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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Glenfarclasaged 17 years

http://www.glenfarclas.co.uk

The Book:  Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub

For this Christmas season, when my thoughts turned to an historic act of peace, I chose a rich, traditional whisky. It has been one hundred years since the remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914, when common decency outshone the purveyors of war.

THE WHISKY

Golden amber hue, nearing a copper glow. Lovely to see that natural colour, nothing added. On the nose, a classy, complex waft of sherry, caramel, dried fruit and nuts, and a hint of peat. Lovely. On the palate, these intensify and bring in elements of coffee and spice. Lingers very nicely. Warming.

Glenfarclas (glen of the green grass) is in Speyside, although the owners think of their whisky simply as Highland malt. It is one of the few family-owned and managed distilleries left in Scotland, now in the fifth and sixth generations of the Grant family, which seems to have alternated between a John and a George. For its standard bottlings it eschews fancy packaging and promotional gimmickry, channelling it resources into quality whisky at reasonable prices. Glenfarclas has garnered huge respect within the industry and among discerning whisky drinkers.

2015 will be the 150th anniversary of the purchase of Glenfarclas by the first John Grant. Although a good portion of the distillery’s annual output is sold to other whisky companies for blending, it is the standard range (10, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, 30 and 40 year-old), matured in expensive ex-Oloroso sherry casks, that has built the company’s reputation. It has an enviable 65,000 casks in warehouse, so Glenfarclas bottlers have a remarkable inventory from which to choose, and Glenfarclas drinkers have a lot of quality product to look forward to. Mine is the 17-year-old, a bottling aimed mainly at the overseas and duty-free markets.

Glenfarclas has six stills at its disposal, some of the largest in Speyside. They are direct fired, whereas the vast majority of distilleries use steam. In 1981 they tried steam, but stopped after three weeks. They weren’t satisfied with the quality of the whisky. ‘Steam might be cheaper,’ says the most recent of the George Grants, ‘but here it just made the spirit flat. We want a spirit that has weight to it. We want to age it 50 years.’

In fact this year saw the very limited release of a 60-year-old Glenfarclas.

THE BOOK

Some years ago, while researching WWI, I discovered in a letter written from the Belgium front and reprinted in a local newspaper of the era, these words: “We came out of the trenches last evening and are not out for a few days rest but we spent Christmas Day in the trenches, and believe me it was some day. Not hardly a shot fired throughout the day, and some of the boys were over in the German trenches talking to the Germans.”

The soldier writing the letter had lived not far from where I lived. I had visited his community several times. That touchstone of place had made the Christmas Truce that much more real to me.

In Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, the soldiers speak through their journals and letters and with these accumulated, personal strokes the author draws a picture of the vast, if not continuous, camaraderie between the enemy troops. The Christmas Truce, downplayed by the official histories of the war, is suddenly very real. These are moments of humanity in the midst of the dire inhumanity of the First World War.

“We had been calling to one another for some time Xmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted ‘no shooting’ and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on top of the trench and talked German and asked them them to sing a German Volkslied, which they did, then our men sang quite well and each side clapped and cheered the other.”

The soldier, writing to his mother, was Captain R. J. Armes of the First North Staffordshires, in the trenches near the French village of La Chapelle d’Armentières. It could have been any one of thousands of soldiers who took part in their own version of the the Christmas armistice, whether it was a respite for each side to bury their dead, or an exchange of cigarettes, or a game of football. Whether it was trading addresses, often with Germans who had worked in England prior to the war. Or Stille Nicht sung together with Silent Night, as happened again and again, sometimes by men who in their previous lives had been opera singers.

For the most part Weintraub lets the soldiers tell their stories. It gives the book its strength, even though it is repetitive at times. Where he veers away from this approach (for example, into speculation of how the century would have unfolded if the Truce had somehow ended the war) the book is less successful.

It is the personal words, and the melodic notes of that most touching of Christmas songs, which echo through these hundred years.

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