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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:   Mackmyra The First Edition

The Books:  Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson

The Half-finished Heaven by Tomas Tranströmer (tr. Robert Bly)

The Great Enigma by Tomas Tranströmer (tr. Robin Fulton) 

The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer (tr. Robin Robertson)

This whisky and these books are linked by country of origin. They have risen from the landscapes of Sweden. But there seems to be more — a clear-eyed vision of the elemental, a crisp, Nordic energy that refreshes the mind. Uncommon in books, a lot to expect of a whisky.


The founders of Mackmyra, producers of Sweden’s first malt whisky, stated from the beginning that their goal was to produce a distinctly Swedish whisky. Not an imitation of what Scotland offers, but something using local ingredients and soundly their own. Released for the first time in 2008, The First Edition succeeds brilliantly. It is a very well made, optimistic, thoroughly pleasing dram. (46.1%, non-chill-filtered, no added colour).

A glass of pale gold, with a hint of amber. Orchard fruit and caramel on the nose. On the palate a touch of smoke comes coming through, and citrus fruits mixing with spicy oak. A crisp, peppery, sweetish Swedish finish that lingers.

The story of Mackmyra begins in 1998 with eight whisky-loving friends on a skiing holiday, all pondering, après-ski, the question of why there was no whisky being commercially produced in Sweden. What started as a modest effort for sharing among themselves has evolved to a new start-of-the-art, gravity-fed distillery, with an anticipated capacity of 1.2 million litres annually. Where once the output didn’t make it beyond the country’s borders before being snatched up, now Mackmyra whisky has moved into markets across Europe and North America, with plans for expansion into Taiwan and China.

All the while remaining true to the goal of retaining the sense of its Swedish origins – Swedish barley, some Swedish oak (once intended for use in building warships for the Swedish Navy), local Baltic-flavoured peat and woodsy juniper twigs. The whisky is matured in 5 distinct sites across the country, including the abandoned Bodås mine, 50 metres underground. It was here that this First Edition came into its own, in local oak and first-fill American bourbon casks, half of which are small, 100 litres in size.

As the bottle says, ‘A whisky that carries new experiences. A whisky for you who live life less ordinary.’


That would be Magnus Nilsson. He is the original food thinker behind Fäviken, considered one of the world’s foremost, most innovative restaurants, located in the remote interior of Sweden. And now author of Fäviken, the book.

I won’t say cookbook, because I don’t really think of it as that. There are recipes, but many of the ingredients are as remote as the restaurant itself. I see it rather as a meditation on food, of eating in harmony with the Swedish hinterland, where local, often wild ingredients are what comes to the table, no matter the season. It is grounded in Swedish dietary traditions, but then makes daring leaps of the imagination that tantalize and envigorate the palate. It dwells on an approach to food as much as its preparation, and in that it transcends the regional. The nine-page description of a day in the life of Fäviken is a culinary orchestral suite, admirable anywhere.

I was initially drawn to this book because of similarities to what’s available for consumption in Newfoundland (where I grew up and still live) and Scandinavia. Moose, rabbit and other wild game are a regular part of our diet. We forage for lingonberries (“partridgeberries” to us) and cloudberries (“bakeapples”) and chanterelles. Root vegetables are a constant.  While juniper berries are not commonly used in food preparation, they are everywhere in our forests. Yet, even here, a large portion of the recipes would stop most cooks in their tracks. Sample, page 80: “A tiny slice of top blade from a retired dairy cow, dry aged for nine months, crispy reindeer lichen, fermented green gooseberries, fennel salt.”

So . . . not necessarily a book to take expectantly into the kitchen, but rather one to ponder, to peruse for inspiration. A guidebook to understand Nilsson’s approach to cooking, that, as the man himself says, is all about “intuition, passion, and happiness.” It is cooking with the intensity and passion of poetry.

I think Tomas Tranströmer would find much to enjoy in this food.

(At this point I pause to pour another dram of Mackmyra.)

Whisky and poetry — in this case Swedish whisky and the work of Sweden’s Nobel Prize-winning poet — would seem to me a further natural pairing. I have seen a reference to Tranströmer enjoying whisky, so no doubt Mackmyra has passed his lips. I would like to think it paired well with his poetic sensibilities.

Tranströmer’s total published work fits into 250 pages of The Great Enigma, translated by Robin Fulton. It is limited in quantity, but more concentrated, more arresting because of that. His is poetry of sharp, seemingly ill-fitting imagery that unfolds on the page in combinations that cause the reader to draw back, slightly stunned. A new door has been opened, revealing an uncommon view of the world in need of assimilation.

Consider this 1996 poem translated by Fulton.


A blue sheen

radiates from my clothes.


Jangling tambourines of ice.

I close my eyes.

There is a soundless world

there is a crack

where dead people

are smuggled across the border.

Tranströmer has called his poems “meeting places.” They bring together, simply, in crystal light, disparate images, that through their juxtaposition give rise to a more intricate, more reflective level of understanding. The thin text sparks at the encounter of its words. The contrasts startle, resound.

No translation can do complete justice to the original, and the sparse, precise language and intricate rhythms of Tranströmer’s poetry can often be a tougher challenge to translate than most. Besides Fulton, there have been several other translators of his work, including the American poet Robert Bly, the first in North America to draw widespread attention to the work. Robin Robertson was recently published a somewhat controversial collection, in which verbal accuracy is sometimes sacrificed in favour of tone and cadence, elements notoriously difficult to retain in translation. Here is Robertson’s rendering of the same poem:


A blue light

streams out of my clothes.


Ringing tambourines of ice.

I close my eyes.

There is a silent world,

there is a crack

where the dead

are smuggled over the border.

Not much difference really in what is being said. Both have their strengths, but I do sense a difference in the flow of the two poems. I have a preference, but that doesn’t mean it comes closest to what Transtömer intended. For that we need to go to the original. Unfortunately, I don’t read Swedish. But I do enjoy the experience of attempting it, with the taste of Mackmyra on my lips, and thoughts of there being something in my future inspired by Fäviken.


Ett blått sken

strömmar ut från mina kläder.


Klirrande tamburiner av is.

Jag sluter ögonen.

Det finns en ljudlös värld

det finns en spricka

där döda

smugglas över gränsen.


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