The Calvados: Lecompte – 12 years
The Book: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I & II by Marcel Proust
There is nothing like a 6-volume / 3,000-page book to enlighten the dark days of winter. For this reading marathon I’ll need three months and three bottles of something wonderfully French. Since much of the first two volumes of Proust’s masterpiece is set in or near Normandy, the first pour will be a time-honoured calvados.
Nut brown in the glass, the contents release roasted hazelnut aromas infused with spice, notably cinnamon and nutmeg. Creamy and mouth-rich, it’s a caramelized apple, peppery compote showing a touch of fire. Complex and flavoursome. A delight.
No time lost here. All dozen years have worked together to bring this calvados to perfection. Lecompte certainly knows what it’s about.
Its history began in 1923 when Alexandre Lecompte, local trader in wine and spirits, decided to forgo his other holdings and focus on his store of well-aged calvados. Decades later, in 1980, Lecompte was purchased by Yves Pellerin, and is now one of the most acclaimed Maisons de Calvados in the Pays d’Auge, the region of Normandy which bears A.O.C. status for calvados.
Lecompte distillery, La Morinière, is located in the picturesque village of Notre-Dame de Courson, surrounded by apple orchards that produce some of the finest fruit in Normandy. It uses double distillation in two traditional Charentais stills. Its eight cellars hold some 800 oak casks, all under the watchful eye of Richard Prével, a third-generation Cellar Master who has overseen operations at Lecompte for a quarter century.
The Lecompte line-up includes 5, 12, 18, and 25-year-olds, a couple of limited editions, and the ultra-premium Secret, a blend of over 100 individual batches, none any younger than 42 years, and with a few casks laid down at the time Lecompte was founded in 1923!
That’s just one year after the death of Marcel Proust.
Volume I: The Way by Swann’s (or Swann’s Way)
To understand In Search of Lost Time it helps to know something of the life of its author. From childhood to his death at age 51 Proust was plagued with asthma, and was seriously ill for much of his life, the last three years of which he spent confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and completing his monumental novel at night, propped up in bed, using his knees for a desk. (The bedroom has been recreated in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.)
He was something of a misfit. He embraced writing as his sole employment, a situation made less daunting by the fact he lived at home into adulthood and when, in his early 30s, his parents died he received a substantial inheritance. It gave him lots of time to read and contemplate the artistic life.
In his youth he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers (the model for the fictional Combray) and his student days gave him access to the upper levels of French society. He became enamoured with the so-called “salons” of the rich, earning him the reputation of being a social-climbing elitist. He was homosexual, but denied it throughout his life. All material for his fiction, of course. It could never reflect the life of the ordinary Frenchman, but would allow him penetrating analysis of upper crust of society in fin-de-siècle France.
The reader is fifty pages into the book before coming upon the famous scene when the petite scallop-shaped cake, the madeleine, is dipped in lime blossom tea. It triggers a flood of memories of his childhood holidays in the home of his eccentric great-aunt Léonie. He escapes to time past, to reflection well beyond surface detail, to extended moments of deep introspection.
The opening section of Volume One unfolds over a summer in Combray, ostensibly from the perspective of young Marcel, although the viewpoint often switches, as it does throughout the novel, to that of an older narrator. The boy takes near daily walks in the direction of property belonging to Charles Swann, a rich stockbroker and friend of the family, or in the direction of a summer residence of the Guermantes, a bizarre family who inhabit the pinnacle of French society. Paris is where they live most of the year and it is there the reader will meet them again.
The book turns to the story of how Swann became entangled with Odette de Crécy, the woman who will eventually become his wife. Here we see to what lengths Proust will go to create a picture of personal relationships and their implications for shaping the society in which the characters are immersed. Proust is the master of intricate, though readable sentences, some of which go on for a half page or more. The reader enters the labyrinth, never knowing what verbal contortions the author will take before nicely disentangling himself and coming to a full stop. As a reader, there is no notion of resisting; you take the ride and learn to appreciate the multiple diversions along the way.
The fruit of the Swann marriage, the red-headed Gilberte, who made a brief appearance in Combray, resurfaces in Paris, in the Jardin des Champs Élysées, pursued by the now teenaged Marcel. It will be one of his many infatuations that never seem to go anywhere. Then again, plot was generally secondary to Proust. His concern was the passage of time, and our attempts to hold to what is invariably lost. Remember the author Proust spent much of his life resting, often in bed. He himself wasn’t going anywhere. He had vast amounts of time to reflect on where his limited life had taken him.
Volume II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s masterwork, which the translator called “Remembrance of Things Past” (now much discredited as a title), remained the standard for several decades after it was published in the 1920s. It is considered a classic of English translation and is still widely read. But recently other translators have taken on the task, with results that have been praised by critics who feel the newer versions are closer to what Proust intended.
I started with Moncrieff (updated by Terence Kilmartin), augmenting the experience with a recent graphic novel version of Volume I, and “Paintings in Proust” by Eric Karpeles, a book which brings together the multitude of artwork referenced through the six volumes.
Then, partway through reading the second volume, I switched to the James Grieve version, part of a multi-translator edition first published in the UK in 2002. Though I occasionally found the word choice too current, I took to it immediately. To me the book breathed more easily.
“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” the title Grieve gave his Volume II (a mindset away from Moncrieff’s awkward “Within a Budding Grove”), immediately sets the focus. Marcel is in love, especially with a troop of adolescent girls who wander about the beach at Balbec, in Normandy, where much of this segment of the book is set.
First though there is his further pursuit of the Swann daughter, Gilberte. The love is unrequited and eventually Marcel comes to his senses (or as much as he is capable) and sets her aside, turning instead to his friendship with her parents, who continue to prove to be an enigmatic pair.
The scene changes to Balbec (based on the resort town of Cabourg, and above depicted in Nina Companeez’s 2011 television adaptation of the novel). In Balbec an older, though seemingly no wiser, Marcel (still under the wing of his grandmother) quickly turns to a new love interest, several in fact. The “gang,” as Grieve calls them, are an inducement for Marcel to schedule outings beyond the hotel that will give him the best chance of encountering the girls. The painter Elstir is something of a help in getting to know them. A newfound aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup, as much as Marcel admires him, proves a distraction. As does the reemergence of another acquaintance from Volume I, Albert Bloch. Bloch is Jewish and threads of anti-Semitism begin to take hold in the novel, another angle in the depiction of the French bourgeoisie at the time of Proust.
Marcel has settled on Albertine Simonet as his love for life. She has not settled on him. The narrative weaves in and out of the relationship, Proust using any incident that arises along the way as a route to an ever wider analysis of it, analysis that is at times so far-ranging that we can easily lose sight of where Proust is taking us.
Of course he is taking us anywhere he wants, and that is sometimes the frustration, but more often the pleasure of the book. Incident evokes conjecture, which turns into scrutiny of character, and thus speculation on the direction the French society was headed.
Encasing it all is the masterly Proust prose. Two thousand pages of which remain. I’m eager to press on.
Tags: 12 years, calvados, In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, James Grieve, Lecompte, Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Scott Moncrieff, Swann's Way, The Way by Swann's
The Whisky: Glenmorangie – Milsean
The Books: Doppler by Erlend Loe and Hash by Torgny Lindgren
Outside it’s definitely a white Christmas. Treetops are glistening. It’s time for a dram that’s sherried and bright. And for clever Nordic books, reindeer-like.
Out of the Christmasy candy-striped packaging and into the glass comes a splash of amber gold, with hues of orange and red. Sweet aromas of candied florals, fruit and spice. A bright nectar mélange. On the palate, a rounded alcoholic bite, cinnamon overlaying a warming mix of dried fruit. A distinct, but measured sweetness. A dram for all seasons, but extra special at Yuletide.
Founded in 1843 and located in Tain, Scotland (about an hour’s drive north of Inverness), Glenmorangie distills some of the biggest-selling single malts in the world, with an annual production of about six million litres. The distillery is noted for having the tallest pot stills in Scotland, at some 5+ metres. Glenmorangie is owned by the luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. And, like Ardbeg, also owned by LVMH, it is notable for stepping outside its core range and marketing some distinctive special editions.
Milsean (Gaelic for ‘sweet things’) is the seventh release in Glenmorangie’s Private Edition series. As the name implies, the scale this time has tipped toward sweetness.
The much-admired and innovative Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling at both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, tags it ‘…a whisky recalling a bygone era.’ Adding that ‘a glass of Milsean transports me straight to an old-fashioned sweet shop.’
Unlike in other years, Lumsden was not the one responsible for the creation of this 2016 special release. That job fell to Brendan McCarron who had recently joined Glenmorangie as head of maturing whisky stocks. He is considered the heir apparent to Lumsden.
Bourbon-matured spirit was transferred to French oak barriques that originally held Portuguese red wine and that had been heavily toasted to draw out the sweeter notes in the wood. The original time frame for finishing the whisky was five years, but was cut to two and a half when the whisky reached its intended profile early and was running the risk of taking on too much of an oak influence. Removed from the barriques and vatted together for a final six months, Milsean was released two years ahead of schedule.
McCarron is justly pleased. His boss is pleased. The whisky has garnered an array of kudos for them both.
Erlend Loe is a Norwegian author, well-known in Scandinavia, and increasingly so in other parts of the world. Doppler was a roaring success in Norway when it was published in 2004. Release of an English translation (by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) happened eight years later.
Doppler is a middle-aged man who recently lost his father, and who gives his skull a smack in a bicycle accident. The combination prompts a major shift in his world view. He uproots from Oslo central and sets up a tent in a forest that overlooks the city, leaving behind a wife and two children, as well as easy access to the essentials, including food.
Sustenance comes in the shape of an elk (a moose in the Canadian edition), which he felled in his new forest home. The elk has left behind a calf which Doppler, after some internal debate, befriends and names Bongo. The calf adapts, while the human protagonist quietly rages against what he sees as the absurdities of modern life.
Doppler never fully disentangles himself from his former self. Some of the most engaging interaction in the book is with his young son who comes to live with him for a time, and with his teenaged daughter who is obsessed by the ‘Lord of the Rings’ film. I’ve witnessed Loe reading that latter part, to deadpan perfect effect.
The novel is short, offbeat, and subversive. It moves past satirical entertainment to purposeful rumination on the world we build for ourselves. I want more Nordic eccentricity in my Christmas.
So there’s Hash by Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren.
An unfortunate title translation perhaps, since the reference is not to cannabis, but to a rustic (some would say vile) animal-offal foodstuff not unlike haggis. Swedish hash, and the search for its ‘finest’ expression, comes to be at the centre of a cleverly outlandish story (translated by Tom Geddes) involving a 1940’s epidemic of tuberculosis and a travelling fabric salesman, Robert Maser, who might or might not be the Nazi war criminal Martin Boorman.
The tale is told by an 107-year-old former reporter who in his nursing home is finally released from a decades-old silence imposed by a former editor who had accused him of fabricating his newspaper articles. He’s off then to tell the story he’d left unfinished all those years before, though of course, we can never really know where the truth of the tale lies.
In post-war Sweden TB is rampant, and no more so than in the village of Avabäck. Arriving to teach school is Lars Hagström, a young man cured of TB who’s now immune to the disease. He teams up with Maser, also immune, who shares his interest in vocal music, and in hash. They set off into the Swedish countryside to find the best hash made, which swells to an exploration of the deeper meaning of hash in a troubled world. For readers who might not be inclined towards hash when the novel begins, the story would seem to go out of its way to reinforce any aversion. The crowning hash is the creation of the most physically foul character that I’ve had described to me in a long time.
Lindgren, one of Sweden’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and one of the most recognized internationally, has said of his writing, ‘I lack the disposition for realism: as soon as I have managed to put together a suitable number of realistic people…they start to fiddle about, they behave as if they had never before been in contact with real life…’ Even though Lindgren himself suffered from TB as a child, and in fact inserted himself as that child at one point in the novel, the story escapes the constraints of realism to become something surreal and excitingly ambiguous, and, shall we say, gustatorily textured. It helps to have a flavourful dram at hand to ease past the hash.
The Whisky: Reisetbauer Single Malt – 7 years
The Books: A Whole Life and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
These books needed a compatriot, a nonconformist who found in his Austrian homeland something that translates well far beyond its borders.
Once past the mundane label, the light amber-coloured whisky comes into its own. An offbeat nose of wine-charged muskiness, circling about nuts and chocolate and spice. After advancing with a certain amount of trepidation, a swish about the mouth reveals an earthy brew mixing cereal notes with hops and well-aged fruit. A catchy alcoholic bite. A lingering funky warmth. An odd one this, memorable but not for the purists. (abv 43%)
Hans Reisetbauer had established a stellar reputation as a distiller of fruit schnapps when in 1995 he decided to try his hand at single malt whisky, one of the very first entrepreneurs in Austria to do so. He aimed for a distinctly Austrian take on the dram.
He set aside four hectares of his farmland in Axberg, northern Austria, to grow his own barley. Both malting and the 70-hour fermentation took place on site. He undertook double distillation in copper pot stills that had been modified to his specifications in order to fully capture the distinct aromas Reisetbauer wanted in the whisky. And, eschewing the tradition of ex-bourbon or sherry maturation, he directed the double-distilled spirit to casks from two of Austria’s top winemakers, casks that once held Austrian Chardonnay or the country’s famous sweet wine Trockenbeerenauslese. He waited until 2002 before bringing his first whisky to market.
The grapes used to make Trockenbeerenauslese are harvested after they have succumbed to noble rot, so the trace of botrytis in the whisky is entirely legitimate. There are other unexpected aromas and tastes, but there is no denying the whisky is distinct and makes a proud statement of being in a class of its own. Not to everyone’s taste, but whisky making is now a multi-cultural mix, and this Austrian distillery has tailored a place for itself. Reisetbauer subsequently released a limited edition 12-year-old, with a much classier label (see photo), and now a 15-year-old.
Vienna-born Robert Seethaler‘s A Whole Life is clear demonstration that a brief novel (in this case just shy of 150 pages) can tell a monumental story with remarkable impact. Seethaler traces the life of a rugged mountain labourer, from childhood in the first decade of the 20th century to the height of manhood, to decline into old age. Andreas Egger’s end, like his beginning, is lived largely out of sight of the forces of modernization.
To anyone weaned on brash, plot-driven novels constructed to corral the reader’s attention, this book will seem tame fare. But it is richer for its simplicity, its modest, yet unpredictable pacing. The writing is forthright; the craft is there, without ever making a show of itself. A Whole Life is, above all, strikingly perceptive, encapsulating what matters in the life of one person, and in doing so speaking to each one of us. It is the universal writ small, resonating large.
As a four-year old, the orphaned Egger arrives by horse cart in a mountain village and at the doorstep of a heartless, oftentimes sadistic uncle. He endures a brutal boyhood until he is old and muscled enough to retaliate. He strikes out on his own, slow to speak, burdened by a permanent limp, yet willful and graced with exceptional physical strength. He finds hard work and love; tragedy and war find him.
The novel is enriched by a mountain landscape more powerful than the stoic man who inhabits it. When an avalanche brings great adversity, Egger works his way past what would have defeated a lesser man, building and reinforcing his own path through life. What more is there for him? For any of us?
It is a novel to hold on to and reread. As is the recently released The Tobacconist, the second of Robert Seethaler’s four novels to be translated into English.
The year is 1937. Arriving in Vienna from the Austrian hinterland is the youthfully innocent Franz Huchel. At 17 he’s been apprenticed to the tobacconist Otto Trsnyek. He knows nothing of the trade, but before long settles into the daily routine of reading the newspapers for sale in the shop and sorting out the idiosyncrasies of the customers who regularly drop by.
One of them is an impatient, aged Jewish professor, Sigmund Freud. And in due course he and Franz become friends and confidants. Franz needs help sorting out his amorous misadventures with an erratic Bohemian girl Anezka. Freud enjoys the company and the cigars the young man brings with him.
But more serious situations loom. Without warning there are Nazis in the streets and the Gestapo lurks in the doorways of ordinary citizens who happen to be Jews. As the tobacconist goes missing and Freud and his family prepare to escape the country, Franz has decisions to make about how to deal with the menace that threatens his own life.
A marginally longer novel, The Tobacconist is written with the same restraint and attention to telling detail that distinguished A Whole Life. Its timeframe is much shorter, but its impact is no less.
These are two exceptional novels, expertly translated into English by Charlotte Collins. Hopefully she is in the wings, ready to translate more.
The Whisky: Johnnie Walker – Double Black
The Book: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
There’s plenty of 1970s-era whisky drunk in this novel, much of it Johnnie Walker. But if I’m going to take on Johnnie Walker, then my choice will have to be more character-driven than its regular blends.
Light orange amber in the glass, with a subtle, slightly smoky nose. Some fruit, some oak — all good, if understated. On the palate the smoke rises though the creamy semi-sweetness. Slow, soft burn. Likely as smooth a peated whisky as you’d meet. Johnnie Walker with a tempered but lingering Islay attitude. (40% abv)
Is there a country on the planet where you wouldn’t find Johnnie Walker? It’s the most widely distributed blended Scotch in the world, with annual sales approaching 200 million bottles. That’s a lot of smooth, consistent, quality product.
Double Black is about as surprising as it gets. First introduced in select travel markets, it met with immediate success and was added to the core range in 2011. By doubling down on the peated malts found in JW’s long-standing Black Label, master blender Jim Beveridge was able to appeal to the increasing segment of whisky drinkers who lean towards a smokier dram.
Using the same 40 malt and grain whiskies found in the Black Label mix, Beveridge significantly upped the percentage of Coal Ila and Talisker (both, like JM, owned by spirits giant Diaego) and did some adjusting to the other malts. JW bumped up the price from the Black Label, introducing a shiny black, translucent bottle that stands out from the others in the core range. Clever marketing, but also a fine and clever whisky that, despite its non-age statement, looks very sharp in the sleek Johnnie Walker line-up.
It has often been said that the Vietnam War is the first war in history to have its story written by the loser rather than the winner, ironically the war Americans most wish to forget. We know the books, the movies, the Broadway musical. What The Sympathizer does first and foremost, is bring an overdue, fresh perspective to the war, giving voice to the generally voiceless Vietnamese fighters.
Debut novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam but grew up in the United States. He has a foot in both countries, and like the Captain, his novel’s unnamed narrator, the author is in a unique position to see the war from both angles. This is clear from the opening lines: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. …I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” It sets the course for an intense tragicomedy, a multi-layered, ultimately devastating narrative.
Situated dead centre in the chaos of the April 1975 American evacuation of Saigon, the first 65 pages leave the heart pounding. The Captain, right-hand man to a General leading the South Vietnamese in support of the Americans, is the one to decide who among his compatriots will be left behind and who gets to board the last U.S. flights struggling to make it off the tarmac amid enemy bombardment. Only when the scene shifts, first to Guam and then California, does the reader breathe and assess what the author has set before us: historical realism, espionage, social satire, meditation on war.
The novel is bookended by intense scenes of escape and torture. Between them, it refocuses several times, including when the narrator is hired as a consultant for a movie being made about the war (a movie which bears a strong resemblance to “Apocalypse Now,” as does its director to Francis Ford Coppola).
Meanwhile the Vietnamese escapees drift bored and frustrated in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Gradually the General sets in motion a plot to return to their homeland and overthrow the communist government. It is doomed to failure of course, but the attempt to bring it about proves as intriguing as if it did have a chance of success.
The Sympathizer is many things, but like any novel of war, it is an account of shifting moral ground. There can be no ultimate resolution. The Captain’s struggle for survival is what there is, but it is more than enough to hold the reader to this striking, justly important novel.
The Whisky: Embrujo de Granada
The Book: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I’ve decided it’s about time to take on thick, classic works of fiction that over the years have slipped by me unread. First up, that knight-errant of La Mancha. Along for the adventure is a Spanish malt whisky in a hand-painted ceramic bottle. It would fit quite comfortably in Sancho Panza’s saddlebag.
Soft, bright mahogany in the glass, and on the nose baked spice overlaying honeyed floral notes. Pleasantly sweet and creamy on the palate.The sherry aging has served it very well. Excellent Spanish whisky at 40% abv.
Embrujo de Granada is the star product of Destilerias Liber and the creation of Fran Peregrina, a chemical engineer whose heart found a home in the making of whisky with an Andalusian influence. Founded in 2001, the distillery was only the second in the country to produce whisky (the other being DYC) and the first to make a single malt.
Located in Padul, just outside Granada, it draws on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada for its water supply. The climate (chilly winters and hot, hot summers) plays a definite part in what finally ends up in its bottles, though not as much as the maturation in select ex-sherry casks of American oak, some of which have held the best Jerez for twenty years.
The malted barley is Spanish as well (from Albacete), as are the copper stills. These unusual flat-bottomed stills were designed by Fran Peregrina himself, and crafted by a local artisan. This version of Embrujo de Granada is a limited edition. Its ceramic bottle (with a hand painted pomegranate, symbol of Granada) salutes the centuries old pottery traditions of the city.
All in all, Peregrina has taken the techniques of Scottish distillation and let the Spanish terroir and heritage have its say. The result is a well-made, thoroughly pleasing sherried dram. One worthy of a classic partner.
I once read a 200-page abridged edition of Don Quixote. Shame I didn’t take the time to bring myself to the whole marvel, rather than a cut-rate version. The relatively recent and much-lauded translation by Edith Grossman offered the perfect prod to return to the book, and this time take on the 900+ pages. That led to the gift of a second, older translation by John Ormsby, a fine press version printed with marvellous woodcuts by Enric-Cristobal Ricart. I fell under a double spell.
Often billed as the first modern novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second a decade later. Four centuries on, my reading of Cervantes proved a constant surprise, the multiple approaches to the story not being what I expected of 17th century writing. In the second part of the novel Cervantes cleverly plays the story against an unauthorized sequel that had been published in the Spanish city of Tarragona in 1614 (by an unscrupulous writer named Avellaneda). It has the scent of postmodernism.
The sublime contrast, in physical make-up and worldview, between Don Quixote and his donkey-riding squire Sancho Panza is the driving force of the novel. Often hilarious, it builds, perilous adventure after perilous adventure, to an ending that is unexpectedly bittersweet and deeply moving.
Don Quixote, the idiosyncratic romantic, the lanky knight-errant atop his haggard steed Rosinante is a man for all time. His squire’s earthy witticism, in parallel with Quixote’s naive rhetoric, echoes through a richly imagined narrative. Their escapades, to win the favour of the knight’s illusory lady love Dulcinea, brings the reader face-to-face with a host of characters — goatherders, friars, criminals, prostitutes, slaves, an odious pair of aristocratic pranksters. No wonder translators are lured back to it again and again.
Edith Grossman’s 2004 version maintains a contemporary readability without ever sacrificing the feel of 17th century Spain. It is a tough translation trick and Grossman has done the modern reader a great service, as did Ormsby for his generation when that translation was first published in 1885. It is still fluid today, and blended with Ricart’s woodcuts, the 1933 Limited Editions Club printing is a standout.
So, after several decades of putting it off, Don Quixote won me over, and decisively. The Embrujo de Granada added to the experience, all the while keeping in mind that the classic is a classic all on its own.
The Whisky: Balblair 2001
The Book: Chocolat by Joanne Harris
I’m looking for a whisky that compliments fine dark chocolate. But more than that — a sophisticated whisky with light, lasting appeal all its own.
Bright summer straw in the glass, and fresh white fruit on the nose, laced with almond and spice. In the mouth there’s mild oak, with an agreeable nip from its 46% abv, enhanced by a peppery sweetness. Overall — elegantly assertive, and very good company.
Balblair Distillery is located in the village of Edderton, near the shores of Dornoch Firth in the northern Highlands, not far from Glenmorangie. It was founded in 1790, making it the second oldest working distillery in Scotland. During its first century it was in the hands of the Ross family, and still today four of the nine employees at the distillery bear that surname. In the 1890s it was rebuilt on a site a half-mile from its original location, closer to the railway line, but still able to draw on Allt Dearg for its water supply. Financial problems forced its closure in 1911, and it was not until 1949 that production resumed, under new ownership. Today it is one of five distilleries in the portfolio of Inver House, and currently runs at full production levels, distilling 1.8 million litres annually. Fifteen percent of it is bottled as single malt.
Inver House reshaped and restyled Balblair. It introduced new, distinctive packaging, with a modernistic, rounded bottle accented by Pictish markings (homage to the Picts, the tribal people who lived in this part of Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Medieval period.) More importantly, it instituted a program of vintage releases. Each new release is now designated by the year the whisky was distilled. Our 2001 vintage, for example, was released in 2012. Balblair 2001 was a landmark whisky in that it was the first of the distillery’s single malts to be released at the higher 46% strength, as well as being non chill-filtered and bottled without added colour.
It has been aged in quality ex-bourbon, American white oak casks. Its profile is relatively light and fresh, but with a gentle kick from its extra strength. It’s a subtle, mature style that pairs with very nicely with select flavours.
Such as dark, rich, single-origin chocolate.
Hence, Chocolat by Joanne Harris.
The novel is set in southwestern France, in the fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tonnes. The setting reads like a movie set and indeed Chocolat, the 2000 movie, released not long after the publication of the book, was a huge hit. You might say the success of the book ran in tandem with the somewhat altered storyline that struck the big screen.
I’ve not seen the movie, but I couldn’t help but read the book through a cinematic eye. It has an engaging, if staged, presence that, like much well-crafted chocolate, can be seductive well past its stylish packaging.
A single mother, Vianne Rocher, arrives unannounced in the village of 200 inhabitants at the beginning of Lent. Vianne has long lived a nomadic life, and now with her young daughter, Anouk, seems anxious to set down roots. She turns an abandoned bakery in the village square into Le Céleste Praline, a chocolaterie whose confections transfix many of the residents, as well as the reader.
Her nemesis has his business across the way, in the form of the Catholic Church. Priest Francis Reynaud views the shop and its earthy temptations as a threat to the souls of his parishioners and would like nothing more than to see Vianne close her doors and leave town. Fractures begin to appear in the village’s placid exterior. Vianne has stirred things up, revealing dark undercurrents that includes spousal abuse and ethnic prejudice.
The characters are memorable, if not particularly nuanced. The best drawn are Vianne herself and Reynaud, who share the narration of the story, as well as recall much of their past lives. The story pits good against evil (a morality play of sorts) and it is not a surprise who wins out in the end.
Sitting on a sun-dappled porch, fine whisky at hand, does much to enhance the experience of partaking in C/chocolat.
The Gins: Ungava, St. Laurent, Romeo’s, Piger Henricus
The Books: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner and I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
There’s an exciting new wave of artisanal gin-making in Québec. Very good reason for a summer tonic of Québecois writers. Where to begin?
Although most people drink their gin in cocktails, a good gin can stand alone. I start by tasting it cold and neat, and then later I’ll drop in an ice cube made by freezing tonic water, sometimes with a thin wedge of lime — a minimalist gin & tonic.
Let’s start with Ungava, the Quebec gin that’s received most of the attention to date. It’s been produced by Domaine Pinnacle in the Eastern Townships since 2010.
There’s no mistaking it. Its bright yellow colour definitely sets it apart. Woodsy citrus on the nose, juniper working its way through the peel. In the mouth a tart, herbal balance evened out with a peppery edge. Not as distinctly nordic as you might expect. Very good, though. And with the tonic, it mellowed to something smooth and savoury. (43% abv)
Domaine Pinnacle (whose products include ice cider, spiced rum, and maple whisky) set out to add to its off-beat range, to bring to market an uncommon gin (the yellow colour certainly accomplished that). Pinnacle president Charles Crawford sought out indigenous botanicals to infuse in a neutral, corn distillate. He found them in northern Québec, six flora native to the Ungava Peninsula : Nordic juniper (juniper being essential to gin), wild rose hips, Arctic blend (ukiurtatuq), Labrador tea, crowberry, and cloudberry. There, in late summer, a couple of people from Kuujjuaq set out on the tundra and harvest what he’ll need for the upcoming year, then ship it south to the production facility.
Ungava Gin — now sold in over 60 countries and winner of numerous awards — has been a great success. It’s done most things right, except for some of its early ads that proved less that sensitive to the Inuit way of life. It’s put Québec on the world gin map.
St. Laurent Gin is noticeably different, with seaweed (specifically, the thick-ribbon, lasagna noodle-shaped kelp Laminar Longicuris) as part of the mix of botanicals. First to strike the eye is the classy label, reminicent of 19th century marine texts.
Is the gin behind the label equally well-crafted? A slight green hue in the glass, from the maceration of the seaweed. At first nosing, it’s surprisingly floral, the citrus and juniper eventually pushing forward. The saline is there on the taste buds. The seaweed doesn’t dominate, but rather plays about with the more traditional botanicals. Not the Laphroaig of gins, if that were anticipated. But interesting, and, in the mouth nicely balanced. With a little tonic and lime wedge would be my preference. (43% abv)
St. Laurent is distilled in Rimouski, Québec, hand-crafted by Joel Pelletier and Jean-François Cloudier in small batches using a 380-litre, “double gin-basket” still. As yet it is only available in selected outlets of the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), but that is bound to change. The duo have big plans and, based on the robustly positive reception this gin has received, are pressing forward with a strategy for the production of whisky.
The gin infuses nine traditional botanicals: juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica root, cassia bark, liquorice root, lemon zest, bitter orange zest, cubeb berries, grains of paradise, before bringing on the seaweed from the St. Lawrence River. There’s a bit of a daredevil quality to this gin’s production. As the co-owners admit, they’re a “stubborn lot… with an independent streak as broad as the St. Lawrence.” Go for it, guys.
To judge by the bottle, Romeo’s Gin is also a class act. It calls itself “Montreal Dry Gin” and visible through the liquid is a portrait of Mozart by Montreal urban Pop artist Stikki Peaches. It marries visual art and distilled spirit — an intriguing combination.
But let’s begin with the gin, first released in 2016. Perfectly clear in the glass, as it needs to be, given that you want Mozart to shine through. Bright and pure on the nose, the cucumber and citrus working past the juniper. On the palate — clean, fresh, and classic. It’s an altogether agreeable taste, with the cucumber and dill taking the lead. Go easy on the tonic. Very enjoyable both ways.
Behind Romeo’s Gin is Nicholas Duvernois, the entrepreneur responsible for the much-awarded PUR Vodka. The production facility is in Rougemont, just south of Montréal. Six botanicals — juniper, cucumber, dill, lavender, almond, and lemon — are brought together in the infusion, a relative small number, and perhaps allowing more of an opportunity for the individual components to shine through. The gin is bottled at a 46% abv, somewhat higher than the other three gins, giving it a bit more of a kick, something welcomed by cocktail makers, who like it when the spirit in a cocktail is less masked by its other ingredients.
Duvernois’ goal is freshness, reminiscent, he says, of Montréal in May, returning to life after a long winter. “I wanted a recipe that tastes like the creativity of Montréal, in the first post-hibernation Spring week.”
His aim goes beyond the production of top quality gin. He sees Romeo’s also as a way to bring attention to contemporary urban artists, from Montréal and beyond. It’s bringing art into the home of each person who purchases a bottle. With each new May release a work by an early-career artist who would benefit from broader exposure will be showcased. (Nothing like Absolut Vodka playing with the iconic imagery of Warhol.) Duvernois has also established a Romeo Foundation, with 5% of profits used to help promote emerging artists, and especially to support art-making among children who might not otherwise have the access to art supplies. “Not a product with a cause,” asserts Duvernois, “but a cause with a product.”
Piger Henricus Gin hit the market in 2012, the dream of three Montréal friends — Stéphan Ruffo, Fernando Balthazar, and Pascal Gervais — who quit their desk jobs, took off to New York and California for training, then returned to set up a micro-distillery. Since then they have been joined by a fourth partner, Robert Paradis. Out to buck a system that favours multi-national producers, they call themselves “Les distillateurs subversifs.”
In developing the gin they spent several months researching at Montreal’s Botanical Gardens, meeting with foragers, and experimenting with various combinations of botanicals. In the end what they settled on included juniper berries, angelica root, coriander, cardamon, and lemon peel (no surprise there). Then, on the advice of a plant expert friend, came the kicker — parsnip. Yes that earthy, somewhat spicy, nut-flavoured root vegetable. An inspired choice.
In the glass it’s clear and bright. On the nose, mainly citrus showing itself, and the juniper. It’s in the mouth that the parsnip plays its part. A spicy sweetness making it a very pleasant sipper. I hesitate adding even the ice cube of tonic and follow the distillers’ suggestion of a touch of soda water, together with a shard of lime. Even that abbreviates the flavours. I prefer it cold and neat, in a frosted glass. Subversive!
The micro-distillery at Sainte-Alexandre, southeast of Montréal, draws pure spring water from a private source nearby. The gin is distilled in a 350-litre CARL copper pot still made in Germany. And the name? Piger Henricus is the moniker given to a type of furnace used for distillation by alchemists in the Middle Ages. . .with the goal of making a noble elixir from common ingredients.
I began reading Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner thinking it would eventually immerse me in the culture of Montréal’s Plateau. It doesn’t, not really. The three characters pitch there, but it is their separate, nomadic flights that generally fill the pages.
An unnamed narrator, whose life circles around the used bookstore in the city where he works, opens the story. He’s clearing out the contents of the home he once shared with his mother, recently deceased. Among his discoveries is a plastic compass, his one link with Jonas, the father he has never known, whose final resting place is Nikolski, a remote village in the Aleutians.
The wanderer Jonas, as it turns out, is also the father of Noah, who has been raised by his mother, mostly while roaming western Canada in a 1966 Bonneville station wagon. He eventually lands in Montréal, to take up the study of archaeology.
And there’s Joyce, trapped by the narrowness of life in a small fishing village on Québec’s North Shore, who also strikes out for Montréal, wanting to be more like her nomadic, seafaring uncle Jonas.
The paths of all three cross, but they never truly connect, which is the point of the novel – that lives are generally propelled by randomness, that the connections which might be made are often not realized, and what could resolve more than likely fails to do so.
The book defies what we expect of most novels. We generally long for connections, for resolution; we are put off by narrative untidiness. Instead, in Nikolski we are handed Dickner’s knack with language (wonderfully translated by Lazer Lederhendler), his ability to invigorate the story with the details found along the path each character craves, his quirky imaginative bent—it is these that will hold most readers to the end.
Perhaps I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière (translated by David Homel) would be better paired with saké. But then again, the narrator is not really Japanese, and Laferriére hasn’t written a novel as such, rather a book about not writing a novel. It’s all so much metaphysical conceit, entertaining to the core.
We should expect nothing less from the Haiti-born resident of Montréal who in 1985 came up with what has to be one of the most go-for-broke titles ever affixed to a novel: “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.” Reading Laferrière, you are constantly rewarded by his political irreverence and wit. You just have to submit to the ride he offers, and in this case learn not to expect plot or immutable purpose.
The narrator’s publisher is insisting on a new book. He is willing to offer a substantial advance. Pause. Hurried contemplation. How about I Am a Japanese Writer? “Sold! We signed the contract: ten thousand euros for five little words.”
As it turns out, five rather provocative little words. After all the writer has grown up in the Carribbean, and now lives in Québec. To his credit he does have an obsession with the 17th-century Japanese poet Basho, he does consume a steady diet of stereotypical photos of Japanese females from women’s magazines, and he has taken to chasing after a cluster of young Japanese party types through the streets of Montréal. Fair enough.
But what about getting around to actually writing the book? Perhaps the title alone is enough. Certainly it’s causing a huge sensation in Japan, where the population is overwhelmed by the notion that a black foreigner could propose he was “Turning Japanese” (as you might put it if you recall that 1980s song by The Vapors).
Laferrière’s writerly game is about nationalism, of course, about cultural identity in an increasingly multinational world. Does any artist deserve being claimed by any one nation? The fact that Laferrière picked Japan, with one of the most homogenous populations anywhere (98.5% ethnic Japanese), but one obsessed by American pop culture, makes the debate as he’s framed it all the more weird and wonderful.
Final note: There is a gin made in Cambridge, England with the rather compelling name Japanese Gin.