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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Talisker – 57˚ North

The Book:  A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Something northern needed. Something that grips, without the drinker/reader always understanding why. The 57˚north latitude cuts across the Isle of Skye to Scandinavia. All good reasons to bring the dram and the drama together.


Dark amber gold. A nose of fruit and spice, smoke and chocolate. Rich, creamy sharpness in the mouth, touched by the sea. Cask strength intense. (A drop of water helps!) Smokin’ with the trademark Talisker peppery vigour. Fades eventually, but in its own good time.  (57% abv, appropriately enough)

Talisker is the sole distillery on the Isle of Skye, set between Loch Harport and the open sea, a spectacular setting with the Cuillin Hills rising behind it. It’s the raw northern latitude that gives this bottling its name. 57˚ North is a 2008 addition to the Talisker line-up, from a distillery which has always been noted for its modest range of bottlings. The 10-year-old and the 18-year-old have been the standard bearers for some time. In recent years a few other releases have added to the lure, including a well-received Distiller’s Edition.

In 1880 Robert Louis Stevenson included Talisker in his trio of favourite whiskies, calling it ‘the King o’ Drinks’. By that time Talisker had already been in business for fifty years. It has survived, and often flourished, as now, though many times against the odds. A lowpoint came in 1960 when fire destroyed the distillery. Two years later it was up and running again, stout-heartedly back in the business of producing its distinctive Hebridean dram.

Just what accounts for that unique Talisker profile, that engaging peppery snap along the taste buds? The multiple springs running through the peat and heather of Skye? The supply of peated barley from Glen Ord? The long fermentation in wood? Many would point to the uncommon inverted U-shaped lyne arms of the stills, which cause most of the vapours (some say 90%) to be returned through the purifier pipe into the stills for another go-round.

Talisker 57˚ North is matured in American ex-bourbon oak, though it has no age statement. The goal is maintaining that intense, cask-strength profile, making 57˚ North a fine Talisker dram, always noteworthy, always confident in what it is. Some find it just too intense, but classy concentration is what Talisker is all about. Embrace or move on.


Karl Ove Knausgaard is all about intense. Intense with the deeply personal, intense with what would be, in the hands of a lesser writer, the mundane. No matter the turn of story, A Death in the Family is frightfully engaging.

This is Book I of a six-volume memoir/fiction that has proven a sensation in Europe, especially in Knausgaard’s native Norway, published there under the provocative Hitlerian title of Min Kamp (My Struggle).

Half a million copies have been sold in Norway alone. That in a country of only five million.

Norwegian publishers are not in the habit of publishing tell-all memoirs. Surprising then (or not), one in ten of Knausgaard’s countrymen are buying his books. The public outrage of some of the author’s relatives has likely boosted sales. But the reasons for its runaway success at home and abroad go much deeper. Paramount is the language. On the surface simplistic, this is courageous, penetrating writing that touches the fragility lying within us all.

The story wanders about in disorder. It shares the pages with acute observations on what life has handed the author. A boy passes out of an adolescence punctuated by rock music and persistent escape into alcohol. He is alone much of the time, on the fringes of his parents’ lives. He writes, he marries, all the while bucking his doubts about whatever path he takes. His marriage falls apart. He writes on. He is left to make sense of the scarred relationship with his father. He is left to bury him and literally clean up the sordid mess his father has left behind.

In fact much of the latter part of the book is about just that — clearing away the filth and scrubbing clean the rooms his father last inhabited. (The reader learns more about Norwegian cleaning products than he could ever predict.)

A Death in the Family hasn’t the shape of a story that should expect to gather a readership. Knausgaard himself doubted if it would even be published. But the book grips with its naked truths. Holds fast with its literary voyeurism. The awkwardness a reader might feel at learning so much about the author’s personal life is tempered by the conclusion that in its vividness it could only have been shaped by fiction. No memoirist would recall such exacting detail as Knausgaard brings to this book. The fact that it is billed as a novel turns to something of a relief.

The dram that is in my hand is not an easy-going drink. Fitting, then.

By the last page, there is enough 57˚ North left to bring along to the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir/fiction — A Man in Love. Maybe enough to save a dram for each of the four volumes yet to come.


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