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 1995 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.
The Whisky: Compass Box – Great King St. – Artist’s Blend
The Book: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The book is set on the Isle of Skye, in word only. Skye’s famous distillery, Talisker, just wouldn’t do. Rather, something equally complex, but calmer, more internal. An artistic blend befitting Woolf’s rich, multi-layered prose.
Golden in the glass. A nose that is fresh and airy, sings with light florals and vanilla. On the palate — a creamy mélange of citrus, spice, and a slight touch of pepper. A pleasant alcoholic bite to keep it honest. Light-hearted, yet seriously good. (non-chillfiltered, no added colour, 43% abv)
Over the last decade Compass Box has helped redefine blended whisky, taken what some thought of as the poor second cousin of the single malt and brought to it a new level of respect.
Founder John Glaser, once a marketing director at Johnnie Walker, set out in 2000 to bring to the market a series of distinct bottlings that would reshape the thinking around blends, first with his Signature series: Asyla, Oak Cross, Hedonism, The Spice Tree (reviewed earlier in this blog), and The Peat Monster. Then with The Great King Street series, and with the ongoing release of Limited Editions.
This is the Artist’s Blend of the GKS series, “a marriage of delicate Lowland grain and robust, complex Highland malt whiskies,” an all-around, reasonably-priced whisky that suits whatever way you wish to take it — neat, with water or ice, or in a cocktail. Glaser is not going to tell you how to drink your whisky, but he is going to be upfront (in a way that most blenders are not) with what goes into it: 46% Lowland grain whisky, 45% Northern Highland single malt, and 9% Speyside Highland malt. And he’s going to be equally clear about the wood profile: 66% first-fill American oak barrel, 26% new French oak finish, and 8% first-fill Sherry butt.
The quality of the blend comes from quality ingredients, the grain whisky as top tier as the malt, and from the imaginative use of exceptional wood. Glaser’s whisky-making continues to push boundaries, and the results have generally been highly impressive.
On the regulatory front he does the same, forcing issues that need to be discussed, but haven’t been because they don’t serve the interests of the multinationals that dominate the market for blended whisky. Glaser’s most recent campaign has been to push for the right to disclose the makeup of blends, including the ages of the component whiskies. At present it is unlawful to indicate on the bottle or packaging anything but the age of the youngest whisky.
He’s out to make great blended whisky while being transparent in what makes them so. Admirable goals in the service of the dram.
In a sense To the Lighthouse is about transparency, transparency of character.
If you are expecting plot, To the Lighthouse is not your first choice. Or setting for that matter. The story takes place on Skye, but it could be any coastland in the UK, as much Cornwall where Woolf’s father rented a summer house for the first ten years of his daughter’s life. It had a view of a lighthouse situated on an island offshore.
Rather the novel’s energy comes from the constant probing of character, the near seamless interplay of thoughts (often within the same paragraph) between the various individuals who have arrived to spend time at the summer retreat — Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children, together with a small host of adult friends that includes the young painter Lily Briscoe, who was in part modelled on Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, but, who in her thought processes reflected in greater measure the author herself. Woolf’s prose is the lure, her ability to surround you with the whirl of emotions, of fears and desires that inhabit the characters, her dexterity in the flow of language that brings to the surface what each of them feels but would never openly express.
What they do speak is game for multiple interpretation. Class restraint overrides truth in the words they willingly release into the open air. They present one face, bury another, much more interesting one.
The holding back, the self-control can be frustrating for the reader, though, surprisingly, rarely dull. The stream of consciousness reveals a diverse lot. Hatred, anxiety, sexual frustration, career insecurities — they teem within them. Woolf’s object is to bare that restraint, to lay open the voiceless propriety of English society.
To the Lighthouse spans a decade in the early 20th century, the first section before the Great War, the third after it. A short middle section (titled “Time Passes”) connects the two. It is here, in the narrative of the housekeeper, Mrs. McNab, that the story frees itself from inwardness of the other characters. It’s a pause, one punctuated with brief, bracketed references to the tragedies that had beset the family in the interim. The references are startling in their simplicity, their near offhandedness, a masterstroke of structure.
Virginia Woolf is one of the iconic writers of the 20th century. To the Lighthouse deals with some of her major preoccupations — the fragility of life, art as a restorative process, how cumulative perceptions define character. When the lighthouse is finally reached there is an acute sense of loss within the story, but as well within ourselves, in that we have to leave these people and move on.
The Whisky: Hammer Head – aged 23 years
The Books: The Trial and The Castle – Franz Kafka
Given the Bohemian origins of both the whisky and the writer, this match-up could seem predictable. But, of course, being unorthodox, it is anything but.
Light gold in the glass. A touch sweet on the nose, notably floral, but with a nut-sharp undercurrent breaking through. Relatively light on the palate, with warm lemony spice. Easy going down. One better than its name. (40.7% abv)
The name is derived from a cast-iron hammer mill, made in 1928 and found on the premises of the Prádlo distillery in communist Czechoslovakia. It’s the type of mill associated with long-standing, traditional Scottish distilleries, used for grinding barley.
The Prádlo distillery, located on the outskirts of the city of Plzeň, 90 kilometres west of Prague, had for decades made a variety of pot distilled spirits. In the late 1970s it decided to make the leap to single malt whisky. Václav Šitner headed the team charged with the task, but restricted from travelling to Scotland, he had only books to guide him. The team used Czech barley and the local pure, clear Bohemian water. When peat from the southern part of the country didn’t work out, they imported peat at great expense from Scotland. The whisky was laid down in barrels made entirely from Czech oak. The first batch went on the market in 1984 and the communist elite had a rather well made alternative to vodka.
Then, just a few years later, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Suddenly the Velvet Revolution brought democracy to the country. And the whisky was all but forgotten. Twenty years later the Stock Spirits group of the UK were being given a tour of their newly acquired distillery. By the way, they were told, we’ve had some whisky that’s been maturing for a couple of decades now…though it’s probably not very good, by your standards.
Well, nothing to rival Scotland’s finest, but a great deal better than expected. A bit of a marketer’s dream, if a challenge as well. A vintage Czech, communist-era single malt whisky. Rather enigmatic.
Rather, well, Kafkaesque.
The Trial was written in 1914-15, but, like much of Kafka’s writing, was not published until after his death in 1924, at age 40. Often considered the Czech author’s best work, it is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century, an especially notable accolade, given the fact that he had not finished with it, and likely didn’t intend for it to be published. It remains somewhat rough around the edges, which adds to the mysteries at its core.
It first appeared in English in 1937, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, a translation that has long been considered flawed. This 1998 translation is by Breon Mitchell, based on Kafka’s original text that only became publicly available a decade earlier. The publisher terms it “as close as possible to the state in which the author left the manuscript.”
The novel’s narrator is Josef K., a bank employee who wakes up one morning to find himself being led to a tribunal and charged with a seemingly serious but unspecified crime. He is left to the mercy of a perplexing court system where logic has no foundation, where each attempt to extricate himself from the injustice of his situation only frustrates him further. The plot carries him through a bizarre maze of events, leaving the reader to construct and reconstruct meaning from them. There is no ultimate satisfaction to be gained, not that Kafka ever intended that there be any. In the end Josef K. is left a frayed, defeated man, while the reader is often left intrigued but decidedly perplexed.
The Trial has often been viewed as a reflection on arbitrary arrest in a totalitarian state, foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and Stalin. The 21st century reader, under constant surveillance by security cameras, living where government and corporate databanks overflow with what was once considered personal information, finds even more in Kafka to provoke debate.
The Castle is another of his unfinished works, also published posthumously. In fact, the book ends in mid-sentence, and we will never truly know what shape Kafka had in mind for the book, if indeed he was thinking that far ahead when he stopped writing it in 1922.
Still, even in its incomplete state it is, like The Trial, a fascinating, if consistently perplexing, novel. The protagonist K., like Josef K., has an ultimate goal, one that seems attainable, but which he is never quite able to reach.
K. arrives in a snow-covered village dominated by an alluring hilltop castle. He learns it is home to Count Westwest and his officials who govern the village. Yet only a chosen few villagers have access to it, and Klamm, an elusive figure who occasionally ventures into town, is the closest most of them come to putting a face to their overseers. K arrives with the understanding that he will be employed by the Count as a surveyor, but these hopes are quickly dashed. The forthright K. is not deterred. He sticks doggedly to the notion of gaining access to the castle. Klamm is his best bet.
When K. lures away Klamm’s mistress, Frieda, and makes love to her among the pools of beer on a barroom floor, the possibility of such a meeting, needless to say, is severely compromised. K. fights on, and a story of a kind unfolds, shaped by detours into the lives of a curious cast of characters. Many of whom are surprisingly affecting.
Even though The Castle is often taken as a comment on dehumanized bureaucracy, it is equally a story of alienation, of the need for friendship in a world increasingly void of meaningful human contact.
Kafka once wrote to a friend: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?”
The Trial and The Castle, together with a nod to the Hammer Head, never once led me to question my reading choice.
The Whisky: Amrut – Kadhambam
The Book: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
India consumes more whisky than any other country in the world (an astonishing 1.5 billion litres annually), most of it distilled in the country. The finest of its distillers, like the finest of its writers, have delightfully upended what people have come to expect of the country.
Light mahogany behind the glass. Firm and spicy on the nose, with lighter fruit and floral notes. Rises to the head of the class on the palate– an intriguing blend of warm peat, oak and honey. Fine creamy texture. Delicious. Yes, and it lingers. (50% abv)
India doesn’t flow easily off the tongue when speaking about single malts. Most jaws would drop at being told that Amrut Distilleries in Bangalore, India, bottle some of the most highly awarded whiskies in the world. And would probably be further agape on learning that when the first Amrut single malt was introduced in 2004, the owners had the audacity to launch it first in Scotland, whisky’s sacred homeland.
Scots take their dram very seriously. They sipped and were a bit stunned. India? It took several more years, and a Jim Murray score of 97 in the 2010, for the wider world to join the party. To date, Amrut single malt has produced 14 different bottlings and is now sold in 32 countries. Exemplary reviews continue to accumulate, including for Kadhambam.
Kadhambam is a Tamil word meaning ‘mixture.’ Amrut took a single batch of peated spirit with the aim of coming up with “a completely different whisky with multi-personality characteristics.” It was matured first in ex-Oloroso sherry butts, then Amrut’s own ex-Bangalore Blue brandy casks, then finally Amrut ex-rum casks. The result could have been an incoherent mash-up. But, perhaps not surprisingly for the Amrut’s master blender Surinder Kumar, it emerged complex and refreshingly distinct. (Jim Murray promptly chimed in with a 96.5.)
Amrut Distilleries was founded in 1948 by J.N. Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, and is now run by his son, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, from premises located just outside Bangalore. Grandson Rakshit has also become an important element in the running of the company. Amrut produces a wide variety of spirits for the vast Indian market. In fact its single malt whisky accounts for only about 5% of business.
Single malt production in India comes with its own set of challenges. Equipment was not immediately available, leading to the manufacture of their own distinctive pot stills. The barley is transported all the way from the Punjab and Rajasthan, and, in the case of the peated barley, from Scotland. The annual evaporative loss of spirit (in a climate where temperatures range between 20˚- 40˚C throughout the year) can be upwards of 12% (vs 2% in Scotland). The whisky matures at three times the rate in northern climates. Monkeys have been known to be a nuisance in the still rooms!
Production at Amrut is labour intensive, a conscious decision by the owners in a country with a huge labour force. There are 450 employees, many of them women. Much of the bottling and packaging is done by hand, no mean work load considering 4 million cases of liquor go out the door each year.
It has now been 25 years since the publication of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie‘s masterful second novel. It is unlike any novel of India to be published before or since. It was as if a post-colonial train packed with every character Rushdie could imagine came hurtling into Bombay station, where everyone dispersed onto several platforms, about to inhabit an immensely ambitious novel, one that would tell not only their own individual stories, but the coming-of-age story of their newly independent country.
It is midnight, August 15, 1947. In the first hour of this first day of independence from Britain, 1001 children are born. They come to be known as Midnight’s Children. One of them is the novel’s narrator, Saleem. Born in the same nursing home, and also at the stroke of midnight is Shiva, the kid who will grow into his arch rival. The “cucumber-nosed” Saleem is born to great attention, Shiva to disinterest. The first to prestige and wealth, the other to the back alleys of Bombay.
A devious nursemaid, however, has switched the infants, setting much of the book’s complex, whirlwind plots in motion, taking the reader on a wild, earthy ride through the first thirty years of India’s independence. It is a novel bent by magic realism that has been very favourably compared to Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Grass’s “The Tin Drum.”
The novel took shape following Rushdie’s extensive ramble through India in 1975, undertaken on a shoestring budget (the £700 advance on his first novel). He had grown up in Bombay, but purposely set out to immerse himself in the country as a whole. Not only was he soaking in the sensual overload which is everyday life in India, but he was grappling with the tumultuous path down which the then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was taking the country. Back in London, there grew in Rushdie’s mind the notion of a central character whose life runs in parallel to India’s own. Not only that, but someone who sees himself as the very one responsible for the twists and turns of the country’s fortunes. It would be a bizarre, frightfully energetic novel.
What saves it of course is Rushdie’s resourcefulness as a writer, especially his choice of narrative voice, one he calls, “comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous, and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator’s increasingly tragic over-claiming. . .’ A voice that constantly embraces risk, it pulls the reader along with a nonchalance infused with biting satire.
Saleem is by turns crude, insightful, poetic, infuriating, provocative. Always engaging. That voice of his might well change within a single sentence. It is often in the first person, but could just as easily be in the third.
“. . .He also developed a penchant for lapsing into long broody silences, which he interrupted by bursting out suddenly with a meaningless word: ‘No!’ or, ‘But!’ or even more arcane exclamations, such as ‘Bang!’ or ‘Whaam!’ Nonsense words amidst clouded silences: as if Saleem were conducting some inner dialogue of such intensity that fragments of it, or its pain, boiled up from time to time past the surface of his lips.”
The novel, like the whisky, never fears surprising those who share in it.