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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  GlenDronachRevival 15

The Book:  The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories edited by Alberto Manguel (also published as The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories)

An usually heavy snowfall this Christmas. But with it came a whisky, sherry-aged and good, and a marvelous collection of Yuletide stories. O white Christmas, such pleasure do you bring me.

The Whisky

There is a sherried heart to this whisky that is undeniably rich and inviting. Non-chillfiltered and without added colour. A whisky shaped by an extensive period in Oloroso casks. In the glass – mahogany. On the nose – chocolate, leather, nut meat, all toned with sherry. On the palate – spice bite circling a chewy, full-flavoured (that would be sherry again) dark fruit and nut cake. Whisky to warm a frosty Christmas, to take you striding o’er the snow into the new year. (46% abv)

There is something heart-warming, almost Christmas-like, in the recent story of GlenDronach. A distillery with a rich past, steeped in tradition, lost to the vagaries of multi-national acquisition (indeed closed from 1996-2002), only to return to independent ownership in 2006, when it was bought by Billy Walker and his partners at BenRiach Distillery. With it came a renewed sense of quality, a much-widened range of bottlings, and a markedly stronger presence in the marketplace.

GlenDronach sits in rural Aberdeenshire, in the Scottish Highlands, yet on the edge of Speyside. Its history goes back to 1826, when a group of local men, led by James Allardice and supported by the laird, the Duke of Gordon, built the distillery. Its charm and character outlasted a devastating fire a dozen years later, and several changes of ownership. Some of the early buildings remain (there was a time when all the workers and their families lived on site), but the sense now is of a distillery taking the best from the past, but eager to move ahead.

As Walker told whisky writer Gavin Smith, “We have totally reinvented GlenDronach. We’ve brought in new wood management, extended the range, and made the whisky more muscular.” Although some of the production now finds itself in ex-Bourbon casks, maturation in sherry wood still dominates. As sherried whiskies go, the revived GlenDronach competes with the best of them.

Gone now is the use of coal in firing the stills (the last Scottish distillery to do so), but the visitor is still welcomed by the sight of nesting rooks, a feature of the distillery since the days their cawing warned of the approach of excise men. Some things can’t be improved on.

The Book

Alberto Manguel‘s personal library must be astounding in its range of fiction. The internationally acclaimed anthologist never fails to bring together a refreshing array of stories, a combination of established writers in English and less familiar writers in translation.

I knew better than to expect the heart-warming, sentimental fiction in which the holiday season abounds. Rather, something richer, more arresting, more memorable. My favourite is there – Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” – as wonderfully evocative as when I first discovered it. It never fails to linger well past its reading. (Its reference to whiskey only an incidental, if pleasurable, detail!)

To it I would add new favourites. “The Turkey Season” by Nobel laureate, Alice Munro. Quiet, profound insight into human relationships set in a turkey slaughter house. Who but such a gifted writer could make it work?

“The Zoo at Christmas” by Jane Gardam. A playful reshaping of the nativity scene from the animals’ point of view, using Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Oxen” as their starting point.  With emphasis on the hoofstock.

Graham Greene’s classic “A Vist to Morin”, in which a young man encounters a religious writer he has long admired, only to discover the man has fallen away from his beliefs.

“The Night Before Christmas” by the little known Eastern European author, Theodore Odrach, who spent the last decade of his life in Canada. His story, set in territory occupied by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943, is as gripping as any in the anthology.

“Saint Nikolaus” by the Nicaraguan writer-politician Sergio Ramírez. A Nicaraguan émigré to Berlin takes a job playing Father Christmas, and finds himself in the home of an affluent German and his immodest, drunken wife.

As you might suspect, Christmas celebration is on the periphery of many of the stories. Yet, they all fit under what Manguel calls “the merry canopy of Christmas”, giving us pause to reflect on the myriad experiences of the season across the globe. And as Manguel says in his engaging introduction, “Every reader knows that the best stories have no ending but continue beyond the page in the reader’s own world.”


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