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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Langatun Old Bear

The Books:  The Tanners, Selected Stories, and Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

A little-known Swiss whisky in need of an underappreciated Swiss writer. Both in need of celebration.


The colour is dark amber, and for good reason, having been matured in Chateauneuf du Pape casks. The nose holds notes of wine and malt and spice, a nice touch of peat. Creamy in the mouth, fine balance of wood and smoke. Delectable. This Old Bear will never need to hibernate. (40% abv)

I found this whisky at a wine and spirits shop in Basel. Langatun Distillery has only been in production since 2007. At this point at least, you would be hard pressed to encounter its products outside Switzerland and Germany. A shame, for its Old Bear is a very appealing whisky. Well-made and distinctive. And it has a good story behind it.

It begins in 1857 with the return of Jakob Baumberger to the family farm after graduation as a brewmaster in Munich. He immediately founded a distillery, and then, three years later, acquired a brewery in the nearby village of Langenthal (known as Langatun in early written records). He viewed the quality of the water as a key ingredient in the quality of the spirit produced and was fortunate enough to acquire the rights to an exceptional spring above the village.

That water today feeds the newly created distillery of his great grandson, Hans Baumberger, and his partners. The hand-crafted Langatun whisky uses local barley, and, in the case of Old Bear, lightly smokes it using local peat. Unlike most European whiskies, it is triple distilled, in copper pot stills. Baumberger works with one eye on the future, with the intention of doubling production. As it stands, in any given year only half of the whisky distilled is sold.The other half is held in the barrels, with the intention of bottling whisky of longer maturation, an older Old Bear.

The Books

Swiss writer Robert Walser produced modernist prose that stands with the best written in the early 20th century. He was a favourite of Kafka and Hesse, and in recent times he has been celebrated by W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, and a few others. Yet his books remain relatively little known.

Sebald wrote an extensive essay on Walser, which has been translated and reprinted to serve as an introduction for the recent English language translation of The Tanners. It begins with this observation: “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether.” Walser’s early writing met with acclaim in pre-war Germany, but when the face of the country changed, the author retreated to his homeland and into a minimal existence. He owned almost nothing (Sebald contends not even copies of his own books) and as he grew older maintained relations with practically no one. His final works were written in minute shorthand of his own invention, on borrowed paper. From 1929 he lived in an asylum, and for the last two decades of his life gave up writing altogether. He is quoted as saying “I am not here to write, I’m here to be mad.” He died in 1956 at the age of 78 while out on a solitary country walk through the winter snow.

One of his most admired pieces is titled “The Walk”. A gentleman sets out on an extended sojourn through a provincial Swiss town and eventually into the countryside, encountering along the way individuals for whom he demonstrates an enthusiastic if distant rapport. In his observations, more revealing of himself than his subjects, are captured the gentle ironies of existence, in prose that is at once rhythmic and arresting, at times whimsical, often delightfully wise.

The Walk is the longest piece in Selected Stories. In most senses these are not stories at all, more often reflections, vignettes which drift into the reader’s mind and out again, but with the quick realization he’ll want to return to them. Few writers hold up to rereading as well as Walser.

He is at his best in short prose. Of his several  novels, the earliest is The Tanners, a thinly re-imagined account of the author’s own early adulthood. Simon wanders aimlessly through life in a search for work that will hold his interest longer than the few days it takes to get used to it. A central scene is again a long walk. Walser excels when the attempt at plot falls away, when he lets the prose take what path it will.

Jakob von Gunten is generally considered the best of his novels. Here a young man enters a training school for servants, the Institute Benjamenta, run by an eccentric brother and sister, where, as the opening words announce, “one learns very little”, where students “shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.” The book was not destined for universal readership. But, again, Walser’s prose makes the uneventful rich, slyly invigorates the commonplace, leaving the reader smiling at the cleverness of it all. He deserves to be much better known.

“Bare reality: what a crook it sometimes is. It steals things, and afterwards it has no idea what to do with them. It just seems to spread sorrow for fun. Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it’s very valuable, very. It shapes one.”


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