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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Gin:  CitadelleGin de France Réserve

www.citadellegin.com

The Book:  The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Barfly detective Philip Marlowe, like his creator Raymond Chandler, was a keener for gin. And neither fellow would turn down a good brandy or whisky. So a gin, distilled and wood-aged by a topnotch cognac producer, a gin tasting dangerously close to whisky, seems a just companion to The Big Sleep.

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Pale straw in colour. With a nose lead by juniper, citrus and vanilla, circled by a profusion of spices. On the palate, there’s smoothness accented by floral and herbaceous notes, enlivened by a spice-edged bite, tempered by an earthy finesse. No more complex a gin are you apt to encounter. (abv 45.2%)

THE GIN

It’s a gin for sipping and if you are going to add anything, let it be a single small cube of frozen premium tonic water. Avoid flooding out that great taste.

AGabrielCellar-min-250x250The story goes that Alexandre Gabriel of Cognac Ferrand, the gin’s producer in France, was looking to activate the distillery’s Charentais copper pot stills during the months they were not producing the signature spirit. Gabriel struck on batch gin, and, with the Reserve came the idea of aging it for several months in wooden casks.

Citadelle Réserve uses the long and diverse list of botanicals of the regular Citadelle gin: juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, cumin, nutmeg, almonds, paradise seeds, licorice, cubeb, savory, cinnamon, star anise, blackcurrant, iris, violet, fennel, orange zest and lemon, plus an additional three: yuzu, génépi and bleuet. (Several of the 22 call for a side trip to Wikipedia.) Using a patented method, the botanicals are infused in varying strengths of a neutral alcohol made from French wheat, for varying lengths of time, depending on the botanical.

Distillation is over an open flame in the small 25 hectolitre copper stills. Only the heart of the distillate is retained. The wood aging program that follows uses six types of casks: acacia, mulberry, cherry, chestnut, French oak that held Pineau de Charentes, and French oak that held cognac.

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The man behind Citadelle’s refined production values has taken the process one step further. After five months of aging, the gin is blended together and placed in an egg-shaped oak vat measuring 2,45 m high, where natural convection allows the gin to be in a state of slow, continuous motion. This is the only gin anywhere to use this process, further evidence that something very special eventually makes it to Citadelle Reserve’s rather well-bred bottle.

THE BOOK

The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first book. Published in 1939, it was, to use Chandler’s own description, “cannibalised” from two stories he published in the pulp magazine “Black Mask.” Despite the fact the method left a few loose ends (who actually killed the chauffeur?), it was a writing method that worked. The Big Sleep, although it sold only moderately well on publication, would come to define the work of one of the major American writers of the last century, an author who spanned the divide between crime fiction and the best of American literature.

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If The Big Sleep, often regarded as the best of Chandler’s seven Philip Marlowe novels, seems to lose its thread at times, it’s because Chandler was more interested in developing characters and in creating a distinctive atmosphere for them to inhabit. He was a prose stylist of the first order, famous for his subtly cynical turn of phrase.

How about: “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” Or: “Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a domed brown forehead that might at careless glance seemed a dwelling place for brains.” And again: “She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”

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The narrative voice is one of wry disdain for much of what he encounters. Marlowe’s a scarred bachelor, a loner who battles corruption, a hardboiled detective who walks about without a gun. He lives by his own code, with the humour to sustain it.

The Big Sleep is densely plotted, but the story is engaging more for its offbeat emotional tone, than trying to figure out who murdered who. By the end of it Marlowe is ready for a couple of double Scotches, quickly adding, “They didn’t do me any good.”

Perhaps he should have gone with gin.

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The Gin:  TanquerayNo. 10

www.tanqueray.com

The Books:  The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favourite tipple was gin. So when a gin comes along boxed in Art Deco design, and then I discover special editions of Fitzgerald’s books wrapped in Art Deco design, it looks to be a match made This Side of Paradise.

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THE GIN

Neat: Crisp and clean, with citrus leading the way past the juniper. On the palate, warm and creamy citrus (lime and orange especially) and a nicely integrated peppery note. Add to that a camomile undercurrent and you have a rich and classy gin. A match for its swank bottle. (47.3% abv)

In a Gin Rickey (Fitzgerald’s favourite): I can’t say the Gin Rickey did much for me. Rather watered down. As a cocktail, G&T would have been a better route. I’m thinking neat with one ice cube of tonic.

The premium Tanqueray No. 10, the first gin to use fresh citrus in its production, was introduced in the year 2000, to much acclaim. It has garnered a heap of awards and has continued to be a standout in the midst of all the recent buzz about craft gin. Its goes to show you can indeed teach an old gin maker new tricks.

Tanqueray was first distilled by Charles Tanqueray in 1830 in London. The 20-year-old had decided against following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-uncle, all of whom were clergymen. Charles was an inventor with a deep interest in science, including the science behind gin distillation. He set out to refine the process, and in doing so pioneered a style that became known as London Dry Gin.

Production would flourish into the new century, in the hands of his descendants, and would even survive massive damage in the London Blitz of WWII. The distillery eventually relocated to Essex, and then in 1995 to Cameronbridge, Fife, Scotland. Tanqueray is now owned by the spirits giant Diageo.

lovely-package-tanquerey-number-ten-4It is in Scotland that No. 10 was born, using the only still salvaged from the WWII bombings, the esteemed, hand-riveted Old Tom. Using the standard bearers of Tangueray — juniper, coriander, angelica, and liquorice — No. 10 sees the addition of fresh white grapefruit, fresh lime, and fresh orange, as well as camomile flowers. To safeguard that fresh citrus character only 60% of the final distillation continues on to the next stage and into that eye-catching bottle with a bottom shaped like a citrus juicer.

THE BOOKS

The Great Gatsby is generally considered F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s masterpiece, and the defining novel of the Jazz Age. It is the American Dream gone sour, and many critics would argue that a better American novel has yet to be written.

All posthumous praise. The book sold poorly upon publication in 1925 and when Fitzgerald died fifteen years later he did so burdened with the thought that as a writer he had been a failure.

f-scott-fitzgerald-books-0Fitzgerald had a famously troubled life. He dealt constantly with alcoholism and lack of money. He struggled through a fiery marriage with the unstable Zelda Sayre, played out among the style-setters of New York, Paris and the Riviera.

It did give Fitzgerald much to write about. The Great Gatsby is set among the well-to-do of Long Island, where the couple lived in the early 1920s. A shady young millionaire, Jay Gatsby and friends drift from party to party, in a decadent stupor much of the time. Only the narrator, Nick Carraway, seems able to maintain a perspective on the precariousness of their wealth.

Nine years later came publication of Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel. Despite the author’s great expectations for the book, it also met with a tepid reception and mediocre sales, and again its reputation was built largely when Fitzgerald was no longer around to enjoy it, or reap the financial rewards. In some quarters it is felt to be superior to The Great Gatsby, and I would hold to that assessment. I found it to be the more engaging of the two, with characters more nuanced and complex.

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At the centre of the story are Dick Diver, a young psychiatrist, and his wife Nicole, an heiress who was once his patient. Nicole’s mental state bears a distinct resemblance to that of Zelda, and, indeed the book draws heavily on real individuals and situations, including the sections focused on Dick’s affair with a young actress and his frustration at marrying a woman who impeded a promising career and led him to alcoholism.

The novel is set for the most part in France and Switzerland. (On a personal note, I was interested to discover a short scene set at the Beaumont Hamel memorial park near Amiens, referencing the many Newfoundland soldiers who died there during the Great War.)

The novel is imbued with the lifestyle of rich expat Americans. Like The Great Gatsby, it deals in lives characterized by excess, something that seems to define certain eras in Western society. Fitzgerald’s writing rang true in the self-indulgent 1980s as much as it did in the 1920s. Perhaps as much in Mar-a-Lago today as it once did in Biarritz.

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The Whisky:  LaphroaigCàirdeas 2017

www. laphroaig.com

The Book:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Laphroaig. Whisky to separate the fearless from the fainthearted. Last year I toured and tasted at the Laphroaig Distillery on Islay. As the sign next to the peat kiln said: “A fiery, peaty punch in the throat!” Monstrous. Unforgettable. Frankensteinian.

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THE WHISKY

To the eye a restrained yellow gold, preparation for a more subtle Laphroaig nose than I’m used to. Sweetish medicinal, layered with citrus and vanilla. But on the palate, that’s the Laphroaig I’ve been waiting for. Fiery, peaty, creamed smoke–a gentler punch in the throat than some, but no mistaking that Islay madness. Love it, and at 57.2% abv, love it more. (non-chill filtered, no added colour)

Laphroaig is a renegade among distilleries. It still malts some of its barley in house, a rare sight these days. Its product is distinct and pulls no punches. Either you love it or you grimace. There’s no fence-sitting on this one.

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Laphroaig as a commercial product had its start in 1815. The whisky being distilled by barley farmers on this particular section of Islay had developed a reputation as something distinct and rather impressive. Much of it had to do with the character of the Kilbride Stream water (soft, peaty, without minerals) and the Glenmachrie peat bog (heather, lichen, and a high ratio of moss). They gave the whisky a smoky, iodine/medicinal profile.

Over the years the various distillery owners and managers have each left their mark on Laphroaig, perhaps none more so than Bessie Williamson, who ran the place in the 1950s and 60s, one of the first women to oversee the operations of a major whisky distillery.

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These days John Campbell is the distillery manager. Each year since 2008 he’s crafted a limited edition malt he’s labelled Càirdeas (Gaelic for “friendship” and pronounced car-chass). Past editions have included maturation in casks that previously held port, Amontillado sherry, and Madeira. With Càirdeas 2017 the focus is on the use of quarter casks (as in the standard Laphroaig Quarter Cask bottling) and its release at cask strength.

To begin, 5-11 year-old spirit is matured in first-fill ex-Maker’s Mark bourbon casks of European oak, then combined before finishing for a further 6 months in 125-litre quarter-casks of American oak.

The result? To quote John Campbell: “A dentist, a farmer and a carpenter captured in a glass. Slainte!”

THE BOOK

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, a Modern Prometheus. It was January 1, 1818 that the 20-year-old Mary Shelley published (anonymously) a Gothic novel informed by the age of Romanticism, and one of the very first works of science fiction. It has become an enduring classic of 19th century literature, with over 300 editions, including this handsome Rockport anniversary release, with outstanding illustrations by David Plunkert.

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In the summer of 1816 Mary Godwin had started what would become the novel, during a sojourn with her lover, the already-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, to a villa on Lake Geneva, home of his friend, the poet Lord Byron. To relieve boredom during a bout of bad weather, Byron had challenged his half dozen guests to each write a horror story.

During the nights that followed Mary’s sleep was plagued by the image of someone reassembling body parts to construct a man and bring him to life, only to have the creature turn against him. It was the stimulus she needed to write her story. Then, at the suggestion of Percy, she took on the task of expanding it into a novel.

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It is surprising the novel was ever written, considering the domestic turmoil taking place around her. During the months she spent working on the book, her stepsister gave birth to Byron’s illegitimate child, her half-sister committed suicide, as did the pregnant wife Shelley had deserted to live with Mary. She herself was pregnant again by Shelley (their first child had died), and with only five weeks to the time the baby would be born she was putting the finishing touches to the manuscript.

Mary_Wollstonecraft_Shelley_Rothwell.tifShe feared the public reaction to such a frightful story, particularly one from a woman, so she chose not to attach her name to it. Even at that the attention the initial, 500-copy publication of the book did receive was often hostile. One of the reviewers wrote: “The author leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.”

Only in its second edition, four years later, did her name appear. As it happened, it was the early theatrical adaptions of the book that led to its increasing popularity. Even so, by the time of her death at age 53 Shelley could never have suspected the monumental influence the book would eventually have, in both literary and popular culture.

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The Whisky:  Writers’ TearsRed Head

www.walshwhiskey.com

The Book:  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Word has it the youthful James Joyce had red hair. That’s enough reason for me to pair this Irish whiskey with his portrait of the artist as a young man.

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THE WHISKEY

An amber red to the eye, with a burnished glow. A pleasant nose, nutty sherry sweetness playing against a little candied vanilla. Solid charm in the mouth, the sherry overcoating the dried fruit and nuts. A creamy heat with a melange of flavours that makes for a intriguing surface complexity. Tears of joy, I assume. (46% abv, non-chill filtered)

Writers’ Tears and The Irishman whiskies are both products of the Walsh Distillery, located in Carlow, in south-east Ireland. The distillery, set in the beautiful 18th-century Royal Oak Estate, didn’t open until 2016. So the spirits presently coming off the assembly line are not actually distilled there, and won’t be for a while yet. This means that since the whiskies first appeared (in 2009 and 2007 respectively) the spirit has been sourced from the warehouses of established Irish distilleries. It is further matured and sometimes blended, under the guidance of founders Bernard and Rosemary Walsh, fashioning distinctive whiskies that have been very well received.

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For Writers’ Tears Red Head, triple-distilled single malt (likely originating at Bushmills) is further matured in hand-selected Oloroso sherry butts, from which it receives its distinctive red hue.

Writers’ Tears is part of the wave of new Irish whiskies that have come into production in recent years, helping to revitalize an industry that had fallen to a mere 1% of the world market in the 1980s. Think Teeling, Redbreast, Green Spot, among several others. They have stiffened the completion with the Scots, and made the world whisk(e)y scene all the more interesting.

THE BOOK

It’s been bracing to reread Joyce’s first novel as the abortion referendum took centre stage in Ireland. What would the author have thought of it all, would he still recognize the society he had grown up in more than a century ago? Would he conclude that for much of the population the Irish psyche had hardly changed at all. Could he live in the country now, the one that as a young man he was so desperate to escape?

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has had a profound impact on the generations of Irish writers that followed Joyce, likely a profound impact on writers anywhere who grew up Catholic, especially those who experienced the cruel school discipline of the Christian Brothers or their kind. I heard stories about it from Catholic friends who went to high school in the 1960s. Colm Tóibín would still experience it a decade later. For some, reading Joyce must have amounted to a deliverance.

IMG_9514The novel starts off innocently enough, in the voice of a child narrator recounting childhood stories. As the boy Stephen Dedalus matures so does the voice. We quickly see he has a way of interpreting the world that suggests he might one day be an artist. A writer perhaps, given his preoccupation with language. Even so, the weight of boyhood experience churns within him– in school, at home, in the streets of Dublin, in the confines of his own sexual awakening. For a time he falls victim to the mind-warp offered up by priests preaching about the unfathomable tortures of hell and becomes unduly pious. It takes time, but he emerges onto a path of self-discovery, his artistic trajectory intertwined with his new sense of sexual freedom.

Joyce would write: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

m_joyceThe manuscript was started in 1904, and after a lengthy false start under the title Stephen Hero, Joyce abandoned the novel. Eventually he returned to it, reworking it under a new title, only to have the completed manuscript languish in his hands, repeatedly spurned by publishers because of what they saw as salacious content. In frustration, Joyce once threw the pages in the fire. They were only saved by the quick action of family members. Finally, championed by Ezra Pound, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized in The Egoist, a London-based journal edited by the political activist Harriet Shaw Weaver. She would remain a patron of his work for most of his career. The novel’s first appearance in book form was in New York in 1916. An English publisher took it on the following year. Joyce had long since planted himself and his family in Trieste, in northeast Italy, very far removed from Ireland.

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The Whisky:  FlókiIcelandic Single Malt

http://www.flokiwhisky.is

The Book:  The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Notwithstanding its name (and these photos), what I saw of Iceland was mostly green when I visited in late March. There were remnants of winter, the time when Icelanders escape the heady hours of darkness with a good book, and perhaps a sample from the island’s first and only distiller of whisky.

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THE WHISKY

A terrific tourist website called Creative Iceland led me to seek out Eimverk Distillery, and the possibility of a tour. Although my efforts to connect with a bus to get me there (not far outside Reykjavik) were foiled, I did pick up a bottle of its freshly marketed Flóki malt whisky (“three year old single cask reserve”) at duty-free as I was departing the country.

The whisky is light amber gold in the glass, with a floral, malty nose that rises eagerly and with a good deal of promise. In the mouth hints of rawness remain (it is barely three years old after all) but these are well on the way to being smoothened out to something special. Already there is a palatable charm of oak spice and tempered sweetness. As stocks mature and their complexity increases, there will be much to admire in the bottlings ahead. As it is, I am pleased to be drinking the first single malt from a distillery dedicated to producing a malt all its own, sending out in the world a whisky as distinct as Iceland itself.

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Eimverk Distillery was founded in 2009 by Þorkelsson brothers Egill and Halli, who had come to the conclusion that the island’s barley (a tough, spicy strain geared for a brief, intense growing season) just might produce a rather unique whisky. Eimverk became very much a family venture — Egill as the Master Distiller, Halli the Distillery Manager, with Eva handling quality control and other aspects of production, and Sigrún taking care of finance and foreign markets. Þorkell and Björn grow the barley on their Bjálmholt Farm.

Following the production of gin and aquavit, then two young malts (one of which employs barley smoked in the traditional Icelandic way, using sheep dung!), the first whisky was released in November of 2017. It came after the 164 trials it took to get what the distillery was seeking. For the young malts and whisky, the name Flóki was chosen, in honour of Hrafna-Flóki, the first Norseman to intentionally sail to Iceland.

The family is intensely proud that all ingredients are 100% Icelandic. I can attest to the quality of the water, for even the ordinary tap water in Iceland tastes delightfully pure. And I can attest to the use of the island’s great resource used to power the facility – thermal energy, having personally soaked away hours in Reykjavik’s thermal pools.

Double distillation takes place in classic pot stills, and is a little slower, with more reflux, than in most Scottish distilleries. Maturation is in American oak barrels. The three-year-old single malt reuses casks that first held the young malts, that are then stored in unheated warehouses in rural Iceland.

The label and presentation box feature the Vegvísir runic compass surrounded by a trio of ravens and runes that translate as ‘the way from home is the way to home’. Black and silver and very attractive.

Eimverk is a first-class operation and the years ahead should bring celebration of some fine and interesting whiskies. If and when I find myself back in Iceland I’ll surely be showing up at the distillery doorstep, bus or no bus.

THE BOOK

I haven’t felt such impact of snow in a novel since reading Orhan Pamuk. The Sorrow of Angels (the title derived from ‘angel’s tears’, a phrase for snow, said to be used by natives of northern Canada) is close to being weighed under by it. The lyrical struggle to survive its unforgiving sweep across Iceland’s land- and seascapes is the essence of Jón Kalman Stefánsson‘s novel set in the West Fjords, and expertly translated by Philip Roughton.

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At its centre is an unnamed “boy”, though in strength and tenacity he is more a man. The story picks up from the first book in the trilogy, with the lad settling into a new life in an isolated village. He is consumed by the few books that are available to him, and when his chores are done, he reads alone, or sometimes to a blind sea captain who has a predilection for Shakespeare.

When the postman Jens arrives, literally frozen to his horse, the relative coziness of the boy’s rustic life gives way to confrontation with winter’s severest elements. Jens is to resume the job of delivering mail to a series of remote outposts and the boy will accompany him. Thus begins the novel’s major narrative.

Iceland’s winter would quickly vanquish lesser men. I was reminded of the frightful stories I heard of tourists arriving in Iceland in January who have no experience of winter driving. And, as a Canadian, I know the overwhelming thrust of a winter storm.

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Imagine then trekking the outer reaches of 19th century Iceland, mailbags in tow, in primitive garb, where blizzards blind any distinction between solid land and cliff edge. Imagine the unrelenting labour, the relief when shelter is seen faintly in the distance. When the narrative narrows and slows as the onslaught of snow seems destined to always repeat itself, the author’s lyrical gifts generally succeed in sustaining the reader. Personally, I would have preferred less authorial asides and a more divergent story, yet there is no escaping the ultimate power of this exceptional novel.

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The Tequila:  Sieta LeguasReposado

www.casasieteleguas.com

The Book:  Under the VolcanoMalcolm Lowry

I started reading Under the Volcano while in Mexico, finished it back in Canada. A parallel to Lowry’s writing of the book: started in Mexico, completed in Canada. The clever tequila also spanned both countries.

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THE TEQUILA

It is light in the glass, straw with a tinge of green, having spent 8 months in white oak. It’s noteworthy from the start, on the nose the woody agave in fine balance with the vanilla and citrus. On the palate, add a dash of pepper and spice. Complex and flavourful. Very well made. (38% abv)

Siete Leguas‘s founder Don Ignacio Gonzalez Vargas named his distillery after the horse belonging to Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary general. Siete leguas/seven leagues (34km/21mi) was said to be the distance the horse galloped at a single stretch during one of Villa’s military conquests. (Well into Under the Volcano, a horse appears, with the number seven branded on its hindquarter…)

Siete Leguas has been based in Atotonilco el Alto, in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, since it first went into production in 1952, bringing together two distilleries Vargas had started in the 1940s. It remains family-owned and still uses traditional methods in the making of its tequila. The spirit is comprised of 100% blue Weber agave, grown in the estate’s red volcanic soil.

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Once the leaves are stripped, the piñas are examined and those approved for production are split, before being slow-cooked in masonry ovens. Some are then ground in the time-honoured way, using mules to drive a volcanic stone wheel, while others are crushed using modern sugar cane shredders. With the “aguameil” extracted, the two liquids are blended (the proportions remain a secret) then fermented and finally distilled in copper pot stills. Siete Leguas is among the oldest tequila producers in Mexico, and it continues to be one of the most celebrated.

THE BOOK

Under the Volcano was published in 1947, just as Don Ignacio Gonzalez Vargas was establishing himself in the business of making tequila. Not that the book is much of an advert for the spirit, given the central character, Geoffrey Firmin, ex-British consul in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, is constantly drunk on tequila or mescal. In fact, as a revelation of the effects of alcohol on the human condition, there are few novels to rival it.

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The book could only have been written by Lowry, a man who through much of his life struggled with the demon drink. His upbringing, on the surface at least, would seem innocuous enough — born in England to a well-to-do cotton broker, prize-willing athlete, student at Cambridge, a young man not wanting for money or opportunity. His mother, however, had little time for him, something which tormented him all his life, and while at college his homosexual roommate committed suicide, after his advances were rejected by Lowry. His drinking escalated.

He travelled widely and took up writing. While still in his 20s he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in New York City, following a particularly bad bout with alcohol. His dual obsessions – writing and drink – shaped his life, finding crucial expression when he took up residence in Mexico, arriving there on 2nd of November, 1936, the so called “Day of the Dead.” He chose that same holiday in 1938 as the timeline for his narrative when he set to work on Under the Volcano.

a001-malcolm-lowry-bwThe novel would consume the better part of ten years, most of it lived (after his deportation from Mexico) in a beach shack north of Vancouver. The novel, when it was finally published, following numerous rejections, met with critical acclaim, though it was out-of-print at the time of his death ten years later. Lowry’s reputation revitalized in the decades that followed, and now Under the Volcano is considered one of the outstanding novels of the 20th century.

Although he lived in Mexico for a relatively short period of his life, Lowry was obviously deeply influenced by the country. It stirred his writing talents in the way no other country of the many he visited had been able to do. As an evocation of Mexico alone, the novel is entirely memorable. Yet, it stands out on so many other levels, rising out of the Consul’s stupor to deal with the classical tragedy of failed life and love, condensed over twelve hours. The Consul’s fate is set from the beginning and only a writer of Lowry’s brilliance could make us want to experience it all.

Set, as it is, with the Second World War looming, Under the Volcano takes on ominous dimensions. Lowry himself called it “a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall.” Complex, constantly symbolic, almost impenetrable at times, clearly heartrending at others, it begs to be reread. Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of tequila left in the bottle.

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The Tequila:  Gran CentenarioAñejo

www.grancentenario.com

The Books:  Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I’m in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There seem to be angels everywhere, including in a shop devoted to painted angel wings. The tequila’s label celebrates the “Angel of Independence” and in this part of the country the history of the struggle for Mexican Independence is all around me. It’s a good place to be reading a Mexican writer with a spirit of rebellion.

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THE TEQUILA

Bright amber in the glass. On the nose, spice overlaying sweet agave. On the taste buds, smooth yet eager to display notes of caramel and cinnamon, oak and agave. Very satisfying. (38% abv)

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In 1895 tavern owner Lazaro Gallardo started selling tequila to customers, calling it Gran Centenario, in celebration of the upcoming turn into a new century. (He is also said to have called on an angel to keep a close eye on his agave plants.) By 1920 his son Luciano began marketing the tequila in an Art Deco-inspired bottle similar to the one used today.

The basis of the añejo is 10-12-year-old Highland Blue Agave, estate-grown in the high altitude, iron-rich soil of Hacienda Los Camichines, Jalisco. The agave is roasted for 72 hours (longer than is common for most tequila production), then aged in French Limousine oak for three years. Gran Centenario uses something it calls Suave Selección, the blending of different barrel batches, the sum making a premium tequila.

Gran Centenario also markets a plata (aged for 28 days) and a reposado (aged 10 months). It is still thought of as carrying on a long-standing family tradition of tequila-making, although it is now one of several spirit brands in the portfolio of the U.S-based Proximo Spirits, owned by the Beckmann family of Mexico.

THE BOOKS

200px-Juan_villalobos_2012Juan Paulo Villalobos grew up in Mexico, but has lived for many years in Barcelona. It would seem he cannot escape the deep impression the country of his youth made on him. Not that we would expect him to, given the perplexities of Mexican society.

These are two short, exceptional books. Down the Rabbit Hole, Villalobos’s first novel (here expertly translated by Rosalind Harvey), is narrated by a ten-year-old boy, Tochtli. He’s the son of a drug lord, Yolcaut (a.k.a. The King), and except for a brief foray abroad, the story takes place inside his isolated, palatial fortress. The voice is not what one might expect of Latin American literature, and the novel is far from typical Mexican crime fiction, so-called narco-literature.

Tochtli is no ordinary lad. He has no friends his age. He spends his time, when he’s not being tutored, playing video games, organizing his vast hat collection, watching samurai movies, craving the addition of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus to the palace’s collection of exotic creatures, and studying the dictionary. His precocious vocabulary animates the narrative to something both amusing and unsettling.

“Today I’m devastatingly desperately bored. I’m bored because I don’t leave the palace and because every day is the same.” …”Yolcaut hasn’t been out of the walls either. He spends his time talking on the phone giving orders. Miztli says it’s fucking chaos outside.”

“Devastating” is a favourite word. So are “sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic.” Sometimes misused, often intensified with expletives, they echo Tochtli’s routine existence, surrounded by stockpiles of guns and money,  where the talk is of beheadings and disposal of corpses.

“Pathetic” as it is, the boy makes a life for himself. To Tochtli it’s normal; to the reader it’s the writer’s deft sardonic exposé of the Mexican underworld. Villalobos maintains the warped perspective, without the reader ever once doubting Tochtli is still a kid. We smile and ache for him, and wish there was a way for him out of these “sordid” surroundings.

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Quesadillas, Villalobos’s second novel, is as off-beat as the first. It too has a boy narrator, 13-year-old Orestes, one of seven children named by their teacher father after classical Greeks. Orestes (Oreo for short) is second in line to his nemesis Aristotle. The twins, Castor and Pollux, bring up the rear. All seven are in severe competitions for food (i.e. quesadillas) in a dirt-poor family living in a dilapidated shoebox of a house, in a town where “there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints, and so forth.”

It is a bizarre rendition of 1980s Mexico, but again it is Villalobos jabbing his pen at Mexican social order, and at the magic realism mode of Latin American literature, while entertaining and unnerving the reader. When Castor and Pollux disappear in a supermarket, the family is thrown into a frenzy, although there is some consolation to be had in the fact that the quesadillas don’t have to stretch quite so far. And when a well-to-do Polish family shows up in the neighbourhood, with a lifestyle in disheartening contrast to what he knows, Orestes strikes out on his own and straight into a series of bizarre escapades. Eventually the path leads him back home and to more oddity in the form of work in the vividly-depicted business of bovine artificial insemination.

The narrative is wacky and outrageous, engaging in itself, but it’s also a front to mock the corruption long rooted in Mexican politics. With Quesadillas (again adeptly translated by Rosalind Harvey) Juan Paulo Villalobos once more steps out of the mainstream of Mexican literature with a novel that’s at once impressive and provocative.

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