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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Abhainn DeargSingle Malt

www.abhainndearg.co.uk

The Books:  The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen by Peter May

When the best whisky for the job is too darned expensive by the bottle, then you resort to miniatures. Three wee ones for a trilogy of books.

THE WHISKY

A three-year-old that’s showing pale, pale straw in the glass. Yet surprisingly strong on the nose. Dominated by maltiness and dried grass, with hints of fruit. Limited wood influence. On the palate, malt-driven, still a bit raw. Honey and spice beginning to work through. Unfinished business with plenty of potential. More time in the barrel should settle it down into a mature, distinctive dram. (46% abv, no added colour, non-chillfiltered.)

Abhainn Dearg (Gaelic, pronounced AV-in JERR-eg) generates interest by its location alone. Founded in 2008 near the remote hamlet of Uig on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, it is the first legal distillery in the Outer Hebrides in two hundred years. The idea of local entrepreneur Mark Tayburn, it turned the premises of a derelict salmon hatchery into the most westerly distillery in Scotland.

It draws water from the mountain streams that converge in their lower reaches as Abhainn Dearg (in English “Red River”). It is pristine. mineral-rich, untouched by human habitation, let alone industry. The barley is sourced locally, some of which has been planted especially for the distillery, the first grown in Uig in living memory.

The emphasis is on traditional production methods, “from field to bottle,” as Tayburn is fond of saying. So much so that the design of Abhainn Dearg’s two stills is reminiscent of the illicit stills once common on the island.

Production amounts to 400 to 600 litres per year. Most of it ends up in ex-bourbon American oak. The plan is to release a standard bottling after 7+ years. Hopefully it will be released at a decent price. Heads were shaking when the three-year-old hit retail outlets at £150 for a 50cl bottle. For an unproven dram, many found the price point baffling, something aimed directly at collectors. This whisky deserves a wider audience.

THE BOOKS

No problems with audience size for Peter May. His trilogy of novels set in the Outer Hebrides continues to sell very well.

Peter May has spent most of his working life as a script writer for television. When he gave it up in favour of writing crime novels, it was only natural to draw upon the setting of a TV series he co-created as a locale for his literary efforts. The series was Machair, a subtitled Gaelic drama and an unexpected hit for Scottish television in the 1990s. May’s first novels were set in China and France, but with The Blackhouse he returned to the Scottish islands he had grown to know and love during the six years he spent working on the TV shows.

The strength of the novels is in the characters that populate them — fiercely proud, independent people eking out an existence in an inhospitable but ruggedly beautiful landscape, where religion and weather hold unusual sway. The folks are tough, but the natural environment is very much tougher.

The central character of all three books is Fin Macleod, a native of Lewis who has returned to the islands from police detective duties in Edinburgh. In each book there is a gruesome murder and Fin, of course, is at the centre of the investigations into solving them. His return to the islands dredges up old memories, the past lives proving to be as interesting as the present ones.

There are various family members, his boyhood pals, and the young woman Marsaili, the love of his life whom he left behind. Upstanding citizens share the stage with the ne’er-do-wells. All vividly portrayed. As vividly as the setting. For the Outer Hebrides themselves garner as much of the writer’s attention as the people who inhabit them. Rarely is crime fiction so atmospheric, rarely is the setting so important to understanding the characters.

These are much more than crime novels. May himself places them in the tradition of the French roman noir. They stand as literary fiction within the crime genre, which is perhaps the reason the first in the series failed to find a UK publisher, until translated versions became bestsellers in other parts of Europe. If you like crime fiction that sticks to the crime, beware. If you like well told stories in which character often supersedes the crimes, settle in and enjoy.

Although May hadn’t intended to write a trilogy, the success of the first led to The Lewis Man, and then to The Chessmen. While each can be read as a standalone, the story of the second book expands on the first. The third less so, veering in a different direction. It takes us less into the fascinating, longstanding traditions of the islands and the often eccentric individuals who live there. Likely it was May’s intention to pull our perception of Outer Hebrides into the 21st century. Yet to supplant characters whom readers have grown attached to through two books, with, among other things, the self-centred antics of a rock band (Gaelic though it is) seems a miscalculation.

Nevertheless, the final book in the trilogy did give May the opportunity to reference the emergence of a brand new whisky distillery on the islands — Abhainn Dearg, the first since 1844, as he tells the reader. And to Fin Macleod he hands a very positive tasting note. Indeed, “It’s a fine whisky.” A character reference hardly to be disputed. Slàinte!

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