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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Compass BoxThe Spice Tree

www.compassboxwhisky.com

The Books:  Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Spice is key here. It defines the flavour of the whisky. It defines the food culture of Africa embedded in the novels.

THE WHISKY

Amber with a mahogany cast. Rich opening lines of oakish vanilla, sweet spice. Herbs and florals. A snare for the palate. A peppered, creamy maltiness. And spice, of course. Through to its longish end.  (46% abv, non-chillfiltered)

Compass Box has been an extraordinary success story. Founded in 2000 by John Glasner, its artisanal blending of malt whisky from a few carefully chosen distilleries, produced in a range of innovative bottlings. Smartly fashioned, smarted packaged, Compass Box whiskies have quickly gathered a troupe of loyal consumers. Some might say they are too easily excited by a deft marketing hand, except that the best whisky writers are also in the queue, eager for the next offering. That would right there behind Asyla, Oak Cross, The Spice Tree, Peat Monster, Hedonism, Orangerie, Great King Street, etc, etc.

The Spice Tree has taken its own unique road to success. The first offering in 2005 quickly raised the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association. Taking a page from the wine industry, Glasner had stepped-up the maturity of the whisky by introducing free-floating oak staves into the casks. Not the thing to be doing said the SWA. Keep it up and we’ll take you to court. The Spice Tree left the market. Only to reemerge in 2009. Experimentation with heavily toasting the cask heads was found to produce a similar flavour profile. Case dismissed.

The Spice Tree brings together northern Highland single malts, the majority Clynelish. Most are 10-12 years old. Before the toasted French oak (oak sourced from the Vosges, 195-year-old, air dried and very expensive) it is treated to ex-bourbon casks , first-fill and refill American oak.

Another instance where a well-made blend can stand proudly with single malts.

THE BOOKS

The challenge was to find a whisky that would do honour to these books while at the same time reflecting their setting in some way.  I think The Spice Tree works on both counts. And if innovation is a key ingredient, we have that, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came onto the publishing scene in 2003 and met with immediate success. Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria, where Adichie herself grew up. She tells an affecting, forceful story with delicacy and the touch of a mature writer, if yet one to come to the fullness of her talents. It is charged with memorable characters. Very early on we learn that the life of the teenaged Kambili is defined by an abusive father, a man who has taken his Catholic faith to inhumane extremes, yet a man who is constantly revealing new sides to a complex personality. A strength of the novel is that the other members of the family (and the extended family) emerge with fullness of character able to withstand the looming presence of the father.

Kambili is at the centre through most of the book, and in some senses she could be growing up anywhere. But what sets this novel apart is that it is not anywhere, but strife-ridden Nigeria. The menace of brutal civil unrest penetrates deeper and deeper into the story. The turmoil of adolescence is cast against the more profound turmoil of an ethnic conflict. This is a rich and penetrating first novel and at the time of its publication Adichie was hailed as a fresh new voice from the African continent.

from Purple Hibiscus — The pungent fumes of kerosene smoke mixed with the aroma of curry and nutmeg from the kitchen.  “Let me see if my jollof rice is burning!” Aunty Ifeoma dashed into the kitchen.

from Half of a Yellow Sun — In the kitchen, Ugwa stirred the pot of pepper soup. The oily broth swirled, the hot spices wafted up and tickled his nose, and the pieces of meat and tripe floated from side to side.

Adichie’s first book would hardly prepare a reader for her second. Half of a Yellow Sun is much longer, and an altogether richer and more complex novel. It vibrates with humanity, from its most tender to its most brutal. It takes us from years of relative contentment in early 1960s Nigeria to the savagery unleashed by the secession of Biafra. It unfolds for the most part through the eyes of three characters: Ugwa, the houseboy of a liberal university professor; the professor’s wife, Ilanna, the beautiful, London-educated daughter of a wealthy Nigerian businessman; and Richard, a well-meaning, if sometimes inept, white Englishman, partner of Ilanna’s twin sister. Through them we are gradually and skillfully drawn into the fascinating, disturbing tableau that was Nigeria as it descended into the horrors of war. A war of starvation, as those of us looking from the outside at the time recall.

The fact that the events she builds her story around took place well before Adichie was born is testament to her talents as a writer, and equally to a belief in an understanding of the past being critical to finding a way forward to a more constructive future.  It is very much the story of her father’s generation, but one Adichie was compelled to write from the moment she turned seriously to fiction. Astonishingly, she was only 29 when the novel appeared. It led the great African writer Chinua Achebe to comment “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

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