion. David Fitt, after working under the guidance of Henderson for several months, followed him as head distiller.
The results (sequentially numbered bottlings they call “Chapters”, some unpeated, some peated) garnered impressive reviews. Our Chapter 7, first released in 2010, is one of the most lauded. The whisky was matured for two years in ex-Jim Beam bourbon casks, then transferred to two refill rum casks, one from Jamaica, another from Guyana. There the spirit spent a year, before being vatted together, and bottled by hand several months later.
Since opening its doors the distillery hasn’t looked back. It has already expanded its warehouse capabilities, with output approaching 200,000 bottles annually.
A new age of English whisky has arrived. Five more distilleries are now producing whisky across the country. And there have been more than a few words swallowed north of the border.
The first instalment of The Woman in White appeared in November of 1859 in All the Year Round, a weekly magazine started by the author’s friend Charles Dickens. No one would have predicted that, by the time the final sentences appeared nine months later, practically the whole of London had become mesmerized by the superbly plotted, lurid tale of deceit, adultery, and criminal intrigue among the upper echelon of English society. And perhaps no one more so than the author himself, Wilkie Collins. When the first printing of the whole novel appeared a short time later, it sold out on its day of publication. And when an eager publisher proposed an advance for his next book, Collins dashed a letter off to his mother. “Five Thousand Pounds!!!!!! . . .Nobody but Dickens has made as much.”
Indeed so. For a time Collins outpaced Dickens in popularity. Woman in White perfume was soon for sale, as were Woman in White cloaks and bonnets. Society couples danced to The Woman in White Waltz. But of all his books that followed, only Moonstone would generate as much interest and have lasting impact on English literature. Dickens had no true rival.
The Woman in White has come to be seen as the first “sensation” novel, paralleling as it did the societal scandals of the day, just as Moonstone would be seen as introducing the genre of detective fiction to English literature. In the years that followed both books would have a host of imitators, but none as good as what came from the pen of Collins.
The qualities of The Woman in White that so captivated Victorian England are as seductive today as a century and a half ago. The book is a true page-turner, despite our literary distance from the mannered, convoluted way the characters sometimes express themselves. “If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry . . .” begins the opening narrative. One gets used to it quickly.
It is the intricate plot, and its wealth of well-drawn characters — from the rich, demure Laura Fairlie, and her look-alike, the much-harried Anne Catherick, to the scheming Sir Percival and his corpulent, equally fraudulent partner, Count Fosco — that snags the modern reader. Collins gives each a portion of the narrative, and through them allows the pieces of the puzzle to tumble about, falling into place in the author’s good time. It is no wonder the serialized version had readers craving the next issue of the magazine. Master storyteller Wilkie Collins knew what he was about.
As a point of interest, Collins had a great fondness for Norfolk. It was there, in the village of Winterton-on-Sea (fifty miles from Roudham), where he had gone in search of background material for a new novel, that he found the second great love of his life, and in time the mother of his three children. It is not known if he drank much whisky while in Norfolk, but the spirit does make several appearances in the very well-researched book that followed.
The Whisky: Highland Park – Dark Origins
The Book: Winter Tales – George Mackay Brown
George Mackay Brown’s bleak mid-Winter Tales, set in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, many touching on the Yuletide season, has me wishing for a warming dram of Orkney spirit.
All-natural, dark amber, not-quite mahogany in colour. (Christmas) sherry on the nose, with smoke and spice and nuts. Lovely sweetish, smokey burn on the palate. The taste of sherried spice, with earthy tones of nuts and chocolate. All in fine balance. Lingering mellow, sweet peat. (46.8% abv, non-chillfiltered, no added colour)
Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland and a landmark of the Orkney Islands where the ancestry is more Norse than Scot and a distinct, independent character prevails.
Founded in 1798, Highland Park has followed a colourful path to its present status as producer of some of the most highly regarded whisky anywhere. The distillery was founded on property formerly owned by Magnus Eunson, said to be a preacher and butcher during the daylight hours, illicit distiller and smuggler when the sun went down, which it does quite early during much of the year on Orkney. Dark Origins is homage to the man, his ominously hooded, shadowy image covering much of the whisky’s presentation box.
Here Highland Park has gone to the darker side. Inside the black matte bottle is a no-age-statement spirit, 80% matured in first-fill sherry casks (twice as many as its standard 12-year-old). It is a denser, peatier HP whisky, strongly influenced by the sherried European oak.
Yet it is Highland Park still. No ex-bourbon casks. Warehouses that use the traditional, labour-intensive dunnage method of maturation. And peat gathered from Hobbister Moor — a sweeter peat, distinctive to treeless Orkney, derived from heather and other low vegetation, rather than from trees as in Islay.
It is an experimental, range-extending, market-savvy Highland Park, but still one where quality itself is never in the dark.
George Mackay Brown is Orkney’s most famous literary figure. He was born in the town of Stromness and, except for a brief period at college on mainland Scotland, lived there until his death in 1996. He was never a well man, physically constrained by tuberculosis during much of his life. Yet, working within the solitude forced on him, he produced some of the most admired Scottish literature of the 20th century.
The collection of short stories, Winter Tales, published the year before his death, brings together some of his best short fiction. As an admiring Seamus Heaney wrote, his poetry and prose passed “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” In these stories, some drawing on the history of the place, more confronting the impact of modern life on its traditional ways, we are immersed in the scent, the moodiness, the aura of the Islands. Hardly surprising, the stories have a folkloric, mystical, ageless quality. It is as if an Orcadian stone mason had crafted the prose, surrounded as he would be by ancient standing stones, Norse ruins, and the great fortress of the North Atlantic.
Light and darkness are major elements of the stories, as are the reoccurring rituals of the calendar year. Several of them draw to an end at Yuletide, referencing the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, to which the author converted during the second half of his life. A favourite story is Ikey, with its 12 monthly segments that follow a tinker lad and his various encounters as he tramps about Orkney, culminating in the discovery among alehouse ruins of a shed, and from it a mother’s song and “the hidden sweet cry of the child.”
Through the 18 stories the reader turns from a recruiting visit to Orkney by Captain Bligh, to shipwrecked Scandinavians, to a wood carver escaping a nagging wife only to become a celebrated folk artist. Mackay Brown captures the timeless rhythms of human tenure on the islands, entwining his intimate knowledge of its past and present.
They are the stuff of hearthside tales, ones for which a dram of fine island spirit would only add to their telling.
The Whisky: Destilleriet Braunstein – Library Collection 12:2
The Play/Book: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare
Hold Benedict Cumberbatch to account for this one. His brilliant portrayal of Hamlet in this fall’s National Theatre production got me thinking what a modern day Danish prince might have in his glass.
Dark caramel/light mahogany in colour. Herbal sweet peat on the nose. Youthful in the mouth, with smoke and sherry-tinged fruit coming through. Leaves a lively and lasting impression. (46% abv)
Only 1000 bottles of this peated single malt were produced, released in 2012 as another in Braunstein’s Library Collection, innovatively packaged in the shape of a tall, thick book. I you are willing to be impressed by Danish whisky, this is a very good place to start.
The Braunstein distillery in Køge, just south of Copenhagen, was founded in 2005, following two years of brewing beer, a licensing requirement of Danish authorities, likely wary of young men who come back from fly fishing trips in Scotland with pipe dreams of distilling whisky, without any experience to back them up.
The two young men in question were brothers Michael and Klaus Braunstein Poulsen and by 2010 they were distilling and selling Denmark’s first single malt. Production remains relatively small, as does distribution outside their home country. This bottle was purchased in England, however, and China now imports Braunstein whisky.
Both peated and unpeated whisky are distilled. The peated malt is brought from Port Ellen in Scotland but Braunstein also uses organically-grown Danish barley. While the yeast is a byproduct of their own brewery, the water is sourced from Greenland icebergs! Distillation is in a Holstein still. In the case of our peated 12:2, maturing takes place in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks.
The Braunstein brothers proved the skeptics wrong. Careful planning and persistence eventually brought forth a world-class whisky. Something’s very right in the state of Denmark!
Is there a better known piece of literature? It’s very doubtful. Written about 1600, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a magnetism that draws audiences today as strongly as it has ever done. Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent 12-week London run in the title role sold out in a few hours, more quickly than any other show in the history of the British Theatre. The live-to-cinema performance, broadcast to movie theatres around the world, draw an audience of 225,000.
Playing Hamlet is a rite of passage for many serious actors. The list of others who have taken to it is diverse, sometimes surprising: Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Christopher Plummer, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, David Tennant, to name a few. Of the recent versions, I find Tennant’s take on the role, produced for BBC in 2009 and now available on YouTube, particularly fresh and compelling. (Dr) Who knew?
Every director and actor brings something unique; no two productions are alike. Again on the internet, you’ll find a compilation (by John Kenneth Fisher) of 17 different versions of the “fishmonger scene” in Act 2, Scene 2. Fascinating to see just how varied have been the interpretations of the same scene.
Hamlet’s motivations and the seeming contradictions in character continue to be the cause of endless debate. His wit plays against his profound melancholy and the stage reverberates with the Bard’s mastery of language. ‘To be or not to be,’ ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be,’ ‘what a piece of work is a man!’ They are all there, and so many more. Hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t ring with a famous line, accentuated for many of us by the decades of life experience that have passed since university English classes.
This is the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the play, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, enlivened by a fresh introduction, scene-by-scene analysis, an essay on landmark performances, etc, etc, together making for an all-round richer experience of the play.
I wonder what Shakespeare would have come up with had he turned his hand at whisky tasting notes? Without doubt something endlessly quoted by lovers of the dram.
The Cachaça: Porto Morretes – Cachaça Aged
The Books: Budapest and Split Milk by Chico Buarque
Cachaça is Brazil’s most popular distilled spirit, by far. About two billion litres are produced annually. I’d say a fair portion of that is drunk while listening and dancing to the music of the legendary Chico Buarque. And while reading his books.
Porto Morretes aged cachaça lights up the glass with an orange-gold glow. Oak vanilla and caramel round out a spicy aromatic nose. These notes deliver warmly but with considerable force, making for a rich, medium-complex taste experience. There’s flavourful, honeyed fire that eases off nicely. Robust and rewarding. Very danceable. (39.6% abv)
You might consider Brazilian cachaça a cousin to rhum agricole of the West Indies. Both are distilled, not from molasses as is most rum, but from the raw juice of the sugar cane. Premium cachaça is aged in oak. In the case of Porto Morretes, that’s for three years (bearing in mind that the influence of oak is speeded up by the heat of the tropics).
In Brazil the making of cachaça dates from the 1500s. Today there are some 40,000 producers throughout the country. Agroecologica Marumbi Ltda., the distiller behind Porto Morretes, was founded in 2004 and is located in southern Brazil, in quiet, historic Morretes, a town long known for its distillation of cachaça. It lies at the foot of the beautiful Pico Morumbi, within the protected area of the Atlantic Forest. It prides itself on it artisanal, organic production.
The climate is hot and humid, the soil fertile, allowing the pesticide-free terroir to produce a top-grade, unique sugarcane. The cane is harvested and selected by hand, its juice extracted and fed into temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. Fermentation follows, using only natural yeast.
Distillation is in copper stills, where the head and tail of the run are diverted and only the centre portion, the “heart”, ends up in oak barrels for aging. The result — an award-winning cachaça, much of which is exported to countries where it is still little known, finding its way to spirit drinkers looking for a new and exceptional product, running one step ahead of the crowd.
Very rare is the musician who can stand equally tall as a novelist. But Brazil’s Chico Buarque is just such a guy. For fifty years he has been one of the country’s most celebrated singer-songwriters. In the early 1990s, drawing on a life-long passion for literature, he took a side road into writing novels. There have been four to date, best sellers in Brazil, some award winning, all critically acclaimed. All have been translated into English — Turbulence, Benjamin, Budapest, and Spilt Milk.
They would seem to take little if anything from the author’s life as a musician. What they do share with his songwriting is commentary on Brazil’s political and social landscape. Yet, they are far from forays into realism. Budapest especially leans towards the work of Kafka and his successors.
At the centre of the story is a ghostwriter, José Costa. His office overlooks Rio’s Copacabana Beach, but his heart is in far-off Budapest. Having been stranded there for a night on a return flight from Istanbul, he is smitten by the city. And, as a man of words, just as smitten by the Hungarian language — “the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”
He is soon plotting a return to Budapest, leaving his television journalist wife and overweight, aloof young son, in favour of language classes with the intriguing Krista. He works a path through the entanglements of love, language, pumpkin rolls and Tokaji wine. All is not as it appears and when the life of the renamed Zsoze Kósta takes yet another absurdist turn we very willingly give ourselves over to the surreal games that an exceptional writer might play.
The protagonist of the even more accomplished Split Milk lived part of his life in a chalet that also overlooked Copacabana Beach. Eulálio d’Assumpção, a centenarian confined to the ward of a decrepit public hospital, began life in a mansion built on the profits of the slave trade. Through the decades his family fortune waned to such a point that in his old age Eulálio was forced into a hovel on the grimy fringes of the city. The generational descent — from his aristocratic great-great grandfather to a great-grandson who deals drugs — mirrors the changes which overtook modern Brazil.
But if Spilt Milk is a lesson in history it is a subtle one, fed through the highly personal voice of its aged narrator, a man who is by turns charming, irritating, tender, racist, amusing, unforgivable. In his decline he talks on and on to his nurse, his daughter, himself, anyone else who will listen, recounting episodes from his long life, without the filter that failed to follow him into old age and dementia. With their repeated telling, the line between what truly happened and what he imagined becomes increasingly blurred.
Buarque never loses sight of the man whose story he has chosen to tell. A man whose one profound, enduring loss was the sudden departure of his young wife, Matilde, who left him so long ago and without his ever understanding why. The novel is at its core a love story.
One begins to think what a solo career as Chico Buarque the writer might have produced. But then there would not have been his music, a thought which I sense in Brazil would be outright unpatriotic.
The Whiskey: Powers – John’s Lane 12 years
The Books: Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas and The Dubliners by James Joyce
Literary Dublin of a century ago calls for a dram to which James Joyce himself would give the nod.
Bright gold, with a darkened orange glow and looking very smart in the glass. A dried fruit-filled nose — sweetish, dense and lively. On the palate, smooth yet chewy, sun-dried spice and caramel. Warm, intense, purposeful, an altogether superior dram. Lingers long, and with the best of intentions. (non-chillfiltered, 46% abv)
Powers whiskey dates to 1791, when innkeeper James Power opened the John’s Lane Distillery on St. Thomas Street in Dublin. Over time it prospered, and by 1871, rebuilt in a grand Victorian style, it occupied seven acres, employed 300 people, and distilled nearly a million gallons a year. It was a Dublin landmark, renowned for its pot still whiskies.
When Alfred Barnard, author of the monumental “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” visited in 1886 he was more than impressed. Of the kilns he wrote: “. . .indeed elegant buildings. . .with open groined roofs, lined with wood and stained oak, like small English parish churches, in fact superior to many we have seen.” And so the spirit moved him. “The old make… was delicious and finer than anything we had hitherto tasted. It was as perfect in flavour, and as pronounced in the ancient aroma of Irish Whisky as dear to hearts of connoisseurs, as one could possible desire…”
In 1966 Powers, together with Jameson and Cork Distilleries, joined forces under the umbrella of Irish Distillers Ltd. Within a few years Powers’ Dublin operations had closed and was moved to County Cork. Over time the question arose as to what was the taste of the best spirit of the old John’s Lane Distillery. In other words, what had gotten Barnard so fired up?
Hence, the John’s Lane, first released in 2011. Whiskey in the style that made Powers famous — a special mash of malted and unmalted barley that is triple-distilled in traditional copper single pot stills, aged for 12 years, mostly in first-fill American bourbon casks, with a small amount in Spanish oloroso butts.
The result is a fine, historic example of single pot still whiskey that feels like it could have come straight off the production line in 19th century Dublin.
Samuel Riba, the anxiety-driven Spaniard at the centre of Dublinesque, is obsessed with Dublin. Unfortunately for him he lives in Barcelona and speaks no English. A newly retired literary publisher, he’s sorely disillusioned with the state of literature, prone to continuously grieving that he had never published a writer of genius. In what he conceives as a grand gesture, Riba gathers a disparate group of male friends and plans a pilgrimage to the city of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to coincide with Bloomsday, June 16, the day Joyce’s novel unfolds. It will be a funeral for the printed page.
It does not go well. His cohorts are unpredictable and veer from what Riba has in mind. They are prone to drinking sprees while Riba has sworn off alcohol, having solemnly promised his wife he would under no circumstances slip off the wagon. More disconcerting is the roaming, mysterious figure of a thin, bespectacled young man in a trench coat, looking all to much like Joyce’s protégé, Samuel Beckett.
If all this resembles metafictional play with an underlying seriousness, then take comfort that you are in the hands of Enrique Vila-Matas. He is a contemporary master of the genre-bending novel, who long ago eschewed traditional plot and character development as outdated and no longer of any real service to the reader.
Other approaches achieve more interesting ends. To Vila-Matas the author is as much a part of what he has read as he is of personal experience. Literary references abound, far beyond Joyce and Beckett — to Philip Larkin, Nabokov, Paul Auster, Tom Waits, David Cronenberg, Coldplay. The list goes on. Dublinesque is a contorted travelogue, a narrative essay somewhat in the shape of a novel. It is also great fun.
In the end it is about one man coping with the world in which he has found himself, plowing through, oscillating between joy and despair, making what he can of a wife who has turned to Buddhism, parents he can never satisfy, and companions who seem one unspannable step from deeper friendship.
Vila-Matas has written, “We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality.”
In his view reality cannot be “trapped and narrated.” Writers should give up trying. Vila-Matas has written dozens of books, translated into some thirty languages, to support his argument.
Vila-Mantas returns again and again to James Joyce. He is a founding member of a group calling itself the Order of the Finnegans, whose members venerate Joyce’s Ulysses. He is likely less taken with Joyce’s first book and its multi-layered realism (or in Vila-Matas mind, what passes for realism).
The Dubliners, despite how far some authors, including Joyce himself, have veered from its approach to fiction, is a stunning collection of short stories, as memorable as any set to print in the hundred years since it was published. Again and again it sets language adrift from the story itself, universal in its simplicity and depth, taking the reader, as the sequence of the stories do, from childhood to old age.
“The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” (Araby)
“She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed: and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.” (A Mother)
“One by one they were all becoming shades.” (The Dead)
To which I would add, “The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.” (Grace)
The book was written when Joyce was in his early 20s, about the Dublin that he knew, its streets and dwellings holding secrets only the most keen observer of human nature could capture with such unobtrusive insight. The stories give their characters space to be who they are without judgement, almost without authorial direction. They are who they are, our entry into their lives often cut abruptly, as if to say, you had your look, move on. Life goes on.
The manuscript of The Dubliners was rejected by a total of fifteen publishers. Some thought parts crude, sacrilegious, libellous, (twice it got as far as the printer, who refused to bring it to press). No one, however, would deny its mastery of language. By the time it was published, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was in print and Ulysses was already taking shape. The Dubliners sold a few hundred copies and fell out of view.
Only to come to light years later as the ground-breaking work that it is. Maybe for postmodernists, it can’t capture reality. But for the rest of us it connects to our own reality and that is meaningful and very good.
The Rum: El Dorado – 21-year-old Special Reserve
The Book: The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
I know very little about Guyana, other than it was once called British Guiana and is the only English-speaking country in South America. I need to broaden my horizon line.
The impact of El Dorado 21 is immediate. From the bronzed mahogany hue in the glass, to the dried fruit and spice on the nose, to the smooth blend of spice and oak and the touch of smoke on the palate, this rum has exceptional written all over it. It has to be one of the very best widely-distributed aged rums in the world. Sip neat and treasure, and share with the closest of friends. (43% abv)
In the 1700s Guyana could boast of more than 300 independent rum producers. Over the centuries the number waned through closures and mergers, until, by 1998, only one remained — Demerara Distillers Limited at the Diamond Estate on the East Bank of the Demerara River.
Home to El Dorado rums, it can point to over three centuries of rum-making history. One need go no farther than its exceptional range of stills to comprehend just how important that long tradition is to present-day production.
The 21-year-old has been blended from the products of three heritage stills: the Wooden Continuous Coffey, the last working example of this type of still in the world, active since 1880; the Single and the Double Wooden Pot Stills, over 250 years old, constructed of local green heartwood; and the tall, four-column 18th century French Savalle Still. DDL has several more stills and under Master Distiller George Robinson produces a remarkable 9 distinct rum styles (marques), carefully aged, offering Master Blender Amar Seweda an unprecedented inventory from which to choose.
The sugar cane used in the rum production is grown along the fertile banks of the Demerara River. Once harvested, it is taken by barge to a sugar factory where the canes are crushed and the juice extracted. The molasses by-product, produced from boiling the juice, is known for its unique profile. Transported to the distillery, it is pumped into huge storage tanks, awaiting the start of the fermentation process.
The various stills deliver their signature rums which are matured in 45-gallon, hand-coopered oak casks, some for as much as 30 years, bearing in mind that Guyana’s tropical climate speeds the aging process considerably. Warehouse capacity will soon reach an amazing 85,000 casks.
Eventually casks are chosen and the fine art of blending is undertaken. In the case of our rum, the minimum barrel age is 21 years. Slow and steady is the route to bottling. Not a race, but absolutely a winner.
If the author, Rahul Bhattacharya, didn’t deny it, you might swear this is a travelogue, a rich and entertaining one, but at its heart an account of the author’s year-long stay in Guyana. He is, after all, an Indian national and a cricket writer, like the narrator, and the two are roughly the same age. Both were overwhelmingly captivated by the country. But in interviews Bhattacharya assures the reader the book is a novel. And doesn’t it say so right on the front cover?
A conventional novel it is not. The storyline is loose and meandering. A reader is not left on the edge of any seat, in anticipation of a gripping turn in the plot, with the exception of wondering if the unnamed narrator’s visa will expire before he makes it out of the country.
But, like any book, The Sly Company of People Who Care is better described for what it is than what it is not. It is an exhilarating exploration of a little-appreciated country and its people. It is an all-consuming encounter with what multicultural isolation can do to language. It is at once tender and abrasive, a characher-rich, landscape-rich delight of a “novel.”
At the end of the first chapter Bhattacharya says this of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city: “It was a lovely raining day, the kind of Georgetown January day that would singe me forever. Clothes flew on the line against a palm. Wooden houses cried on corners. A frangipani dripped over a crook paling. A goat bleated through thick slanting drops. The trenches were aglimmer darkly. Guyana was elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.”
Battacharya has a soft spot for scoundrels and eccentrics, of which there are more than a few in the book. When he ventures into the country’s interior as a “porknocker” (a prospector for diamonds and gold) it is in the company of Baby, an irascible scamp who repeatedly claims he once slashed someone to death with nine strokes of his cutlass.
He’s a forewarning of local colour. Baby declares at one point: “You make what you make so when you dead you can tell the big man you enjai you life.” Then there’s Dr Red, and the Siddiques, and Ramotar Seven Curry (“an extremely short man…with a belly like a perfectly formed vat”), whose mission in life would seem to be to attend as many weddings as humanly possible, his record being nine in one weekend.
The story is woven through with Guyanese history, politics, and music, all with an edge of the surreal. There’s the inevidable mix of drugs. And a misadventure of a love affair towards the end of the book, the closest we have to a storyline. No reader need be surprised when the passion dissipates, and the underlying humour of the situation takes hold. (Rich and unpredictable, humour is a constant charm through the book.)
I suspect there is much of Guyana that escapes this book, including a determined segment of the middle class out to make a better life for themselves and their children, citizenry who speak without a trace of creole. But that is not where the writer’s interest lies. And his perspective, after all, is that of an outsider, an interloper.
It’s one with a deep respect for the characters who truly call Guyana home, for the rhythm and texture of their dialect, for their insight into the ways of the incredible world that surrounds them. It delivers a captivating, generous novel of high order.
The Whisky: Abhainn Dearg – Single Malt
The Books: The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen by Peter May
When the best whisky for the job is too darned expensive by the bottle, then you resort to miniatures. Three wee ones for a trilogy of books.
A three-year-old that’s showing pale, pale straw in the glass. Yet surprisingly strong on the nose. Dominated by maltiness and dried grass, with hints of fruit. Limited wood influence. On the palate, malt-driven, still a bit raw. Honey and spice beginning to work through. Unfinished business with plenty of potential. More time in the barrel should settle it down into a mature, distinctive dram. (46% abv, no added colour, non-chillfiltered.)
Abhainn Dearg (Gaelic, pronounced AV-in JERR-eg) generates interest by its location alone. Founded in 2008 near the remote hamlet of Uig on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, it is the first legal distillery in the Outer Hebrides in two hundred years. The idea of local entrepreneur Mark Tayburn, it turned the premises of a derelict salmon hatchery into the most westerly distillery in Scotland.
It draws water from the mountain streams that converge in their lower reaches as Abhainn Dearg (in English “Red River”). It is pristine. mineral-rich, untouched by human habitation, let alone industry. The barley is sourced locally, some of which has been planted especially for the distillery, the first grown in Uig in living memory.
The emphasis is on traditional production methods, “from field to bottle,” as Tayburn is fond of saying. So much so that the design of Abhainn Dearg’s two stills is reminiscent of the illicit stills once common on the island.
Production amounts to 400 to 600 litres per year. Most of it ends up in ex-bourbon American oak. The plan is to release a standard bottling after 7+ years. Hopefully it will be released at a decent price. Heads were shaking when the three-year-old hit retail outlets at £150 for a 50cl bottle. For an unproven dram, many found the price point baffling, something aimed directly at collectors. This whisky deserves a wider audience.
No problems with audience size for Peter May. His trilogy of novels set in the Outer Hebrides continues to sell very well.
Peter May has spent most of his working life as a script writer for television. When he gave it up in favour of writing crime novels, it was only natural to draw upon the setting of a TV series he co-created as a locale for his literary efforts. The series was Machair, a subtitled Gaelic drama and an unexpected hit for Scottish television in the 1990s. May’s first novels were set in China and France, but with The Blackhouse he returned to the Scottish islands he had grown to know and love during the six years he spent working on the TV shows.
The strength of the novels is in the characters that populate them — fiercely proud, independent people eking out an existence in an inhospitable but ruggedly beautiful landscape, where religion and weather hold unusual sway. The folks are tough, but the natural environment is very much tougher.
The central character of all three books is Fin Macleod, a native of Lewis who has returned to the islands from police detective duties in Edinburgh. In each book there is a gruesome murder and Fin, of course, is at the centre of the investigations into solving them. His return to the islands dredges up old memories, the past lives proving to be as interesting as the present ones.
There are various family members, his boyhood pals, and the young woman Marsaili, the love of his life whom he left behind. Upstanding citizens share the stage with the ne’er-do-wells. All vividly portrayed. As vividly as the setting. For the Outer Hebrides themselves garner as much of the writer’s attention as the people who inhabit them. Rarely is crime fiction so atmospheric, rarely is the setting so important to understanding the characters.
These are much more than crime novels. May himself places them in the tradition of the French roman noir. They stand as literary fiction within the crime genre, which is perhaps the reason the first in the series failed to find a UK publisher, until translated versions became bestsellers in other parts of Europe. If you like crime fiction that sticks to the crime, beware. If you like well told stories in which character often supersedes the crimes, settle in and enjoy.
Although May hadn’t intended to write a trilogy, the success of the first led to The Lewis Man, and then to The Chessmen. While each can be read as a standalone, the story of the second book expands on the first. The third less so, veering in a different direction. It takes us less into the fascinating, longstanding traditions of the islands and the often eccentric individuals who live there. Likely it was May’s intention to pull our perception of Outer Hebrides into the 21st century. Yet to supplant characters whom readers have grown attached to through two books, with, among other things, the self-centred antics of a rock band (Gaelic though it is) seems a miscalculation.
Nevertheless, the final book in the trilogy did give May the opportunity to reference the emergence of a brand new whisky distillery on the islands — Abhainn Dearg, the first since 1844, as he tells the reader. And to Fin Macleod he hands a very positive tasting note. Indeed, “It’s a fine whisky.” A character reference hardly to be disputed. Slàinte!