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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky: Black Bull – 12 year old

The Books: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen

When in Pamplona, only a robust Black Bull will do. Running free in the street, in the glass, over the taste buds, over the page. An exceptional blend of word and whisky.


It’s dark golden amber in the glass. And on the nose malty cereal, a toffee nuttiness, rich and lively. Full flavoured in the mouth, with an oily, spicy impact. Lingers warm and confident. Very soundly constructed. Viva el toro! (non-chillfiltered, no added colour)

Black Bull is said to be the first 100-proof blended whisky imported and sold in the United States. That was 1933, in the wake of the repeal of Prohibition, a prime time for a strong market move. Bottled 50% abv and at the unusually high ratio of fifty/fifty malts to grains, it quickly became a best seller. It lasted through to the 1970s, after which it fell out of production. In 2001 Duncan Taylor & Co. took over the brand and the famous image of the Highland bovine was resurrected. Black Bull presently markets a 12, 30 and 40-year-old, with (rumour has it) a 50-year-old in the offing. It reappeared on the shelves in 2007 with a good deal of muscle, stacking up several awards in a short space of time.

Duncan Taylor & Co. is one of Scotland’s largest independent bottlers of whisky. It is based in Huntly, near the Speyside whisky region of Scotland, which contributes a large percentage of the blend. The company’s whisky holdings are among the most extensive in the world, and it bottles about 200 different expressions annually. In recent years it has begun construction of its own distillery.


The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel, is a modernist classic. There was little prose like it before it was published, and it was much imitated after. The quintessential book of the post-WWI era, it reflected a shift in moral standards following the war, and very quickly established the author’s reputation as spokesperson for the so-called ‘lost generation’.

It is set for the most part in Paris and Pamplona, among the drifting expatriates who left America and Britain in search of more liberating societies. Life is one jolly interesting time after another, despite the lingering effects of war, at least for those with the family wealth backing them up. Jake, Robert, Lady Ashley and the others have moved away from the political, to where relationships between lovers, and between ex- and would be- lovers, seem their greatest concern. It gave readers of the 20s much to talk about.

Hemingway’s style, as it came to define his career, is straightforward and uncluttered, marked by smart, crisp dialogue. There is a rich world beneath the surface of the prose. Characters play themselves, rather than shape a story. It is a roman à clef and it would appear that the author’s friends were all clamoring to find themselves in the book.

The Pamplona scenes set the reader amid the frantic “running of the bulls” and then the death drama of the bullring. Hemingway gloried in the theatrical blood sport, and here allows it to charge the novel with an excitement beyond the various love affairs. There is a foreign, exotic quality to the book, made approachable to the American reader because it is seen through the eyes of one of their own. Life in America seemed downright mundane in comparison.

Tomorrow Pamplona is another fine novel in translation from Peirene Press, this one by Dutch author Jan Van Mersbergen. The characters are European, not outsiders in the way that Hemingway’s characters are. They drive with relative ease over several borders to get to Spain. Yet both are on the run, and are destined to come face to face with that same strain of unruly black bull.

Danny is a young boxer (as was one of Hemingway’s cast) with reason to run away. The situation he is escaping, the powerful backstory of the novel, is gradually revealed as the current story builds. Robert, the driver who picks him up on the outskirts of Amsterdam, is escaping, too, if doing so from something less explosive. It’s his yearly flight from marriage and kids, and a suffocating job.

They make an odd pair, with seemingly little in common, but their relationship coalesces into something workable. Interest in the book stems from the universal theme of whether to “run or fight” (as the author puts it), yet an equal draw is the contrast of personalities. The same could be said of Hemingway’s book.

The two books merge in Pamplona, and at that point comparison between them is inevitable. The fact that Jan Van Mersbergen enters territory so much associated with Hemingway is risky business. But his book stands on its considerable merits alone. The Pamplona section of the book is literary homage perhaps, but homage with its own story to tell.

Black bulls seem to bring out the best in writers.


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