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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Ardbeg – Uigeadail  

www.ardbeg.com

The Books:  Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald  

Peat, Smoke and Spirit by Andrew Jefford

We were in the midst of a fierce winter storm. An all-out blow-out. There had been no electricity for several hours. I was left to huddle by the fire with a blanket and a dram and a good book. And, oh yes, our dog asleep next to me.

It was a good day to flick the switch on a new blog. I worked on it as long as my Apple’s battery power held out.

The idea for The Literary Dram is a blending of a whisky and a book or two. There’s nothing better, in any weather.

THE WHISKY

I like my peat, and it’s only right that the first entry should pay homage to one of the premier distillers of peated whisky in the world. Ardbeg, on the Scottish island of Islay, built its reputation on peat and at its best has only its neighbours Laphroaig and Lagavulin to challenge it. Here it clearly emerges the winner.

Uigeadail (pronounced Oog-a-dal) is one of Ardbeg’s finest expressions, and it’s a beauty! A complex, sophisticated, smoky dram that is a benchmark of its type. (54.2%, cask strength, non-chillfiltered, matured in ex-sherry casks)

Amber gold. Rushes the nose in rich waves of smoke and coffee, peat and seaweed. Coats the palate in sherried, smoky spice, pepper heat-infused with a light demerara creaminess. Wonderfully long, eases away oh so reluctantly.

There’s a history of distillation on the site dating back to 1794, but Ardbeg as we know it today starts with its founding by John MacDougall in 1815. By the latter part of the 20th century it had fallen on hard times, as blended whiskies came to dominate the market. Ardbeg passed through a number of owners, with intermittent closures until its doors were soundly shut in 1996.

A year later, there appeared an unlikely saviour, in the form of Glenmorangie. On top of the purchase price the new owners invested several more millions in refurbishing the plant. They added a knockout new visitor’s centre. The purchase coincided with a renewed interest in peated single malts worldwide.

So Ardbeg is in better shape than it has ever been. The cheers of its fans, a fiercely loyal breed, are loud and long. In recent years Ardbeg has released a clever wealth of inspired offerings — Supernova, Corryvreckan, Alligator, Galileo, among others, and of course our Uigeadail. The Ardbeg 10-year-old remains the foundation bottling, a staple for any lover of Islay whiskies.

Uigeadail, named for one of the lochs that supplies water to the distillery, first came to the market in 2003. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2009 named it World Whisky of the Year. It has won multiple gold at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition. Ardbeg itself has even inspired a classical composition by Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Raihala. Check the “Listen” link here for a taste: http://www.raihala.com

THE BOOKS

So why Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald as the very first choice, a thin book published in 1930? Simply put, it’s an unabashed tribute to what the author calls “the great, potent, and princely drink”, a whisky book that has yet to be matched for its wit and irreverent charm. Poetry at times, near diatribe at others, it both informs and amuses. You feel like you are in the hands of a passionate, erudite curmudgeon who lives for his Scotch.

Of whisky, he writes “It does not linger to toy with the senses, it does not seep through the body to the brain; it communicates through no intermediary with the core of a man, with the roots of his consciousness; it speaks from deep to deep.”

MacDonald delivers on the making of whisky, its history and geography, with no less passion. Some of the references are out of date, but that only turns those sections into valuable historical documents.

As it turns out, Aeneas MacDonald was really George Malcolm Thomson, a founder of Porcupine Press, the original publisher of the book. He thought by writing under a pseudonym he would escape accusation of self-interest. No matter. With the book MacDonald/Thomson elevated whisky to its rightful place among the spirits. For his conviction and his foresight I’ll smile and raise a glass of Ardbeg. He would surely approve.

The second volume nourishing the Uigeadial is Andrew Jefford‘s widely praised Peat, Smoke and Spirit. It too is a tribute, a recent one to the island of Islay and its collection of distilleries. The writing is no less exemplary, if, by virtue of being released in 2004, of a very different style. Perhaps better known for his writing on wine, Jefford writes with precision and depth, with use of language that places him at the top tier of  journalists focusing on the world of wine and spirits. Let’s just say you know you are in the company of a fine writer. Put fine whisky in his hand and he shines.

Of Ardbeg, he writes “Ardbeg is fire; Ardbeg is depth; Ardbeg is nourishment and plenty.”

That’s his poetic side. His prose is equally compelling when he writes of the history and geography of the island. Rarely do books on the topic of whisky bother to look beyond the distillery walls, and while the more exact details didn’t always hold my interest, I appreciated their usefulness. I especially liked it when his writing turned to the people who have made Islay their home. It made me want to visit.

The profiles of the seven distilleries anchor the book. (Since publication there is now an eighth.)  You would think they might meld one into the other, but not so. Each has its own history, each its own personality. Each produces a distinctive dram, and the world of whisky is far richer because of them. Islay, Islay!

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