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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:   PenderynMadeira

www.welsh-whisky.co.uk

The Books:   The Twin and The Detour (in the U.S., Ten White Geese) by Gerbrand Bakker

Penderyn is the first (legal) distillery to open in Wales in a hundred years. Since its production line commenced in 2004, it has been in every way a solo act. It has garnered world attention for its distinctive dram, exporting to more than 25 countries. Not bad for an operation with only one still.

Gerbrand Bakker‘s The Twin and The Detour (set in Wales) have been praised far beyond his Dutch homeland, to the tune of a couple of rather prestigious international awards. Not bad for a gardener’s first two novels in translation.

THE WHISKY

Here it is then, straight from the Glencairn glass.

Golden in colour with a slight amber tint. A rich raisiny wine nose with a charmingly mellow alcohol profile. Inviting. On the palate — cream toffee, vanilla, sharpened and crisp. At its best moments, a silky freshness that holds the fruit notes to the end. Distinctive. (46%, non-chilled filtered)

It’s matured three and a half years in ex-American bourbon casks (including first-fill Buffalo Trace), then another six months in madeira casks from Portugal. The wood plays a strong role. But so does the still itself. Constructed from a design by David Faraday, it’s a single still linked to a pair of rectifying columns that allows for the distillate to emerge from a single pass, to a level of 92-86% abv. (Scotch is on average about 70% abv.) The result is a purer, lighter base, before bourbon and madeira-soaked wood leaves its imprint. And before that, malted barley sourced, not within the distillery (as is the law in Scotland), but from Brains Brewery in Cardiff, where the folks know their yeasts and provide malt with “a really fruity punch.” Adds Gillian Macdonald, Penderyn’s distiller until 2012, “It sets us apart.”

Spiritually and physically apart. Penderyn is located in rural southern Wales, in Brecon Beacons National Park, the sole whisky distillery in the country. From the start the owners set out to define their own space, to produce a whisky unlike any other, something uniquely Welsh. They have succeeded. Unique, but also very good.

penderyn

THE BOOKS

Rarely do I read two novels by the same author back to back. I so liked The Twin that I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in Bakker’s second novel to be published in English (both superbly translated by David Colmer). These are my kind of novels: quietly told but richly layered, written in precise but unobtrusive prose. The author allows the stories to unfold gently, sharply, where what is unsaid is as important as what is said. They brought back memories of my first reading of Hemingway’s short stories.

The Twin (in the original Dutch “Boven is het Stil”, All Quiet Upstairs, which I prefer as a title) is set in Dutch farm country. The father is dying and the son Helmer doesn’t much care. The accidental death decades before of his twin brother Henk, the father’s favourite, has been a continuous thorn in their relationship. When Helmer reconnects with Riet, Henk’s girlfriend at the time of his death, and agrees that her son can come to help out on the farm, emotions long suppressed are pushed to the surface.

The Detour is no less captivating. Again the setting is an isolated one, this time in a remote area of northern Wales. A country-length away from the Penderyn distillery, but sharing a rural sensibility.

At the centre of this story is a female university professor, whose academic and spiritual focus is poet Emily Dickinson, who is on the run from Amsterdam, escaping the scandal of her liaison with one of her first year students. She settles into a cottage in the shadow of Mount Snowdon and immerses herself in the rigours of the landscape. Her attempts at taming it exhaust and frustrate her, adding to the burden of grief she already carries.

There is relief and some revitalization of the spirit when a young man, Bradwen, stops by, only to take up residence.Their lives weave together awkwardly, while back in Amsterdam her husband sets off to find her.

The strength of these two Bakker novels is in the telling. The author’s restraint, the slow burn of relationships make for books that let the reader into the stories bit by measured bit. The settings seep into pores, the characters who traverse them never quite willing to make themselves fully known. There is mystery at their core, and when the mysteries intersect, the results are often unforgettable.

Bakker is by training a landscape gardener. He also worked for years as a sub-titler of TV soap operas. I suspect he knows about cows. Landscape is a strong element in these books and Bakker has said his TV work attuned him to eliminating the unnecessary in his prose. As for cows — well no life skills are wasted on a novelist. Now he has very quickly gathered an international literary reputation. The Twin won the Impac Dublin Award and The Detour the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Well deserving of a celebratory drink, or two.

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