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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Compass BoxGreat King St. – Artist’s Blend

The Book:  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


The book is set on the Isle of Skye, in word only. Skye’s famous distillery, Talisker, just wouldn’t do. Rather, something equally complex, but calmer, more internal. An artistic blend befitting Woolf’s rich, multi-layered prose.


Golden in the glass. A nose that is fresh and airy, sings with light florals and vanilla. On the palate — a creamy mélange of citrus, spice, and a slight touch of pepper. A pleasant alcoholic bite to keep it honest. Light-hearted, yet seriously good. (non-chillfiltered, no added colour, 43% abv)

Over the last decade Compass Box has helped redefine blended whisky, taken what some thought of as the poor second cousin of the single malt and brought to it a new level of respect.

Founder John Glaser, once a marketing director at Johnnie Walker, set out in 2000 to bring to the market a series of distinct bottlings that would reshape the thinking around blends, first with his Signature series: Asyla, Oak Cross, Hedonism, The Spice Tree (reviewed earlier in this blog), and The Peat Monster. Then with The Great King Street series, and with the ongoing release of Limited Editions.

ijohn-glaserThis is the Artist’s Blend  of the GKS series, “a marriage of delicate Lowland grain and robust, complex Highland malt whiskies,” an all-around, reasonably-priced whisky that suits whatever way you wish to take it — neat, with water or ice, or in a cocktail. Glaser is not going to tell you how to drink your whisky, but he is going to be upfront (in a way that most blenders are not) with what goes into it: 46% Lowland grain whisky, 45% Northern Highland single malt, and 9% Speyside Highland malt. And he’s going to be equally clear about the wood profile: 66% first-fill American oak barrel, 26% new French oak finish, and 8% first-fill Sherry butt.

The quality of the blend comes from quality ingredients, the grain whisky as top tier as the malt, and from the imaginative use of  exceptional wood. Glaser’s whisky-making continues to push boundaries, and the results have generally been highly impressive.

On the regulatory front he does the same, forcing issues that need to be discussed, but haven’t been because they don’t serve the interests of the multinationals that dominate the market for blended whisky. Glaser’s most recent campaign has been to push for the right to disclose the makeup of blends, including the ages of the component whiskies. At present it is unlawful to indicate on the bottle or packaging anything but the age of the youngest whisky.

He’s out to make great blended whisky while being transparent in what makes them so. Admirable goals in the service of the dram.


In a sense To the Lighthouse is about transparency, transparency of character.


If you are expecting plot, To the Lighthouse is not your first choice. Or setting for that matter. The story takes place on Skye, but it could be any coastland in the UK, as much Cornwall where Woolf’s father rented a summer house for the first ten years of his daughter’s life.  It had a view of a lighthouse situated on an island offshore.

Rather the novel’s energy comes from the constant probing of character, the near seamless interplay of thoughts (often within the same paragraph) between the various individuals who have arrived to spend time at the summer retreat — Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children, together with a small host of adult friends that includes the young painter Lily Briscoe, who was in part modelled on Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, but, who in her thought processes reflected in greater measure the author herself. Woolf’s prose is the lure, her ability to surround you with the whirl of emotions, of fears and desires that inhabit the characters, her dexterity in the flow of language that brings to the surface what each of them feels but would never openly express.

What they do speak is game for multiple interpretation. Class restraint overrides truth in the words they willingly release into the open air. They present one face, bury another, much more interesting one.

The holding back, the self-control can be frustrating for the reader, though, surprisingly, rarely dull. The stream of consciousness reveals a diverse lot. Hatred, anxiety, sexual frustration, career insecurities — they teem within them. Woolf’s object is to bare that restraint, to lay open the voiceless propriety of English society.


To the Lighthouse spans a decade in the early 20th century, the first section before the Great War, the third after it. A short middle section (titled “Time Passes”) connects the two. It is here, in the narrative of the housekeeper, Mrs. McNab, that the story frees itself from inwardness of the other characters. It’s a pause, one punctuated with brief, bracketed references to the tragedies that had beset the family in the interim. The references are startling in their simplicity, their near offhandedness, a masterstroke of structure.

Virginia Woolf is one of the iconic writers of the 20th century. To the Lighthouse deals with some of her major preoccupations — the fragility of life, art as a restorative process, how cumulative perceptions define character. When the lighthouse is finally reached there is an acute sense of loss within the story, but as well within ourselves, in that we have to leave these people and move on.


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