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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whiskey:  Bulleit BourbonAged 10 Years

The Books:  Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner by John Williams

The drink and the books emerged from adjoining states – Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado. From another era, when times were less hurried, questionably rougher. A “Frontier” bourbon makes for a good pairing, if rather more refined than what was available to the characters.

The Bourbon

I am not a huge fan of bourbon, but this I like, very much. The amber-copper in the glass, together with aromas of vanilla and spice in deft balance with the oak, offer a firm, but friendly, handshake. It promises nothing too sweet and delivers nicely. Again, a well balanced flow — of caramel, fruit, and rye pepper. The dryness reveals depth and a complex, but homely, precision. Smooth, dry, and hold the sugar. My kind of bourbon. (45.6% abv)

The man behind the company is Tom Bulleit. He gave up a law practice in 1987 to follow a long held dream, that of bringing back to life a recipe for a high rye content bourbon distilled by his great-great-grandfather in the mid 1800s. Augustus Bulleit, who kept a tavern in Louisville, Kentucky, had distilled countless small batches before he found what he was after, and today Tom Bulleit sticks to the small-batch approach, delivering to the market three versions — the standard Bulleit “Frontier” Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, and the newest product – the selected reserve Bulleit Bourbon 10.

Made with grain grown to Bulleit’s specifications, together with Kentucky limestone-filtered water, the limited release spends 10 years in charred American oak barrels. It is filled into Bulleit’s 1880s replica bottle, bearing its trademark thin, slightly off-centre label, and then packaged in an eye-catching orange replica box.

Bulleit Distilling is owned by the spirits multinational Diageo. Bulleit 10 is distilled under contract with Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Tom Bulleit is upfront about this, as he should be, considering Four Roses is one of the preeminent bourbon distillers in the U.S. Even so, he has worked hard to set Bulleit apart, to establish its distinctive reputation, based largely on its heavy rye influence, and on the pioneering story behind the founding of the company.

The Books

Butcher’s Crossing fits into the genre of the American western, though not comfortably. It’s revisionist western, western in locale and era, but hardly in sensibility. It’s a very fine book of any sort.

It is not a novel for anyone expecting the idyll of the lone prairie, but then the title would likely send that message anyway. The single-minded slaughter and skinning of thousands of buffalo, trapped in a high mountain pass, is told in overwhelming detail. As is near death from lack of water. As is survival in a ferocious winter blizzard. It is such believable detail that grips the reader, overtaking his senses, leaving him awed by the author’s descriptive powers.

It is a simple enough story. In the 1870s a young Harvard dropout, with a head full of Emerson, goes west to experience nature in its primitive, unpredictable state. He is looking for something to change his life and finds more than he bargained for. His destination is Butcher’s Crossing. It has a cheap hotel, a saloon, a “barbar” shop, hookers, bad whiskey, and not much else. There’s a big trade in buffalo hides and deals to be made. It’s the deal, and how it eventually weighs relentlessly on the four men involved, that propels the narrative.

It is the author’s first mature novel. (He wanted everyone to forget the first.) Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960 to little fanfare. John Williams would eventually go on to win the National Book Award for his novel Augustus (ah, another link to Bulleit). However, his writing remained little appreciated until the recent popularity of Stoner, the third of his four novels, a book first published in 1965.

Stoner, also largely overlooked when it first came to print, has reemerged after fifty years to become an international bestseller. It has been a huge hit in Europe, although, ironically, has still to gather much notice in the United States, where it is set. (A misreading of the title – the novel has nothing to do with drug culture – might be some of the reason, though likely not much.)

William Stoner’s is a life well-examined. He is a farm boy who goes off to college to study agriculture, only to be suddenly, and with some confusion, smitten by literature. His life turns abruptly and he goes on to spend most of it as a university professor. Literature gives direction to an otherwise wearisome existence. He has made a poor choice in marriage, he becomes increasingly estranged from his daughter, petty university politics threaten his career, a deep love affair finds no future. What has his life amounted to? Nothing that will be remembered. He has been a survivor and, with some small victories, a quiet hero. It is not how most Americans wish to see themselves. There is no cause for celebration. A likely reason as any for its failure to find a broad audience in its home country.

John Williams deserved much more. His writing is clean and thoughtful and expertly controlled. It flourishes in a way that causes truth to continuously surface. Both books (both very different books in setting and atmosphere) take the reader on journeys with characters whose time is often ill-spent and leads to heartbreak, but who are intensely human. The novels are a celebration of what literature can offer, in the way that nothing else does.


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