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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Forty CreekConfederation Oak Reserve

www.fortycreekwhisky.com 

The Book:  The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

I know, there is something excessively patriotic about combining an outstanding Canadian whisky and a book by Canada’s Nobel Prize-winning writer. With the two rooted in history and in Ontario communities within 200 kilometres of each other, how could I not.

THE WHISKY

Light amber gold in the glass. On the nose, a warm revelation of vanilla, caramel, rye-soaked raisins. Pleasant layer of spicy oak. In the mouth a light tannic creaminess, a pepper-ish performance piece of several undercurrents — oaken toffee, smoky fruits, tempered spice. Lingers long, dry and full of promise for refreshing the glass.

In recent years a few innovative Canadian distillers have been turning heads with their small batch production. John Hall and his Kittling Ridge Distillery in Ontario lead the way. With the launch of Forty Creek whisky in 1992 Hall received kudos world-wide for his whisky-making. It was the first new, successful Canadian Whisky brand in over 70 years and the standard bottling of Forty Creek soon became the fastest growing whisky in North America.

As the distillery grew, Hall turned to a series of innovative bottlings. Having worked all his life in wine and whisky production, Hall knew very well the characteristics imparted by oak, whether European or American, the latter being the oak traditionally used in the Canadian whisky industry. But he had always wondered how whisky would taste if aged in Canadian oak, a slower-growing, denser wood than its American counterpart.

Speculation gave way to reality with the discovery of a stand of massive oak trees along the Grand River, just 65 km from the distillery, trees that were soon due for harvesting. The giants were roughly 150 years old, meaning they must have been planted near the time of the birth of Canada as a country. Hall purchased the trees, left the logs for a time to dry, then, with no cooperages in Canada, had them shipped to the U.S. for production into barrels. Following custom charring, back they came, thirsty for Canadian whisky.

In a process he calls “meritage”, Hall aged the rye, corn, and barley distillates separately before bringing all three together for a final maturation in the Canadian oak. The result is a unique, award-winning, ultra-Canadian blend. Confederation Oak Reserve — a touch of Canadian history blended with it.

THE BOOK

The View from Castle Rock is an unlikely, perhaps inspired, combination — part memoir, part fiction, part documentation. It is an attempt to provide a book structure that brings together investigation into the author’s own family history with stories she considered too personal for previous collections. In the hands of a lesser writer it might prove tedious business. Although there are occasions when the narrative does fail the reader (yes, the spelling of whisky with an “e”!), these  lapses are few, and are quickly put aside, for this may be the closest we will ever get to a Munro autobiography.

The starting point is a series of five stories about the Laidlaw branch of her family, Scots who boarded a ship for Canada in the early 19th century. The stories shift in and out of historical reality, drawing on letters and other accounts Munro has uncovered, but adding imagined elements when the research material proves inadequate. They are personal, occasional longish, pieces, but never without interest. Readers familiar with Munro’s stories will discover elements previously mined and reshaped. The stories move ahead chronologically, to the time of her father and his venture into fur farming, titled simply enough, “Working for a Living”. It’s an affecting memory of a time and place, and of a man, affecting because it speaks so thoughtfully through the heart of a daughter.

The second half of the book, titled “Home”, is made up of six stories, told in the manner we have come to expect of Munro. A maturing girl is at the centre of most of them, a girl at odds with the conservative nature of her family and her rural Ontario hometown. It is well-travelled Munro territory, but with less of a distance between author and subject matter. Munro’s modest yet masterly approach to fiction, reaching honestly and deeply without the circus tricks of much of contemporary writing, is here exemplified by such pieces as “Hired Girl” in which the 17-year-old narrator travels far from home to spend a summer working for a wealthy family vacationing on an island. A reader never comes away from a Munro story without having shared in the tidal flow of experience, coming away richer for it. These stories are no exception.

In The View from Castle Rock Munro, as she says in the epilogue, has been “rifling around in the past”, making connections to people and events, to fragments of stories, dates and memories. They are not the reader’s own, but in the hands of such a fine writer, they could be.

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