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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Rum:  Ron DiplomáticoReserva Exclusiva

The Book:  The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka

A turn in this posting from whisky to rum, bringing together two exceptional works from Venezuela. This rum has been gaining attention abroad. Alberto Barrera Tyszka, one of the country’s few writers in English translation, has been doing the same.


There is a companionship to premium rum that differs from that offered by premium whisky. Perhaps it is the controlled underlying sweetness, its unhurried, tropical good nature. Certainly this Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva has it in spades. A light, bright mahogany in the glass, it meets the nose with an inviting riff of spice, caramel, and vanilla. Pleasurable, enticing. In the mouth the flavours expand to a creamy nut-spice blend, with just the right heat to fill the mouth, the wood mixing in to make it a lingering, thoughtfully rich experience.

The roots of Diplomático rums (of which there are several bottlings) go back to 1932. Starting in the late 1950s, ownership fell to Seagram’s, then later Diageo and Pernod Ricard. In 2002, the multinationals shed their assets, in line with Venezuela’s new economic policies. Local investment gave rise to DUSA (Destilerias Unidas S.A.).

DUSA makes a variety of spirits on its 12 hectares, situated at the foot of the Andes at about 200 m above sea level, just outside the town of La Meil. The nearby fields of sugarcane benefit from a day-to-night temperature differential of more than 20˚C, which serves to concentrate the sugars in the cane. The resultant molasses and sugarcane honey from three local refineries, a constant supply of clear, pure water sourced from the forests of Terepaima National Park, and the high humidity during aging, all deliver something special to the fermentation and distillation of Diplomático.

Its flagship Reserva Exclusiva was launched in 2004 and blends 20% light, column-distilled rum with 80% dark, pot-distilled rum, aged up to 12 years in small oak, ex-bourbon casks. Master Blender Tito Cordero hand selects a few more barrels to bring the flavour profile up an additional notch or two.

The gentlemen whose postage-stamp image graces the green, frosted bottle is Don Juancho Nieto Meléndez, a 19th century rum aficionado who was constantly seeking ways to improve the quality of Venezuelan rum. Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva is produced in his honour, and also pays tribute to the maturing process of rum.


Tyszka’s novel is all about aging, and its human consequence. For anyone surrounded by illness (and we all are at some point) it is a one-time distant bell that’s become steadily, painfully louder.

Dr Andrés Miranda’s father has terminal cancer, and it falls on the son to be the one to relate the news. Of course, as a medical doctor,  he has had years of experience of presenting such news to patients. Yet when it comes to his own father the situation falls aways from him. He just can’t bring himself to do it, despite his father’s repeated demands for honesty.

It is a simple scenario, and a profound reality, one that reveals the complexities of the father-son relationship (the mother has died many years earlier). In straightforward, emotionally-honest prose, beautiful in its simplicity, the reader is lead through a meditation on life, and death. “Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?”, a fellow doctor wonders at one point in the book. This view hangs over the story, seeming to cut through the medical jargon, though making the end no less difficult to deal with.

A parallel story, of a patient of Dr. Miranda, a hyprochondriac who bombards his office with emails demanding advice, provides relief from the central focus of the father’s decline. It is less engaging, but perhaps necessary for the emotional structure of the book.

The Sickness (La Enfermedad, superbly translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is set in Caracas, a city of intense contrasts as I saw when I visited many years ago. We see something of the poverty, in the hills surrounding the city core, through the eyes of the father’s caregiver, Mariana.

In addition to novels, Alberto Barrera Tyska has published poetry, short stories, non-fiction (co-authoring a biography of Hugo Chávez), and works regularly as a journalist. English translation of Venezuelan writing is rare, and as the quality of Tyszka’s novel suggests, we are the poorer for it. This country, as fascinating as any in South America whose writers are more celebrated, deserves a broader international audience for its literature.


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