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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whiskies:  Jack Daniel’sSampler

www.jackdaniels.com

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.

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THE WHISKIES

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.

THE STORIES

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.

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The Calvados:  Christian DrouinPays d’Auge – Pomme Prisonnière

http://www.calvados-drouin-boutique.com

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.

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THE CALVADOS

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.

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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.

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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.

THE BOOK

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.

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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.”

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The Whisky:  JuraProphecy

www.jurawhisky.com

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.

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THE WHISKY

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)

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[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.

 

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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.)

THE BOOK

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Bourbon:  Booker’s

www.bookersbourbon.com

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?

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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)

THE BOURBON

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.

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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.

THE BOOK

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.

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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…

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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.

Sobering.

 

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The Pastis:  Henri Bardouin

www.distilleries-provence.com

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.

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THE PASTIS

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.

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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.

THE BOOKS

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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The Gin:  Cadenhead’s Old RajDry Gin

www.whiskytastingroom.com

The Book:  A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

Gin. India. Made for each other.

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THE GIN

In the glass there is a slight yellow tinge. On the nose, a strong alcoholic spice. Circling the palate, it’s modestly oily, with an intriguing botanical mix, shaped by a lemon tartness. Saffron shines through, but doesn’t overpower. Forceful yet sophisticated. (55% abv)

Old Raj comes in two strengths—46% and this imperial 55%. Its name is derived from the British Raj, the British rule of the Indian subcontinent up to its independence in 1947, made unabashedly clear by the label and packaging. Gin and tonic (which contains quinine, a preventative against malaria) became the Raj’s drink of choice, As Winston Churchill famously said “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

Besides juniper, the foundation botanical of all gin, Old Raj is made with orange and lemon peel, coriander seed, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, almond power, and the star of the show—saffron. As any cook knows, saffron (delicate threads plucked from crocus flowers) is uncommon and costly. Old Raj uses it sparingly (said to be added personally by the company’s chairman!), for economic reasons perhaps, but equally to keep the flavour subtle.

It works very well. Saffron is the last minute addition. The other botanicals are each macerated in a mixture of alcohol and water for 36 hours, then distilled separately in a small pot still, before being combined with neutral grain spirit. Only then is the saffron added.

Old Raj was introduced in 1972 by Wm Cadenhead, an independent whisky bottler based in Campbeltown, Scotland. The company is far better known for its whiskies, but nonetheless Old Raj has developed an enviable reputation. The Empire would have been proud.

THE BOOK

A Passage to India was published in 1924. Racial tension was high throughout the country and the movement to independence constantly in the political forefront, though it would take more than two decades for British politicians to finally come to terms with it. The book opens and closes with debate on the issue, framed as a question—whether it is possible for Indians and Englishmen to be true friends. It is the complicated, uneasy relationship between a young Indian physician Aziz and the older British college headmaster Fielding that defines the debate.

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Two women, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore arrive from England for a visit to the fictional Indian city of Chandrapore. The young lady comes with the vague notion of marrying the stiffly colonial Ronny Heaslop, Mrs. Moore’s son by a second marriage, and a city magistrate. It’s a precarious pairing, however, especially when the Heaslop’s prejudices show themselves. The women want to experience the “real India”, and not through the rigid lens offered them by the magistrate. Mrs. Moore, while exploring a mosque, encounters Dr. Aziz, and after an initial misunderstanding, extends an open hand of friendship. Her experience eventually draws Miss Quested into the circle when they both encounter Aziz at a tea party. The magistrate, needless to say, is not impressed.

When Aziz invites the women on an expedition to explore a set of notable caves outside the city, the story takes a dramatic turn, bringing the issue of the racial divide to a head. Inside one of the dark caves Miss Quested thinks herself the intended victim of sexual assault, and comes to the abrupt conclusion that it must have been Aziz. The young doctor is arrested and charged. A trial ensues. Of course lines are drawn, friendships tested, the societal prejudices, and those of the court system, are thrust into the open. In a broader sense, it is the British Raj which is on trial.

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E.M. Forster, inspired by a period of six months he spent in India in 1912-13, and then a year in 1922, drew out the writing of the novel over the course of 11 years. Through that time he was struggling with the unrequited love he felt for Masood, a young Indian man he had gone to the country to visit. He had explored caves such as those depicted in the novel on the day after he left Masood, following, biographers speculate, his friend’s rejection of him. That may well account for why it took Forster so long to complete the book. He rewrote the episode in the cave and its aftermath several times, finally deciding to leave what actually happened there inconclusive.

When it was published, its astute depiction of colonial India was highly praised. Stylistically, the book excels. It has come to be thought of by many critics as finer even than Howard’s End or A Room with a View, and one of the great literary works of the 20th century.

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The Whiskey:  Teeling Single Malt

www.teelingwhiskey.com

The Book:  The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

A few years ago I met Anne Enright at a literary festival. I have since regretted not asking her if she drank whiskey, and if indeed she had a favourite. I’m thinking a yes on both counts. And given she was born in Dublin, and, now lives just south of the city, that Teeling (the “Spirit of Dublin”) would be a sound guess.

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THE WHISKEY

A golden light glow in the glass. A subtle nose of fruit and oak. Fresh and inviting. It shines on the palate — dark fruit compote in balance with warm, rich spice, yet open and airy. Pleasingly integrated, with thinly oiled mouth feel. A tasteful burn lingers to a slow spicy fade. Strikingly good. (46% abv, non-chillfiltered, natural colour)

Teeling Distillery comes with a wealth of family history. The Teeling name can be traced to whiskey production as far back as 1782, when Walter Teeling established a distillery on Marrowbone Lane in Dublin. It is not far from Newmarket Square, where, in 2015, two brothers, Jack and Stephen Teeling, opened the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years. It is the sole distillery in a city that could once boast more than three dozen, the last of which closed 40 years ago.

Whiskey distilling is in the Teeling blood. Their father, John, founded the Cooley Distillery (known for such  brands as Connemara and The Tyrconnell) in 1987, eventually selling it in 2011 to Beam International (now Bean Suntory). Son Jack retained 16,000 barrels of aged whiskey as part of the sale agreement and with it the Teeling Whiskey Company was launched. (Hence, the choice of a phoenix rising from a pot still as the company logo.)

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With the new distillate maturing, Teeling worked with its aged stock to release several whiskies, all at an impressive 46% abv and aiming for the premium market. Among the core range of three is Teeling Single Malt, blended from whiskey (including some distilled in 1991) that has been finished in five different wine casks — Sherry, Port, Madeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and White Burgundy. The bold experiment works wonderfully well.

It’s indicative of the brothers’ philosophy of respecting the heritage of Irish whiskey while confidently taking a new path to produce whiskies that are clearly their own. They have turned a few heads in the process. They are part of a new wave of Irish whiskey that has drawn kudos worldwide. The phoenix flies high.

THE BOOK

At the literary festival Anne Enright read the opening pages of The Forgotten Waltz. It was as fascinating an author reading as I’ve witnessed.

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The thorny wit of Gina, the novel’s narrator, is scattered throughout an unrepentant account of her adulterous affair with Seán, a fellow Gina first spies in those opening pages. She catches sight of him from across her sister’s back garden, in the evening light of a summer barbecue, “at the moment the day begins to turn.” Gina’s take on her subsequent adultery is wry and guiltless. In tone it’s a distinct shift away from what we have come to expect of most novelists.

But it is the early years of the 21st century after all. Ireland is booming, though the prick of the bubble is not far off. Gina works in IT (“sort of”) and observes, through her skeptic’s lens, the over-extended lifestyles that have implanted themselves around her. She is ill-content with her marriage to Conner, and willing to lead herself out of it, working through the new scenario without much of a plan. “I can’t be too bothered here with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense.” It never does, and that’s what’s likeable, and honest about the novel. We’re never quite sure if Gina is capable of overriding perceptions of what’s going on in her life.

If there are down-to-earth moments in the whole tangle of relationships they belong to Evie, Seán’s daughter by his first wife. It is Evie that Gina comes to terms with, in the end, in a way she can’t seem to with the others. Perhaps it is because she is what Gina once was — a young woman with a whole uncertain life ahead of her.

CroppedImage680680-Enright-Anne-Credit-Hugh-Chaloner-webAnne Enright was the 2007 Booker Prize winner for The Gathering, a novel about a woman trying to come to terms with her brother’s suicide. Four years later came The Forgotten Waltz. Her most recent is The Green Road, a story of family spanning thirty years. Her subjects are diverse, unpredictable, with writing that is sharp and original, and with characters that ring deeply true. She is not to be missed.

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