The Whisky: Compass Box – Great King St. – Artist’s Blend
The Book: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The book is set on the Isle of Skye, in word only. Skye’s famous distillery, Talisker, just wouldn’t do. Rather, something equally complex, but calmer, more internal. An artistic blend befitting Woolf’s rich, multi-layered prose.
Golden in the glass. A nose that is fresh and airy, sings with light florals and vanilla. On the palate — a creamy mélange of citrus, spice, and a slight touch of pepper. A pleasant alcoholic bite to keep it honest. Light-hearted, yet seriously good. (non-chillfiltered, no added colour, 43% abv)
Over the last decade Compass Box has helped redefine blended whisky, taken what some thought of as the poor second cousin of the single malt and brought to it a new level of respect.
Founder John Glaser, once a marketing director at Johnnie Walker, set out in 2000 to bring to the market a series of distinct bottlings that would reshape the thinking around blends, first with his Signature series: Asyla, Oak Cross, Hedonism, The Spice Tree (reviewed earlier in this blog), and The Peat Monster. Then with The Great King Street series, and with the ongoing release of Limited Editions.
This is the Artist’s Blend of the GKS series, “a marriage of delicate Lowland grain and robust, complex Highland malt whiskies,” an all-around, reasonably-priced whisky that suits whatever way you wish to take it — neat, with water or ice, or in a cocktail. Glaser is not going to tell you how to drink your whisky, but he is going to be upfront (in a way that most blenders are not) with what goes into it: 46% Lowland grain whisky, 45% Northern Highland single malt, and 9% Speyside Highland malt. And he’s going to be equally clear about the wood profile: 66% first-fill American oak barrel, 26% new French oak finish, and 8% first-fill Sherry butt.
The quality of the blend comes from quality ingredients, the grain whisky as top tier as the malt, and from the imaginative use of exceptional wood. Glaser’s whisky-making continues to push boundaries, and the results have generally been highly impressive.
On the regulatory front he does the same, forcing issues that need to be discussed, but haven’t been because they don’t serve the interests of the multinationals that dominate the market for blended whisky. Glaser’s most recent campaign has been to push for the right to disclose the makeup of blends, including the ages of the component whiskies. At present it is unlawful to indicate on the bottle or packaging anything but the age of the youngest whisky.
He’s out to make great blended whisky while being transparent in what makes them so. Admirable goals in the service of the dram.
In a sense To the Lighthouse is about transparency, transparency of character.
If you are expecting plot, To the Lighthouse is not your first choice. Or setting for that matter. The story takes place on Skye, but it could be any coastland in the UK, as much Cornwall where Woolf’s father rented a summer house for the first ten years of his daughter’s life. It had a view of a lighthouse situated on an island offshore.
Rather the novel’s energy comes from the constant probing of character, the near seamless interplay of thoughts (often within the same paragraph) between the various individuals who have arrived to spend time at the summer retreat — Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children, together with a small host of adult friends that includes the young painter Lily Briscoe, who was in part modelled on Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, but, who in her thought processes reflected in greater measure the author herself. Woolf’s prose is the lure, her ability to surround you with the whirl of emotions, of fears and desires that inhabit the characters, her dexterity in the flow of language that brings to the surface what each of them feels but would never openly express.
What they do speak is game for multiple interpretation. Class restraint overrides truth in the words they willingly release into the open air. They present one face, bury another, much more interesting one.
The holding back, the self-control can be frustrating for the reader, though, surprisingly, rarely dull. The stream of consciousness reveals a diverse lot. Hatred, anxiety, sexual frustration, career insecurities — they teem within them. Woolf’s object is to bare that restraint, to lay open the voiceless propriety of English society.
To the Lighthouse spans a decade in the early 20th century, the first section before the Great War, the third after it. A short middle section (titled “Time Passes”) connects the two. It is here, in the narrative of the housekeeper, Mrs. McNab, that the story frees itself from inwardness of the other characters. It’s a pause, one punctuated with brief, bracketed references to the tragedies that had beset the family in the interim. The references are startling in their simplicity, their near offhandedness, a masterstroke of structure.
Virginia Woolf is one of the iconic writers of the 20th century. To the Lighthouse deals with some of her major preoccupations — the fragility of life, art as a restorative process, how cumulative perceptions define character. When the lighthouse is finally reached there is an acute sense of loss within the story, but as well within ourselves, in that we have to leave these people and move on.
The Whisky: Hammer Head – aged 23 years
The Books: The Trial and The Castle – Franz Kafka
Given the Bohemian origins of both the whisky and the writer, this match-up could seem predictable. But, of course, being unorthodox, it is anything but.
Light gold in the glass. A touch sweet on the nose, notably floral, but with a nut-sharp undercurrent breaking through. Relatively light on the palate, with warm lemony spice. Easy going down. One better than its name. (40.7% abv)
The name is derived from a cast-iron hammer mill, made in 1928 and found on the premises of the Prádlo distillery in communist Czechoslovakia. It’s the type of mill associated with long-standing, traditional Scottish distilleries, used for grinding barley.
The Prádlo distillery, located on the outskirts of the city of Plzeň, 90 kilometres west of Prague, had for decades made a variety of pot distilled spirits. In the late 1970s it decided to make the leap to single malt whisky. Václav Šitner headed the team charged with the task, but restricted from travelling to Scotland, he had only books to guide him. The team used Czech barley and the local pure, clear Bohemian water. When peat from the southern part of the country didn’t work out, they imported peat at great expense from Scotland. The whisky was laid down in barrels made entirely from Czech oak. The first batch went on the market in 1984 and the communist elite had a rather well made alternative to vodka.
Then, just a few years later, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Suddenly the Velvet Revolution brought democracy to the country. And the whisky was all but forgotten. Twenty years later the Stock Spirits group of the UK were being given a tour of their newly acquired distillery. By the way, they were told, we’ve had some whisky that’s been maturing for a couple of decades now…though it’s probably not very good, by your standards.
Well, nothing to rival Scotland’s finest, but a great deal better than expected. A bit of a marketer’s dream, if a challenge as well. A vintage Czech, communist-era single malt whisky. Rather enigmatic.
Rather, well, Kafkaesque.
The Trial was written in 1914-15, but, like much of Kafka’s writing, was not published until after his death in 1924, at age 40. Often considered the Czech author’s best work, it is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century, an especially notable accolade, given the fact that he had not finished with it, and likely didn’t intend for it to be published. It remains somewhat rough around the edges, which adds to the mysteries at its core.
It first appeared in English in 1937, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, a translation that has long been considered flawed. This 1998 translation is by Breon Mitchell, based on Kafka’s original text that only became publicly available a decade earlier. The publisher terms it “as close as possible to the state in which the author left the manuscript.”
The novel’s narrator is Josef K., a bank employee who wakes up one morning to find himself being led to a tribunal and charged with a seemingly serious but unspecified crime. He is left to the mercy of a perplexing court system where logic has no foundation, where each attempt to extricate himself from the injustice of his situation only frustrates him further. The plot carries him through a bizarre maze of events, leaving the reader to construct and reconstruct meaning from them. There is no ultimate satisfaction to be gained, not that Kafka ever intended that there be any. In the end Josef K. is left a frayed, defeated man, while the reader is often left intrigued but decidedly perplexed.
The Trial has often been viewed as a reflection on arbitrary arrest in a totalitarian state, foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and Stalin. The 21st century reader, under constant surveillance by security cameras, living where government and corporate databanks overflow with what was once considered personal information, finds even more in Kafka to provoke debate.
The Castle is another of his unfinished works, also published posthumously. In fact, the book ends in mid-sentence, and we will never truly know what shape Kafka had in mind for the book, if indeed he was thinking that far ahead when he stopped writing it in 1922.
Still, even in its incomplete state it is, like The Trial, a fascinating, if consistently perplexing, novel. The protagonist K., like Josef K., has an ultimate goal, one that seems attainable, but which he is never quite able to reach.
K. arrives in a snow-covered village dominated by an alluring hilltop castle. He learns it is home to Count Westwest and his officials who govern the village. Yet only a chosen few villagers have access to it, and Klamm, an elusive figure who occasionally ventures into town, is the closest most of them come to putting a face to their overseers. K arrives with the understanding that he will be employed by the Count as a surveyor, but these hopes are quickly dashed. The forthright K. is not deterred. He sticks doggedly to the notion of gaining access to the castle. Klamm is his best bet.
When K. lures away Klamm’s mistress, Frieda, and makes love to her among the pools of beer on a barroom floor, the possibility of such a meeting, needless to say, is severely compromised. K. fights on, and a story of a kind unfolds, shaped by detours into the lives of a curious cast of characters. Many of whom are surprisingly affecting.
Even though The Castle is often taken as a comment on dehumanized bureaucracy, it is equally a story of alienation, of the need for friendship in a world increasingly void of meaningful human contact.
Kafka once wrote to a friend: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?”
The Trial and The Castle, together with a nod to the Hammer Head, never once led me to question my reading choice.
The Whisky: Amrut – Kadhambam
The Book: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
India consumes more whisky than any other country in the world (an astonishing 1.5 billion litres annually), most of it distilled in the country. The finest of its distillers, like the finest of its writers, have delightfully upended what people have come to expect of the country.
Light mahogany behind the glass. Firm and spicy on the nose, with lighter fruit and floral notes. Rises to the head of the class on the palate– an intriguing blend of warm peat, oak and honey. Fine creamy texture. Delicious. Yes, and it lingers. (50% abv)
India doesn’t flow easily off the tongue when speaking about single malts. Most jaws would drop at being told that Amrut Distilleries in Bangalore, India, bottle some of the most highly awarded whiskies in the world. And would probably be further agape on learning that when the first Amrut single malt was introduced in 2004, the owners had the audacity to launch it first in Scotland, whisky’s sacred homeland.
Scots take their dram very seriously. They sipped and were a bit stunned. India? It took several more years, and a Jim Murray score of 97 in the 2010, for the wider world to join the party. To date, Amrut single malt has produced 14 different bottlings and is now sold in 32 countries. Exemplary reviews continue to accumulate, including for Kadhambam.
Kadhambam is a Tamil word meaning ‘mixture.’ Amrut took a single batch of peated spirit with the aim of coming up with “a completely different whisky with multi-personality characteristics.” It was matured first in ex-Oloroso sherry butts, then Amrut’s own ex-Bangalore Blue brandy casks, then finally Amrut ex-rum casks. The result could have been an incoherent mash-up. But, perhaps not surprisingly for the Amrut’s master blender Surinder Kumar, it emerged complex and refreshingly distinct. (Jim Murray promptly chimed in with a 96.5.)
Amrut Distilleries was founded in 1948 by J.N. Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, and is now run by his son, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, from premises located just outside Bangalore. Grandson Rakshit has also become an important element in the running of the company. Amrut produces a wide variety of spirits for the vast Indian market. In fact its single malt whisky accounts for only about 5% of business.
Single malt production in India comes with its own set of challenges. Equipment was not immediately available, leading to the manufacture of their own distinctive pot stills. The barley is transported all the way from the Punjab and Rajasthan, and, in the case of the peated barley, from Scotland. The annual evaporative loss of spirit (in a climate where temperatures range between 20˚- 40˚C throughout the year) can be upwards of 12% (vs 2% in Scotland). The whisky matures at three times the rate in northern climates. Monkeys have been known to be a nuisance in the still rooms!
Production at Amrut is labour intensive, a conscious decision by the owners in a country with a huge labour force. There are 450 employees, many of them women. Much of the bottling and packaging is done by hand, no mean work load considering 4 million cases of liquor go out the door each year.
It has now been 25 years since the publication of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie‘s masterful second novel. It is unlike any novel of India to be published before or since. It was as if a post-colonial train packed with every character Rushdie could imagine came hurtling into Bombay station, where everyone dispersed onto several platforms, about to inhabit an immensely ambitious novel, one that would tell not only their own individual stories, but the coming-of-age story of their newly independent country.
It is midnight, August 15, 1947. In the first hour of this first day of independence from Britain, 1001 children are born. They come to be known as Midnight’s Children. One of them is the novel’s narrator, Saleem. Born in the same nursing home, and also at the stroke of midnight is Shiva, the kid who will grow into his arch rival. The “cucumber-nosed” Saleem is born to great attention, Shiva to disinterest. The first to prestige and wealth, the other to the back alleys of Bombay.
A devious nursemaid, however, has switched the infants, setting much of the book’s complex, whirlwind plots in motion, taking the reader on a wild, earthy ride through the first thirty years of India’s independence. It is a novel bent by magic realism that has been very favourably compared to Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Grass’s “The Tin Drum.”
The novel took shape following Rushdie’s extensive ramble through India in 1975, undertaken on a shoestring budget (the £700 advance on his first novel). He had grown up in Bombay, but purposely set out to immerse himself in the country as a whole. Not only was he soaking in the sensual overload which is everyday life in India, but he was grappling with the tumultuous path down which the then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was taking the country. Back in London, there grew in Rushdie’s mind the notion of a central character whose life runs in parallel to India’s own. Not only that, but someone who sees himself as the very one responsible for the twists and turns of the country’s fortunes. It would be a bizarre, frightfully energetic novel.
What saves it of course is Rushdie’s resourcefulness as a writer, especially his choice of narrative voice, one he calls, “comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous, and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator’s increasingly tragic over-claiming. . .’ A voice that constantly embraces risk, it pulls the reader along with a nonchalance infused with biting satire.
Saleem is by turns crude, insightful, poetic, infuriating, provocative. Always engaging. That voice of his might well change within a single sentence. It is often in the first person, but could just as easily be in the third.
“. . .He also developed a penchant for lapsing into long broody silences, which he interrupted by bursting out suddenly with a meaningless word: ‘No!’ or, ‘But!’ or even more arcane exclamations, such as ‘Bang!’ or ‘Whaam!’ Nonsense words amidst clouded silences: as if Saleem were conducting some inner dialogue of such intensity that fragments of it, or its pain, boiled up from time to time past the surface of his lips.”
The novel, like the whisky, never fears surprising those who share in it.
The Whisky: P&M Single Malt – 7 years
The Book: The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari
Islands seem to have a way with whisky — Islay, Jura, Japan. . .Corsica. Maybe being surrounded by water forces distillers to focus, knowing a whole island’s pride is at stake.
P&M Single Malt stands bright mahogany in the glass. Sophisticated aromas of citrus and vanilla. In the mouth, tannic measures of caramel and chocolate. Smooth but not sweet, a mouth-rich heat that enlivens the herbal notes. (42% abv)
P&M — sounds rather like a business blend.
In 1996 the Pietra craft brewery opened in Furiani in northeastern Corsica, the creation of Armelle and Dominique Sialelli. Using a unique combination of malt and chestnut flour, the amber Pietra beer proved a big hit. With each of four subsequent releases the brewery went from success to success.
About the same time, Jean-Claude Venturini founded Mavela, located not far from Aléria, and began distilling fruit-based spirits and liqueurs. It, too, quickly developed a winning reputation. In time Jean-Claude passed the running of the distillery to his eldest son Stefanu.
In 2001 came an inspired partnership between P (Pietra) & M (Mavela). A new entrepreneurial enthusiasm about what could be accomplished in Corsica, followed by several trips to distilleries in Scotland and the U.S., led to the creation of the island’s first and (as yet) only whisky. P&M had been born, and so had a distinctive whisky, one that captured the aromas and flavours of the island’s terroir, what is locally referred to as les herbes du maquis.
At Pietra malt is carefully selected and crushed, before brewing begins using naturally-filtered mountain spring water. This is followed by fermentation with a yeast culture unique to the brewery. The tanks are then transported to Mavela, for distillation in a Holstein still. The concentrated heart of the distillate is separated out from the head and tail, and stored for maturation in select French oak casks that previously held muscat wine from Domaine Gentile. Two blends and this seven-year aged malt have been the result.
The single malt in particular has gained a great deal of attention, including 95 big ones from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible of 2014, just ten years after its first production. A jubilant Stefanu Venturini sees it as “the culmination of years of hard work” and confirmation of the choice “to make small batches with unmatched taste.” It has put P&M and Corsica on the whisky map in short order.
Born in Paris in 1968, Jérôme Ferrari is a writer, translator, and professor of philosophy. After graduating from the Sorbonne, he headed to Corsica, the birthplace of his parents. He taught in the town of Porto-Vecchio for several years before heading off for teaching stints in Algiers and then Abu Dhabi. In 2015 he returned to Corsica, to teach at Lycée Giocante Casabianca in Bastia. He has referred to Corsica as his “natural literary milieu.”
Ferrari is the author of seven novels, two of which have been translated into English (both by Geoffrey Strachan). “Where I Left My Soul” is about the French war in Algeria, the second is set in Corsica. It won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2012, and bears the somewhat peculiar title “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome.”
Anyone versed in the early history of Christianity would recall that the original Sermon on the Fall of Rome was preached by St. Augustine in 410 following the sacking of the city by the Alaric and the Goths. It is a reference point for Ferrari and the author uses quotes from Augustine to frame the novel.
The book follows the downfall of another empire of quite a different sort: a long-lived, grimy small-town bar whose manager suddenly quits and disappears without a trace. The owner hires one replacement, then another, both of whom fail miserably. It’s feeling rather like “the plagues of Egypt.” Finally she lands Matthieu and Libero, a pair of childhood friends ready and eager to abandon their studies of philosophy in Paris for a chance to return home to Corsica. And to find life’s calling in the revival of the struggling watering hole. What defeats some is a godsend for others, and so the bar, with a string of attractive young female employees and a smooth-tongued musician, quickly turns into a bustling social hot spot.
Running parallel to the bar scene is the story of Matthieu’s grandfather, Marcel Antonneti, once an administrator in French West Africa. It is Marcel who sets the story in a broader, multi-generational context, while at the same time delving into Corsica’s past and that of France, in particular the collapse of the country’s colonial empire. It is in the contrast of Ferrari’s storytelling that his writing truly shines.
In the end, like the French empire, the bar self-destructs. As Ferrari puts it, “the same mechanism can apply to empires, a village bar or to the hearts of men.” St. Augustine, French West Africa, a bar in Corsica, saints and sinners, no matter when or where, they have their common ground. Only an exceptional writer could make perfect sense of bringing them together.
The Rum: The Arcane – 12 years old Extraroma
The Books: The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clézio
and The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The tropical islands of Mauritius and Martinique are oceans apart, but one thing they have in common is an abundance of rum distilleries. I’m in Martinique, but feeling at home with Mauritian rum.
Eye-catching amber gold. On the nose a wealth of tropical fruit and spice — honeyed banana and apricot among them, with the spicy notes keeping the sweetness in check. On the palate, add to that coconut and wood, again tempered by peppery spice. Surprisingly fresh. You know you’re in the tropics! (40% abv)
Arcane Rum grew out of the collective ambitions of four friends — Thibault de la Fournière, Christian Vergier, Stéphane Aussel, and Laurent Berriat — all professionals in the world of spirits. The career of the first had taken him to the prestigious “rhum agricole” distilleries of Martinique. From there came the inspiration for a new and different rum, made also from fresh sugarcane juice but distilled in another part of the world.
The year was 2007, the location chosen the small volcanic island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. The island is multiethnic and multicultural, with French and British heritage predominating. It has just over a million people. Its climate and soil are considered some of the best in the world for sugarcane production.
From it has come a distinctive rum, not a duplicate of what’s to be found in the Caribbean. “We wanted to create a decidedly different product and not yet another old classic rum. . . We wanted a rum from pure cane juice to express this particular terroir giving naturally spiced, peppery rum.” The team chose Grays distillery in the north of the island as the one most in keeping with the product they had in mind.
The 12-year-old Extraroma uses the solera aging process, in which rums of different ages are mixed sequentially over a number of years, with product from the barrels containing the oldest rum eventually bottled off. In this case it makes for a fresher rum with less influence from the American oak barrels. It is indeed something different, immediately apparent when the extra aromas hit as you draw out the cork top for that first pour.
I knew nothing of the literature of Mauritius. In which case a good starting point would seem to be a work by a recent Nobel Prize winner with roots on the Island.
J.M.G. Le Clézio was born in 1940 in France, the homeland of his mother. His father, who had grown up on Mauritius (then under British rule), was away at the time, serving in the British Army as a doctor. Following the war the family settled in Nigeria. Le Clézio’s university years were spent in England and France, and subsequently he lived in the U.S., Thailand, Mexico, and South Korea. Through it all he retained an affinity for Mauritius. He holds dual French-Mauritian citizenship and has a home on the island.
Little wonder then that Clézio considers himself a man of mixed cultures. The Nobel committee called his work a “critique of civilizations.” His shifting focus often holds to account the contradictions of colonization, which on the one hand created sophisticated, cultivated societies, while on the other treated native people and their customs with blatant intolerance.
Alexis L’Etang, the young man at the centre of The Prospector (originally published in French as Le chercheur d’or, translated by Carol Marks) has grown up in the idyllic back country of Mauritius, though never far from the oppression of the sugarcane plantations. His uncle is a wealthy plantation owner, while his idealist father scrapes money together with the dream of bringing electricity to the remote region. A massive hurricane strikes, forcing the family to move and into further poverty. The father dies with another dream unfulfilled, that of following the maps and clues to buried treasure that came into his possession, left by a “Unknown Corsair.”
Alexis sets out to complete his father’s dream, sailing to the nearby island of Rodrigues, and undertaking what ends up being years of a painstaking search. For a time Alexis finds consolation in his relationship with a young native girl, Ouma, until an even greater circumstance changes the direction of his life – the First World War.
An adventure story of a sort, the novel reaches the level of myth at times, without sacrificing the immediacy of character and place. There is a sensual bittersweetness through much of the novel, a melancholy borne of the past, of the frustrations inherent in attempting to come to terms with scars of Imperialist history.
Mauritian history is also at the core of The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (translated by Geoffrey Strachan). During the Second World War hundreds of European Jews crammed themselves aboard ships to escape the Nazis, only to be turned away from British-held Palestine and redirected to a detainment camp on Mauritius, then also in British hands. It is a little known story of the war, here seen through the eyes of Raj, a 70 year-old Indian Mauritian looking back to the event he had experienced as a young boy.
Young Raj, his mother and two brothers are victims, not of war, but of a brutal, alcoholic father. When both of Raj’s brothers are drowned in a flash flood, the boy struggles to grasp the slimmest thread of hope that his life can ever get better. It arrives in the person of David, a blond-haired Czech orphan boy looking out from behind the wire fence of the Beau-Bassin camp where Raj’s father works as a guard. Another beating sends Raj to the prison hospital, to a ward he shares with David. Despite the fact neither speaks the other’s language, the friendship is solidified. Their runaway journey is the crux of the novel.
Nathacha Appanah grew up in Mauritius, where she worked as a journalist before moving to Paris in 1998. The Last Brother is her award-winning fourth book. She has written a lyrical novel of two young innocents who find fleeting peace even as their childhoods are torn from them. Occasionally the symbolism of their journey seems imposed, but the story is never less than touching, memorable for its deeply-felt portrayal of boyhood betrayed by war.
The two books, taken together, offer the reader an intriguing view of Mauritian history, which, like the past of so many tropical islands, was far from that of a guiltless paradise.
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.