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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  BruichladdichOctomore 5.1

The Books:  Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

If you were to judge a whisky by its cover, it’s a dark dram indeed. Black bottle, black metal tube. A match for a pair of books dense with black type, not a paragraph break to be seen.

The Whisky

It is billed as the peatiest whisky ever made by a major distillery. You would think it would be like wallowing in a smouldering peat bog, but no. The first hint is the colour — a pale, unfired straw. Even the nose — well smokey, but much more restrained than might be expected. It’s smoke with class, tempered with a gentle sweetness, creamy almost. It’s on the palate that the smoke hits, in a biting wave, smoke cured meats with a thin crust of sea salt. Very likeable, but needing a few drops of water to open it up, into something unique and long lasting. Five years old, and with a dark heart of gold . (59.5% abv, no added colour, non-chillfiltered)

The brooding skies of Islay speak of a distillery capable of weathering any storm. Indeed Bruichladdich has had its fair share — “family feuds, recessions, industry cartels, deception, world wars and sheer bad luck”, to quote its website. The latest was in the 1990s when it was mothballed twice, the last time for six years. In 2001 it resumed production, under new, independent ownership, and since then has gone from strength to strength. Through the decade it released a broad variety of bottlings, settling into three main expressions — the standard, unpeated Bruichladdich, the moderately peated Port Charlotte, and the ‘off the scale’ peated Octomore.

Today it employs 50 people (making it the biggest private employer on Islay), in addition to holding contracts with many more, including the farmers who grow its barley. It stands as “the only major distiller to distil, mature, and bottle all its whisky on Islay”. Something Bruichladdich is justifiably proud of. “Proudly non-conformist” as it likes to say.

It seems to have been that way in the very beginning. Founded by brothers John, Robert, and William Harvey in 1881, Bruichladdich was a bold move beyond the commonplace farm distilleries. Using concrete, a newly invented construction material, it was the island’s first stand-alone, sole-purpose distillery. Most of the machinery used to first set the distillery in motion is still in use today.

It is an old but ship-shape body, sporting a fresh new mind. Bruichladdich prides itself on experimentation. “What if,” venerable master distiller Jim McEwan and his fellow workers pondered some years ago, “what if we distilled the most heavily-peated barley humanly possible, in the tall, narrow-necked Bruichladdich stills?” The result is Octomore. At 169 parts per million (ppm) phenoic, this version is just that, and a very long way from Laphroaig and Ardbeg, each running on either side of 50 ppm.

And what they ended up with was a whisky that defied convention, and conventional thinking about what could be achieved in a young whisky. Being the non-conformist has paid off handsomely.

The Books

That Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald is non-conformist in its approach to fiction is clear from the opening pages. Sebald himself called it “documentary fiction”. It blends fiction with fact, all the time moving about in a fashion where storyline is secondary to the melancholic presence of a life that can’t be truly understood, where history bears a weight that sinks the normal narrative. The use of grey, often unfocused, photographs throughout the text adds to the impression that this is the shadow of a story, rather than a story in the conventional sense.

The shadow is that of Austerlitz, a Czech Jew sent out of his homeland as a very young child, to escape the terror of Nazi occupation, something which his parents are not able to do. The Kindertransport leads the boy to Wales, where he is adopted by an elderly, religious eccentric,  and his sickly spouse. As a grown man Austerlitz begins to learn about his past. The book follows his scattered treks to find out more, framed in the context of his academic study of European architecture.

It is hardly as straightforward as it might sound. Sebald deals us a new kind of reading experience. The book transposes the reader’s state of mind, allows him to feel the incomprehensible in Nazi history rather than fruitlessly attempt to truly understand the human consequences of it. The story is opaque, and being led through it in the way that Sebald writes causes a profound shift in how we experience a life overwhelmed by history. I have not read another book like it.

Yet I think of  Satantango by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai as a parallel experience. Each of Satantango’s dozen chapters consists of a single paragraph. Each heightens the experience of fiction to something beyond story.

The story itself is simple enough. A modern day messiah leads a destitute few peasants away from their failed lives, only to find nothing is ever as one hopes, there is not a better world to be had. The setting is a sodden, decaying hamlet in Hungary, likely near the end of the Communist era, although that is not entirely clear. The rain is relentless, but so is the burden of existence, to the point that at times it is morbidly amusing. One escape is the satantango of the title, a late night dance in a spider-ridden bar where drunken neighbours ogle other drunken neighbours, skirt a grim euphoria, to and fro in damp wool and sweat, like a macabre performance piece. The dance mirrors the book as a whole. It is a central scene in the movie made from the book (see the trailer) which runs a challenging seven and a half hours! That’s a lot of Hungarian angst.

Like Sebald’s, Krasznahorkai’s novel (written in 1985, but translated to English almost three decades later) defies the conventions of fiction. There is an out-of-narrative experience that descends over the reader the further he reaches into the book. It is not a simple exercise, but is a deeply memorable one.

Octomore. Austerlitz. Satantango. Rich shades of dark.


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