The Whisky: Hibiki – 12 Years old
The Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Considering its title, the book might seem a bit out of season, but the weather’s not been the warmest this June. The cherry blossoms arrived late, and the sight of them invariably turns this whisky drinker’s thoughts to Japan.
The glass holds amber gold. A luxuriant nose combining a wealth of subtle aromas, integrated layers of flowers and fruit, laced with caramel and honey warmed with citrus zest. On the palate, a host of malty fruit flavours, a little sweet, a little creamy, but with enough fire and spice to keep it unpredictable. Lingers very nicely indeed. Blending at its best. (43% abv)
Part of the experience of this well-crafted whisky is the vessel which holds it. The glass bottle has 24 facets, corresponding to the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar. The word Hibiki means ‘resonance'; it embodies harmony. The philosophy of its parent company Suntory is “In Harmony with People and Nature.” Worthy then of the book.
Suntory dates from 1899. In 1923 its owner, Shinjiro Torii, founded Japan’s first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, not far from Kyoto. His inspiration came from the best Scotch and, on a practical level, he employed Masataka Taketsuru, who had travelled to Scotland and gained considerable distilling experience there. Fifty years later Torii’s son, Keizo Saji, expanded Suntory with the construction of a second distillery, Hakushu, in the forests of southern Japan.
Hibiki 12 is a blend of more than 30 whiskies, malt from these two distilleries, as well as grain from Suntory’s lesser known Chita Distillery. Some have been aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak, others in casks previously used to mature plum liqueur, umeshu. The whiskies have been aged a minimum of 12 years, some as much as 30 years. The blended whisky undergoes a process of bamboo charcoal filtering.
Hibiki 12 and its kin, the Hibiki 17, 21, and 30 year olds, have taken blending to a high art in Japan, and their cache of awards from global competitions means they often outclass whatever the rest of the world, including Scotland, has on offer. Japanese whisky is far from a novelty any longer. Hibiki is clear, harmonious evidence of that.
Snow Country, Nobel winner Yasunari Kawabata‘s 1947 novel, is a story encased by its setting, a mountainous hot springs resort located to the west of the Japan Alps and noted for its heavy snowfalls. Today it is an hour by train from Tokyo. At the time of the story the town was much more isolated, offering a distant escape for a Tokyo man seeking a sensuous respite from his wife and family.
Shimamura is making his second visit there when the novel opens. He is anxious to reunite with Komako, a young geisha still in training, who is both attracted to and wary of the man. She remembers how much she hated to see him leave the first time he visited. But theirs is a tumultuous relationship that never seems to settle long enough to satisfy them both. It allows the reader moments of great tenderness contrasted with impetuous anger fuelled by the woman’s drinking.Through it all we are never certain of Shimamura’s motivation. Does he want companionship or something more? Does he even experience love, either towards his wife or Komako? Why does he return to visit Komako a third time? A distinctly Japanese sensibility overrides the narrative. Admirers of the book often compare it to haiku. Kawabata is not so much telling a story as he is defining a space in which characters and nature interact, slowly unveiling some inner truths.There are exquisite visual moments, all the more powerful for their restraint. The novel deliberately slows the reader and encourages absorbing the narrative one sentence at a time. Think of it as sensual uplift, rather like fine Japanese whisky in a beautifully crafted bottle.
The Whisky: Mackinlay’s Blended Malt – The Journey
The Book: Shackleton’s Whisky by Neville Peat
If there was ever a spirit and a book destined for pairing, it would be the recreated “Shackleton whisky” and the book that tells the extraordinary story of how it came to be.
Surprisingly, a light golden yellow in the glass, with near delicate nose of fruit and vanilla. Peat a definite but unobtrusive presence. On the palate is warming spice, a honey caramel richness that lingers nicely. A beautiful piece of blending and well worth the wait of over a hundred years. (47.3% abv)
In 1907 Ernest Shackleton and his 14-man shore party set forth on the famed Nimrod expedition to Antarctica. His goal – to be the first person ever to reach the South Pole. They built a substantial base hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, stocking it with more than enough provisions to last their year-long stay. Among the comforts were 25 12-bottle cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt from the Glen Mhor Distillery of Inverness.
Shackleton came within 112 miles of the Pole before abandoning his attempt. He eventually abandoned the hut as well, in a rush to escape the onset of winter ice, leaving behind an array of food and equipment. Under the floor boards were the cases of whisky that hadn’t been consumed. The boxes were frozen in time, but the whisky at 47.3% alcohol remained stable, waiting for the time future visitors to the site would discover it.
That didn’t happen until a hundred years later. In 2007 conservationists doing restoration work on the hut for the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust came upon three ice-covered crates beneath the floor boards. Three years later one of the cases was removed and transported in its frozen state to the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand. There, over a two week period, its temperature was very slowly raised to the thawing point. Eleven of the bottles were still perfectly intact, inside their paper covering and straw.
Whyte & Mackay, Glasgow owners of the Mackinlay brand, were stunned to hear the news. Would it be possible, they wondered aloud, and in the ears of the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust, to return a couple of the bottles to Scotland for analysis by the experts at Whyte & Mackay? And if, by chance, it proved to be a reasonably good dram still, would be possible for a master blender to replicate it, and bring it to market in a limited edition, a portion of the retail price going back to the Trust? Indeed so. After much negotiation, and much experimentation by master blender Richard Paterson, The Discovery edition was released in 2011, to much acclaim. It sold very well, so well in fact that late the following year a second, slightly different version, The Journey edition, hit the market, again in a replica bottle. This time each bottle was covered in a sheath of straw, as were the originals, and packaged together with a collection of maps and photographs, and an account of the expedition and the story behind the bottle.
It’s an impressive presentation. And a very impressive dram, not at all what you might expect of a whisky from a century ago. And just what went into it? Glen Mhor 1980, cask number 1909, Glenfarclas, Mannochmore, Tamnavulin, Ben Nevis, Aultmore, Fettercairn, Pulteney, heavily peated Dalmore, Jura aged in Limousin oak casks.
Sounds like a deft bit of blending to me.
Neville Peat had already written four books on Antarctica when he was commissioned to write the story of the Shackleton whisky. It appears to have been a labour of love from the start. He combines a vivid account of the 1907 expedition, with the story of the order for Mackinlay whisky that Shackleton had sent off to the distiller. Shackleton himself had no great fondness for alcohol (in his youth he had led temperance marches), but correctly anticipated there would be times when 15 men together in a hut of 58 square metres, especially in the total darkness of the Antarctic winter, could do with a little cheering up.
The gripping tale of polar exploration (roughly two-thirds of the book), unfolds with one eye always on the whisky. And when the book turns to the rediscovery of the bottles a century later and the efforts to replicate it for public consumption, the story, if a little less dramatic, is no less exciting. Peat has done a marvellous job. And to hold the replicated whisky in hand while reading the book is rather fun. And the next best thing to going back in time to sit on one of the hut’s bunks and raise a dram to Shackleton and his intrepid mates.
The Tequila: Don Agustín – Añejo
The Books: Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo
If the drink in one hand was distilled in the state of Jalisco in Mexico (as almost all the best tequilas are), then it only makes sense that the book in the other hand was written by Jalisco’s best writer ever. (Some would argue Mexico’s best writer, ever.)
Pale gold in the glass, from where its aromas arise — spicy, oak-tinted, honey. Toasted warm on the palate, with a creamy, balanced mix of spice. Lovely on its own, or with a thin wedge of lime. (40% abv)
Don Agustín añejo is made from premium blue agave grown in the eastern Los Altos (The Highlands) region of Jalisco. Here, at elevations nearing 2,500 metres, there is less rain and cooler temperatures, allowing the plants to mature more slowly and resulting in more intense flavours. Harvesting is done by experienced “jimadores” who extract the weighty, rounded core of the plant, the piña, using a special circular blade on a long pole. The piñas are split and slow roasted in wood and clay ovens for several days, using a traditional steam method, then shredded and the juice extracted. Diverted to vats, the juice ferments over several days, before ending up in stainless steel pot stills where a double distillation takes place. It is the middle distillate, the corazon, that makes up the body of the tequila. Don Agustín is aged in American white oak barrels for 12 months. It is estate bottled at the distillery in Arandas, the town co-founded by the Camarena family 250 years ago.
The distillery itself dates from 1938, the vision of Don Augustín Camarena (that’s his picture on the bottle). It has grown to the fourth largest in Mexico, with over one thousand hectares and three million agave plants under cultivation. Don Augustín is its limited, reserved line of tequila.
First published in Mexico in 1955, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo is considered one of the greatest works of Latin American literature. It proved to be a profound influence on major writers who followed, including Gabriel García Márquez. The book is set in the Mexican village of Comala, to which Juan Preciado arrives, having made a promise to his dying mother that he would search out his father whom he has not known since he was a young child. In the mother’s words, “Make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind.” His father is Pedro Páramo, but Comala, where he lived, is literally a ghost town.
The people who walk the streets and inhabit the houses have been long dead, though they remain as real as if they still breathed the stifling hot air. Their worlds circle around Pedro Páramo, the chief land owner and, by all accounts, a tyrant. Their voices swirl over the memorizing landscape, and on occasion we are not sure who they belong to, creating a novel of fragments that come together loosely, hauntingly, an ephemeral mélange of history and violence that formed the fabric of rural Mexico.
Pedro Páramo is unlike any Latin American novel that came before it, although at the time of its publication it made barely a ripple in literary circles. In subsequent years the novel was rediscovered and has come to be much revered. In the thirty years of his life that followed its appearance, Rulfo would not publish another work of fiction. He had said all he wanted to say in two short books.
A collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames, had been published two years earlier.
This book is even more remarkable. There are some stories among them that will stay with a reader a lifetime.
Set in rural Jalisco in the 1930s and 40s, these are stories of peasants scarred by government neglect, by poverty and violence, fighting to retain their dignity against the realities of post-revolutionary Mexico. Many are close to monologues, confessionals by characters whose Catholic religion has betrayed them, who struggle against bitterness to find meaning in their lives.
One might expect such stories to be rife with anger, mired in grim description. Rulfo was too skilled a writer to take that route. His stories are relatively short, his language distilled to something at once genuine and deeply layered, without being stylized or self-important.
In “It’s Because We ‘re So Poor,” while a flood rages, a young boy sits with his sister who has just seen her cow washed away, a present from father, something he had hoped would attract a husband and prevent her from becoming a prostitute like her sisters. In “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” a father carries overland on his back his injured son, in an attempt to reach a doctor, all the while trying to find reasons why his son has turned against his family and allowed himself to be lured into crime. Summaries do no justice to The Plain in Flames, to the nuance and astuteness in their telling. Rulfo died in 1986. His short stories stand with the best in any language.
The Rhum Agricole: Distillerie La Favorite – La Flibuste
The Book: Solibo Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau
I’ve just returned from Martinique, where I sipped the island’s superb rhum agricole, La Flibuste, while reading books by its outstanding contemporary writer, Patrick Chamoiseau.
THE RUM (RHUM AGRICOLE)
This Vintage Cuvée 1984 brings a dark mahogany glow to the glass. To the nose, honeyed spice layered with caramel, oak, dried fruits. To the palate, an intricately rich but smooth amalgam of dark spice and fruit, with a quiet edge that lingers long and warm. I’m in awe of this exceptionally well-crafted rhum agricole. The rum (rhum) gods are smiling. (40% abv)
On our second day in Martinique we found our way to Distillerie La Favourite. The site was chosen in 1842 for its water supply, Rivière La Jambette, now not far outside what became the island’s capital, Fort de France. The visit proved a step back in time, an all-senses encounter with the long tradition of rum-making in Martinique. There was the ancient steam engine (the only one still in use in any of the island’s ten distilleries), the workers raking mounds of the sugarcane fibre waste (bagasse) used to fuel it, the bubbling, fermenting vats and their intoxicating aromas, the long lines of aging casks, and the relatively few holding La Flibustre, a collection of distinctive bottles nearby, waiting to be filled.
In 1905 the distillery was purchased by the Dormoy family, and four succeeding generations have taken charge of it. Today La Favourite is one of only two independent, family-owned and operated distilleries remaining in Martinique.
It was André Dormoy who fought for two decades to get the AOC (Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée) designation for the rhum agricole of Martinique. In 1996, the authorities in France finally agreed.
AOC designation protects the reputation of French regional food and drink by ensuring they are produced using standards that maintain their quality. In this case it designates the area of the island the sugarcane can be grown; bans the use of any substances that promote maturation of the cane; specifies restrictions on cultivation yields, irrigation, time of harvest, sugar content, as well as the methods of juice extraction and fermentation.
AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole is made from sugarcane juice obtained by grinding and pressing the freshly cut sugarcane, unlike most rums which are made from molasses. Its standards of production have allowed it to carve out a unique place in the rum world. The best of the Martinique aged rums are highly prized and La Favorite’s La Flibuste is a stand-out among them.
La Flibuste (translation: buccaneer) carries one of the oldest age statements of any commercially produced rum in the Eastern Caribbean. Our Vintage Cuvée 1984 has spent 30 years in ex-cognac oak barrels. Only 5,000 bottles of La Flibuste are available each year, making it a rarity among rums, and leading me to think I must get a second bottle to take home.
Author Patrick Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Fort de France, where he still lives. He has worked for years with young offenders, and has still found time to write several much-lauded books, including the masterful, Prix Goncourt-winning novel Texaco. An earlier novel Solibo Magnificent, published in 1988, appeared in English a decade later, expertly translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov.
Translation could not have been an easy task, for the novel is all about language and the role it assumes in present day Martinique. The language here, a French – Creole mix, highlights the vigorous linguistic interplay on the island and its impact on the survival of Creole as a distinct culture.
In 1989 Chamoiseau was one of three writers to issue the literary manifesto “Elogé de la créolité” in which forceful argument was made for the use of Creolese, the language of the ordinary people, if the island’s literature is to truthfully capture its culture.
Solibo Magnificent exuberantly reinforces that argument. The title character, a renowned Creole storyteller, lies dead in the first few pages, “throat snickt by the word” under a tamarind tree in the Savanne, the large park in downtown Fort de France.
It is to the Savanne that I took the book to photograph it, and it is here I imagined the parade of the 14 witnesses to the death, all suspects in what the police presume is murder. Chamoiseau takes the form of the crime novel and transforms it into an entertaining, verbally robust, earthy reflection on the survival of Creole customs and language.
The police probe is led by Chief Inspector Evariste Pilon, with Sergeant Bouaffess and an inept pair of subordinates, doing the legwork. The witnesses demonstrate the diversity of Martinique society and include the author himself, “the word snatcher,” as he prefers to be thought of. The interrogations are intense, often brutal (two of the witnesses die), and in the end prove nothing. As much as it defies reality, the Chief Inspector is forced to conclude that Solibo succumbed to “word-strangulation.”
Is the novel suggesting that the island’s rich Creole oral tradition is destined to fade away entirely? Can the work of writers such as Chamoiseau help preserve it? It can at least capture it, hold the taste of it, echo the acoustic charms of it. Even if it is transposed to a different, a written, form.
Once the bulk of the story is told, Chamoiseau writes his “After the Word.” Here Solibo himself takes centre stage, in what is the book’s tour de force. It’s best to leave the last words to the storyteller, to the word snatcher.
“so kids if you see Solibo dead and Gwadloup comes to furrow his body bury him under a barrel of rum no crying kids ’cause under the barrel Solibo will be partying every drop of rum of the barrel of rum will flow down his throat for rum bury him under the barrel kids bury him under the barrel and when the priest comes to give him rum for his sprinkler Sobibo will be happy every drop of rum from the rum sprinkler will flow down his rum snout and if the priest says ‘et spiritus sanctus’ will you reply with the song?
SECULARUM IS RUM!”
The Whisky: The Spencerfield Spirit Co. – Sheep Dip “Old Hebridean” 1990
The Book: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Sheep Dip vatted whisky together with a classic novel about romance-driven sheep farmers. Both making the most of their refined rustic qualities.
Shining dark amber in the glass. Sweet peat, honey and citrus, heathered brine on the nose. Salty caramel, smoke and spice over the taste buds. Finishing rich and memorable. Blended perfection! (40% abv)
Spencerfield Spirit Co. is a small independent whisky producer, the initiative of Alex Nichol and his wife Jane Eastwood. Nicol had worked at Glenmorangie, Laphroaig, and a number of other spirit companies, including Whyte & Mackay, which is presumably where he got to know Richard Paterson. The acclaimed master blender oversees the blending of Spencerfield’s limited but exceptional range of whiskies. They fit nicely into a niche market, reaching people who demand quality, but who are looking for something a little different.
Located in Inverkeithing, across the Forth Rail Bridge from Edinburgh, Spencerfield looks over the Firth of Forth. It occupies a 16th century farm property, complete with dogs, cats, pigs, and racehorses. Sounds like just the place to produce whiskies with names such as Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose.
Behind the quirky names are some seriously good spirits. The first vintage for Sheep Dip, “Old Hebridean” has received a good share of the accolades. Named for a rare breed of Scottish sheep, it brings together a trio of single malts – Ardbeg, Dalmore, and Fettercairn – each distilled in 1990 or earlier and matured for about ten years in their own individual casks, before coming together in first-filled, freshly charred oak, for another ten years. It marries the characteristics of all three whiskies into something distinctly itself.
Far From the Madding Crowd was Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, but the first written after he quit work as an architect to devote himself to writing. The novel proved a great literary and commercial success. It steered his career to the writing of the other of his famous novels set in what he termed Wessex, that “partly real, partly dream-country” of southwest England.
The story’s first life was in Cornhill Magazine, in serialized form for the twelve months of 1874. Just prior to its final installment, all twelve were published together in book form. Hardy revised the work substantially for future editions, in the process restoring some of the more controversial elements that had been edited out when it first appeared. These included some elements of the depiction of the central character Bathsheba Everdene, an independently-minded woman, out of step with Victorian England, a woman whose sensuality lives barely beneath the surface of her exterior self. She is a feminist, long before the term ever came into use.
The woman farmer Bathsheba is pursued by three men of diverse backgrounds and temperaments, two of whom share her interest in the rural, farming life. But it is the third, the dashing young soldier, whom she weds. The Sergeant quickly proves a disaster, rekindling the hopes of the other two. What might have been love gives rise to doubt, deception, and eventually gun play. It’s a page-turning reflection on the true nature of attraction and mature love.
Hardy’s characters are richly delineated. They more than fill the pages of the novel, but do so within the context of the landscape, language, and traditions of West Country England. The story has qualities that make it a natural for the cinema, though, of course, Hardy could never have anticipated this. Yet another film version of the story is due for release shortly, which will no doubt rekindle interest in the novel.
The book I read is a particularly handsome edition, printed for The Limited Editions Club in 1958, with original wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker, who also designed the sheep-farming motif for the paper that covers the side boards. The spine is – what else? – natural sheepskin.
The Raki: Yeni Raki – ÂLÂ
The Book: Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Raki is synonymous with Turkey. Add a little water and the liquor turns a snowy white. An appropriate companion then to Orhan Pamuk’s novel, in which copious amounts of snow fall, copious amounts of raki are consumed, while the many faces of politics erupt.
It stands clear in the traditional tall, narrow raki glass, but with the addition of water (or an ice cube) it clouds to look like thin milk. To be more precise, lion’s milk or “aslan sütü”, as the Turks are inclined to call it. Not that you have to be particularly lion-hearted to drink it. After all, 70 million litres of raki are consumed in Turkey each year. Our Yeni Raki ÂLÂ (47% abv) is triple-distilled and goes down rather more smoothly than expected. If you are a drinker of aged whisky and rum it’s more one-note than you are used to. And you must have a liking for aniseed, with which it is flavoured. Raki is best drunk with family and friends, around a table crowded with mezze – colourful, multi-textured small plates of feta, melon, meat kebabs, seafood, and much more – so glasses can be raised and their bottoms (never their tops) clinked.
Until 2004 raki was produced exclusively by the state-owned monopoly Tekel. With privatization came new production methods and new brands. Traditionally, raki was made from distillation of grape pomace, the solids left over from wine-making (skin, pulp, seeds and stems). Today pomace is likely replaced by raisins, figs, plums, or even mulberries.
The grapes used in the production of ÂLÂ are carefully selected, and the aniseed is of the highest quality, from the Cesme-Izmir region of Turkey. The grapes are sun-dried, then ground and mashed together with water. Initial column distillation results in an alcohol level of about 93%. At this stage the aniseed is added, before a second and third distillation in copper alembics. ÂLÂ is then aged in oak barrels, before being filtered to remove any hint of colour.
Raki drinkers generally like the ritual of their crystal clear liquid turning white. The addition of an equal (or slightly more) measure of water dilutes it to an alcohol content near to that of wine. At which point the clinking of glasses (“Serefinize!”) and the parade of mezze can begin.
Orhan Pamuk‘s “Snow” followed on the heels of his highly successful “My Name is Red.” The two books could hardly be more different. This is a contemporary, politically-charged story set in the remote Turkish city of Kars, near the border with Armenia. It is a dismal place, made more introspective by three days of constant snow. The weather has cut it off from the outside world, turning it to a contained microcosm of Turkish society.
The fractious elements are all here: the Westernized and godless liberal, the Islamic radical fundamentalist, the corrupt military, the confused moderate. All are given a voice and Pamuk allows the jumble of viewpoints to twist and turn the reader in several directions at once. The narrative thankfully thrives on irony and dark humour, charged with a certain circus quality. It makes for an extraordinary novel.
At its centre is an ex-pat Turkish poet who has lived in Germany for a dozen years. He returns to Istanbul and soon finds himself on a bus to Kars, in the role of journalist. He’s there to investigate a rash of suicides by young women being pressured to discard their head scarves in order to comply with the ban on them by colleges. The poet’s name is Ka and just as he arrives the snow begins to fall.
The story is filled with a succession of memorable characters, most notable for Ka, a beautiful young woman named Ipek he knew from his student days, someone he is desperate to see fall in love with him. But there is also her sister Kadife, leader of the girls who champion the wearing of head scarves, and Blue, a handsome terrorist with a distinctly soft side, the newspaperman Serdar who forecasts events and prints them as news before they actually take place, and the husband and wife acting duo of Sunay and Funda who mount bizarre and provocative stage plays.
It is during one of these that violence erupts and several people are killed. Meanwhile, Ka pursues Ipek and follows his muse, dashing off poems at an alarming rate. As it turns out, the story is narrated by someone who discovered Ka’s notes several years after his return to his Frankfurt apartment. Someone named Orhan Pamuk.
What he didn’t find were Ka’s poems. Which to this reader was a disappointment. I was still waiting for some, even just one, when the last of the raki was poured, and the snow finally ended.
The Whisky: Glenfarclas – aged 17 years
The Book: Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub
For this Christmas season, when my thoughts turned to an historic act of peace, I chose a rich, traditional whisky. It has been one hundred years since the remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914, when common decency outshone the purveyors of war.
Golden amber hue, nearing a copper glow. Lovely to see that natural colour, nothing added. On the nose, a classy, complex waft of sherry, caramel, dried fruit and nuts, and a hint of peat. Lovely. On the palate, these intensify and bring in elements of coffee and spice. Lingers very nicely. Warming.
Glenfarclas (glen of the green grass) is in Speyside, although the owners think of their whisky simply as Highland malt. It is one of the few family-owned and managed distilleries left in Scotland, now in the fifth and sixth generations of the Grant family, which seems to have alternated between a John and a George. For its standard bottlings it eschews fancy packaging and promotional gimmickry, channelling it resources into quality whisky at reasonable prices. Glenfarclas has garnered huge respect within the industry and among discerning whisky drinkers.
2015 will be the 150th anniversary of the purchase of Glenfarclas by the first John Grant. Although a good portion of the distillery’s annual output is sold to other whisky companies for blending, it is the standard range (10, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, 30 and 40 year-old), matured in expensive ex-Oloroso sherry casks, that has built the company’s reputation. It has an enviable 65,000 casks in warehouse, so Glenfarclas bottlers have a remarkable inventory from which to choose, and Glenfarclas drinkers have a lot of quality product to look forward to. Mine is the 17-year-old, a bottling aimed mainly at the overseas and duty-free markets.
Glenfarclas has six stills at its disposal, some of the largest in Speyside. They are direct fired, whereas the vast majority of distilleries use steam. In 1981 they tried steam, but stopped after three weeks. They weren’t satisfied with the quality of the whisky. ‘Steam might be cheaper,’ says the most recent of the George Grants, ‘but here it just made the spirit flat. We want a spirit that has weight to it. We want to age it 50 years.’
In fact this year saw the very limited release of a 60-year-old Glenfarclas.
Some years ago, while researching WWI, I discovered in a letter written from the Belgium front and reprinted in a local newspaper of the era, these words: “We came out of the trenches last evening and are not out for a few days rest but we spent Christmas Day in the trenches, and believe me it was some day. Not hardly a shot fired throughout the day, and some of the boys were over in the German trenches talking to the Germans.”
The soldier writing the letter had lived not far from where I lived. I had visited his community several times. That touchstone of place had made the Christmas Truce that much more real to me.
In Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, the soldiers speak through their journals and letters and with these accumulated, personal strokes the author draws a picture of the vast, if not continuous, camaraderie between the enemy troops. The Christmas Truce, downplayed by the official histories of the war, is suddenly very real. These are moments of humanity in the midst of the dire inhumanity of the First World War.
“We had been calling to one another for some time Xmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted ‘no shooting’ and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on top of the trench and talked German and asked them them to sing a German Volkslied, which they did, then our men sang quite well and each side clapped and cheered the other.”
The soldier, writing to his mother, was Captain R. J. Armes of the First North Staffordshires, in the trenches near the French village of La Chapelle d’Armentières. It could have been any one of thousands of soldiers who took part in their own version of the the Christmas armistice, whether it was a respite for each side to bury their dead, or an exchange of cigarettes, or a game of football. Whether it was trading addresses, often with Germans who had worked in England prior to the war. Or Stille Nicht sung together with Silent Night, as happened again and again, sometimes by men who in their previous lives had been opera singers.
For the most part Weintraub lets the soldiers tell their stories. It gives the book its strength, even though it is repetitive at times. Where he veers away from this approach (for example, into speculation of how the century would have unfolded if the Truce had somehow ended the war) the book is less successful.
It is the personal words, and the melodic notes of that most touching of Christmas songs, which echo through these hundred years.