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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  UBERACHSingle Malt

www.distillerie-bertrand.com

The Book:  The Ogre (Le Roi des Aulnes, The Erl-King) by Michel Tournier

I have come to Alsace on holiday, where storks are everywhere. I’ve brought along Michel Tournier’s novel, part of which takes place in this region of France. In recent years several whisky distilleries have emerged in Alsace. I am not wanting anything smooth and predictable. A book set in France and Germany at the time of WWII is in need of a whisky that unnerves the drinker. Uberach could well be the one.

Sometimes a whisky might ease a path through a disturbing book. Here it intensifies the text, for I find Uberach to be a difficult dram. It has its moments of pleasure, but it takes a good deal of getting used to.

THE WHISKY

Uberach (pronounced u-beu-rar) whisky is not readily available, except in Alsace. There are only 1500 bottles produced each year, a single malt and bottlings of special release single casks. It appears to be something of a sideline for the distillery. At this point at least its website makes no mention of whisky! I know of it only because it is profiled in the “world whisky” sections of a couple of the books I own, sometimes favourably, sometimes with a note of caution.

Distillerie Bertrand dates back to 1874 and is very well known for its production of fruit brandies — eaux-de-vie. It is located thirty kilometres north of Strasbourg, in the town of Uberach. Only since 2003 has it been making whisky. In a shop in Ribeauvillé, I had the opportunity to taste both this standard single malt and one of its single cask releases. For purchase I went with the one I found to be a little more well-rounded, and the one I assume is more readily available.

The water comes from the mountains of Les Vosges; the malt is sourced locally. The whisky has been partly matured in casks that originally held grand cru Banyuls, a sweet yellow wine from the south of France.

It sits golden in the glass. There’s a powerful nose. Although I am not endeared by what wells up from the surface, it is interesting and has a certain rugged complexity. There are traces of sulphur. That’s generally not considered a positive trait, but in this case it is surely an intentional one. It’s a whisky for the stout-hearted, as confirmed by its taste — rich yet arresting, incisive, irascible. I found dark chocolate to be a good accompaniment. (unchilled filtered, 42.2%)

Uberach has its advocates. But it doesn’t speak to everyone.

THE BOOK

The Ogre (first translated as The Erl-King) has had its advocates, most notably the jury for France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in a rare unanimous decision in 1970. It is masterwork. Yet it has not retained the profile, for example, of Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum,” to which it is sometimes compared. It cuts deeply into the obsessions of Nazism, and is an unsettling, profoundly affecting novel, here translated by Barbara Bray.

Through a combination of first and third person perspectives, Tournier slowly, with calculated precision, reveals the story of Abel Tiffuages, a mechanic in pre-war Paris. This tall, thin giant of a man, who wears very thick spectacles, is a survivor of an odd childhood. His recent relationships with women have led him nowhere. He develops a fascination with youth, which, in the latter part of the novel brings him into the confines of a military style training school for hand-picked Aryan boys, set up by the Nazis in East Prussia. Tiffuages, a prisoner of war given new freedoms, finds himself a recruiter, a collaborator, a man unexpectedly party to the workings of the Third Reich. His story is vivid and ultimately terrifying in its detail, especially as the German war machine begins to crumble.

Along the way his encounters with other facets of the war — most notably as a keeper of homing pigeons and a worker on Hermann Goering’s hunting preserve — create a fascinating portrait of this astute misfit.

The book is lifted by the excellence of Michel Tournier‘s writing, his subtle yet powerful use of symbolism, the rigour of his characterization. The book is a disturbing portrait of evil, spellbinding in the way it reveals the dark corners of humanity through a central character who is both repulsive and engaging, whom the reader wants to like but can’t, perhaps until the very end. The final pages of the book are remarkable.

During my stay in France I’ve taken in a couple of museum exhibitions which demonstrate the devastating effects of Nazism on Alsace. The book gives further depth to that experience, in the way that only a richly realized novel can.

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