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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Scotland

The Gin:  Cadenhead’s Old RajDry Gin

www.whiskytastingroom.com

The Book:  A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

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THE GIN

In the glass there is a slight yellow tinge. On the nose, a strong alcoholic spice. Circling the palate, it’s modestly oily, with an intriguing botanical mix, shaped by a lemon tartness. Saffron shines through, but doesn’t overpower. Forceful yet sophisticated. (55% abv)

Old Raj comes in two strengths—46% and this imperial 55%. Its name is derived from the British Raj, the British rule of the Indian subcontinent up to its independence in 1947, made unabashedly clear by the label and packaging. Gin and tonic (which contains quinine, a preventative against malaria) became the Raj’s drink of choice, As Winston Churchill famously said “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

Besides juniper, the foundation botanical of all gin, Old Raj is made with orange and lemon peel, coriander seed, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, almond power, and the star of the show—saffron. As any cook knows, saffron (delicate threads plucked from crocus flowers) is uncommon and costly. Old Raj uses it sparingly (said to be added personally by the company’s chairman!), for economic reasons perhaps, but equally to keep the flavour subtle.

It works very well. Saffron is the last minute addition. The other botanicals are each macerated in a mixture of alcohol and water for 36 hours, then distilled separately in a small pot still, before being combined with neutral grain spirit. Only then is the saffron added.

Old Raj was introduced in 1972 by Wm Cadenhead, an independent whisky bottler based in Campbeltown, Scotland. The company is far better known for its whiskies, but nonetheless Old Raj has developed an enviable reputation. The Empire would have been proud.

THE BOOK

A Passage to India was published in 1924. Racial tension was high throughout the country and the movement to independence constantly in the political forefront, though it would take more than two decades for British politicians to finally come to terms with it. The book opens and closes with debate on the issue, framed as a question—whether it is possible for Indians and Englishmen to be true friends. It is the complicated, uneasy relationship between a young Indian physician Aziz and the older British college headmaster Fielding that defines the debate.

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Two women, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore arrive from England for a visit to the fictional Indian city of Chandrapore. The young lady comes with the vague notion of marrying the stiffly colonial Ronny Heaslop, Mrs. Moore’s son by a second marriage, and a city magistrate. It’s a precarious pairing, however, especially when the Heaslop’s prejudices show themselves. The women want to experience the “real India”, and not through the rigid lens offered them by the magistrate. Mrs. Moore, while exploring a mosque, encounters Dr. Aziz, and after an initial misunderstanding, extends an open hand of friendship. Her experience eventually draws Miss Quested into the circle when they both encounter Aziz at a tea party. The magistrate, needless to say, is not impressed.

When Aziz invites the women on an expedition to explore a set of notable caves outside the city, the story takes a dramatic turn, bringing the issue of the racial divide to a head. Inside one of the dark caves Miss Quested thinks herself the intended victim of sexual assault, and comes to the abrupt conclusion that it must have been Aziz. The young doctor is arrested and charged. A trial ensues. Of course lines are drawn, friendships tested, the societal prejudices, and those of the court system, are thrust into the open. In a broader sense, it is the British Raj which is on trial.

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E.M. Forster, inspired by a period of six months he spent in India in 1912-13, and then a year in 1922, drew out the writing of the novel over the course of 11 years. Through that time he was struggling with the unrequited love he felt for Masood, a young Indian man he had gone to the country to visit. He had explored caves such as those depicted in the novel on the day after he left Masood, following, biographers speculate, his friend’s rejection of him. That may well account for why it took Forster so long to complete the book. He rewrote the episode in the cave and its aftermath several times, finally deciding to leave what actually happened there inconclusive.

When it was published, its astute depiction of colonial India was highly praised. Stylistically, the book excels. It has come to be thought of by many critics as finer even than Howard’s End or A Room with a View, and one of the great literary works of the 20th century.

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The Whisky:  Tomatin  –  14-year-old

www.tomatin.com

The Book:  Autumn by  Ali Smith

The first stop on our trip to Scotland was Inverness, an amiable small city, with an incredible secondhand book shop (the largest in the country), housed in a former church dating from 1793! The city is the childhood home of writer Ali Smith. And a few miles outside is the Tomatin whisky distillery. Aye, right, a potent combination.

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THE WHISKY

An amber glow in the glass, with sweet vanilla and spice on the nose. A gentle warming on the palate, defined by a nutty creaminess. Fine balance of spice and port surrounding a heart of oak. Confident and impressive. (46% abv, non-chill filtered, no added colour)

Tomatin bills itself as “the softer side of the Highlands,” Its ads are a chuckle, especially the portrait of a red rubber-booted Highland steer. The distillery is building an image as a strong player in the competitive world of single malts, even though 80% of its annual production of 5 million litres goes into blended whisky.

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Its history as a whisky distillery dates to 1897. The latter decades of the 20th century saw a wildly optimistic increase in capacity, the number of stills rising to 23, with the potential of 12 million litres annually. For a time it was the largest malt whisky distillery in Scotland.

Then it fell on hard times, perhaps self-inflicted by over-expansion. By 1986 it faced liquidation. A year later two of its customers, conglomerates Takara Shuzo and Okara & Co, bought the distillery, making it the first in Scotland to come under Japanese ownership.

Tomatin downsized, and initiated a new focus on single malts, including the recent addition of a peated line called Cu Bucan.

Tomatin (from the Gaelic “hill of the juniper bush”) takes its water from the Allt-na-Frithe burn. The spirit is matured in 2 dunnages and 13 racked warehouses. Initially its core range included a 12, 15 and 18-year-old. In 2014 the 14-year-old replaced the 15.

For its first dozen years the 14 was matured in ex-bourbon casks, before being transferred to port pipes for its final stretch to bottling.

Tomatin’s star is ascending and what had been a somewhat forgotten distillery is now on the radar of whisky enthusiasts, with several recent accolades boosting its profile.

THE BOOK

When my wife and I added Inverness to our itinerary we arranged a day tour of its surroundings, including visits to the site of the Battle of Culloden, the Clava Cairns, and the Tomatin distillery. But before leaving the city our guide David drove us to the house where Ali Smith had once lived. In the lead-up to our tour we had mentioned an interest in her books and, as fortune should have it, David had been at school with her! When he picked us up he had with him not only homemade shortbread, but school publications from decades before. One, a 1976 yearbook, included a sample of Smith’s early teenage writing, a dialectal take-off on the tale of Cinderella: “A Play in Simple Invernessian: Cinderella, Mun.” A wee, amusing harbinger of a writing wit set to blossom.

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Autumn is the first of Ali Smith‘s four-part Seasonal novel project, the other three books due to follow in short order. A creative quartet, this time a writer’s. There’s Vivaldi, of course. And recently David Hockney. Shortly after reading Autumn, I was in London, at the Tate Britain, immersed in the Hockney video “Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods.” It filled the four walls of an intimate room, a highlight in the retrospective of a constantly innovative artist.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in countries with four distinct seasons know how they can influence our attitudes and perspectives. Interestingly, Ali Smith chose autumn to begin her quartet — after the more carefree summer, before the death and dormancy of winter. The book opens with these lines: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.” Beyond the timeless reference to Dickens, it is a forecast of turmoil. A storm warning. In this autumn of 2016, Brexit has passed, Trump looms, the citizenry is playing games with the truth.

Elizabeth Demand, 32, a junior lecturer in art at a London university, is reading Brave New World, while she waits in a bureaucratic queue to submit a passport application. She is about to face rejection for passport pictures that fail to meet the guidelines of head size within the frame of the photo. The treadmill in the animal cage spins madly.

Yet her life has its moments of pleasure and compassion, especially surrounding Daniel Gluck, now 101, who has been Elizabeth’s friend since she was a child. (Gluck is an interesting name choice; one wonders if it came from the androgynous British artist of the 1930s.) Even then an old man, Gluck nourished the young girl’s thinking, led her to position art within the centre of her life.

28770Theirs are the central connections in a novel that often abandons linear time, where events appear and reappear, where references to the past and the future play with a semi-permanent now. Real-life characters enter the story, most notably the largely forgotten 60s British Pop artist, Pauline Boty, a tragic figure who adds an historical edge to the book.

Ali Smith’s Autumn never fails to churn the reader’s thinking. Her work, too, is grounded in innovation, with three more seasons to look forward to.

I encountered her once. It was the autumn of 2005, the day after watching the televised ceremony for that year’s Man Booker Prize, for which Smith’s novel The Accidental had been nominated. My wife and I were travelling the Underground in London, and who should be standing in the same car. . .  We were forward enough to attempt conversation, a very un-British thing to have done. She was pleasant if a bit embarrassed. Ours was the next stop, and likely she was relieved when we exited.

Should it happen again I would have so much more to talk about. Whisky, Hockney, Cinderella, Mun.

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The Whisky:  GlenmorangieMilsean

www.glenmorangie.com

The Books:  Doppler by Erlend Loe and Hash by Torgny Lindgren

Outside it’s definitely a white Christmas. Treetops are glistening. It’s time for a dram that’s sherried and bright. And for clever Nordic books, reindeer-like.

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THE WHISKY

Out of the Christmasy candy-striped packaging and into the glass comes a splash of amber gold, with hues of orange and red. Sweet aromas of candied florals, fruit and spice. A bright nectar mélange. On the palate, a rounded alcoholic bite, cinnamon overlaying a warming mix of dried fruit. A distinct, but measured sweetness. A dram for all seasons, but extra special at Yuletide.

Founded in 1843 and located in Tain, Scotland (about an hour’s drive north of Inverness), Glenmorangie distills some of the biggest-selling single malts in the world, with an annual production of about six million litres. The distillery is noted for having the tallest pot stills in Scotland, at some 5+ metres. Glenmorangie is owned by the luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. And, like Ardbeg, also owned by LVMH, it is notable for stepping outside its core range and marketing some distinctive special editions.

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Milsean (Gaelic for ‘sweet things’) is the seventh release in Glenmorangie’s Private Edition series. As the name implies, the scale this time has tipped toward sweetness.

dr-billThe much-admired and innovative Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling at both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, tags it ‘…a whisky recalling a bygone era.’ Adding that ‘a glass of Milsean transports me straight to an old-fashioned sweet shop.’

Unlike in other years, Lumsden was not the one responsible for the creation of this 2016 special release. That job fell to Brendan McCarron who had recently joined Glenmorangie as head of maturing whisky stocks. He is considered the heir apparent to Lumsden.

glenmorangie-va-nhung-bi-an-ngot-ngao-tu-scotland-2Bourbon-matured spirit was transferred to French oak barriques that originally held Portuguese red wine and that had been heavily toasted to draw out the sweeter notes in the wood. The original time frame for finishing the whisky was five years, but was cut to two and a half when the whisky reached its intended profile early and was running the risk of taking on too much of an oak influence. Removed from the barriques and vatted together for a final six months, Milsean was released two years ahead of schedule.

McCarron is justly pleased. His boss is pleased. The whisky has garnered an array of kudos for them both.

THE BOOKS

Erlend Loe is a Norwegian author, well-known in Scandinavia, and increasingly so in other parts of the world. Doppler was a roaring success in Norway when it was published in 2004. Release of an English translation (by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) happened eight years later.

sek-person-scid-1308Doppler is a middle-aged man who recently lost his father, and who gives his skull a smack in a bicycle accident. The combination prompts a major shift in his world view. He uproots from Oslo central and sets up a tent in a forest that overlooks the city, leaving behind a wife and two children, as well as easy access to the essentials, including food.

Sustenance comes in the shape of an elk (a moose in the Canadian edition), which he felled in his new forest home. The elk has left behind a calf which Doppler, after some internal debate, befriends and names Bongo. The calf adapts, while the human protagonist quietly rages against what he sees as the absurdities of modern life.

Doppler never fully disentangles himself from his former self. Some of the most engaging interaction in the book is with his young son who comes to live with him for a time, and with his teenaged daughter who is obsessed by the ‘Lord of the Rings’ film. I’ve witnessed Loe reading that latter part, to deadpan perfect effect.

The novel is short, offbeat, and subversive. It moves past satirical entertainment to purposeful rumination on the world we build for ourselves. I want more Nordic eccentricity in my Christmas.

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So there’s Hash by Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren.

An unfortunate title translation perhaps, since the reference is not to cannabis, but to a rustic (some would say vile) animal-offal foodstuff not unlike haggis. Swedish hash, and the search for its ‘finest’ expression, comes to be at the centre of a cleverly outlandish story (translated by Tom Geddes) involving a 1940’s epidemic of tuberculosis and a travelling fabric salesman, Robert Maser, who might or might not be the Nazi war criminal Martin Boorman.

The tale is told by an 107-year-old former reporter who in his nursing home is finally released from a decades-old silence imposed by a former editor who had accused him of fabricating his newspaper articles. He’s off then to tell the story he’d left unfinished all those years before, though of course, we can never really know where the truth of the tale lies.

In post-war Sweden TB is rampant, and no more so than in the village of Avabäck. Arriving to teach school is Lars Hagström, a young man cured of TB who’s now immune to the disease. He teams up with Maser, also immune, who shares his interest in vocal music, and in hash. They set off into the Swedish countryside to find the best hash made, which swells to an exploration of the deeper meaning of hash in a troubled world. For readers who might not be inclined towards hash when the novel begins, the story would seem to go out of its way to reinforce any aversion. The crowning hash is the creation of the most physically foul character that I’ve had described to me in a long time.

torgnyLindgren, one of Sweden’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and one of the most recognized internationally, has said of his writing, ‘I lack the disposition for realism: as soon as I have managed to put together a suitable number of realistic people…they start to fiddle about, they behave as if they had never before been in contact with real life…’ Even though Lindgren himself suffered from TB as a child, and in fact inserted himself as that child at one point in the novel, the story escapes the constraints of realism to become something surreal and excitingly ambiguous, and, shall we say, gustatorily textured. It helps to have a flavourful dram at hand to ease past the hash.

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The Whisky:  Johnnie WalkerDouble Black

www.johnniewalker.com

The Book:  The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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There’s plenty of 1970s-era whisky drunk in this novel, much of it Johnnie Walker. But if I’m going to take on Johnnie Walker, then my choice will have to be more character-driven than its regular blends.

THE WHISKY

Light orange amber in the glass, with a subtle, slightly smoky nose. Some fruit, some oak — all good, if understated. On the palate the smoke rises though the creamy semi-sweetness. Slow, soft burn. Likely as smooth a peated whisky as you’d meet. Johnnie Walker with a tempered but lingering Islay attitude. (40% abv)

Is there a country on the planet where you wouldn’t find Johnnie Walker? It’s the most widely distributed blended Scotch in the world, with annual sales approaching 200 million bottles. That’s a lot of smooth, consistent, quality product.

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Double Black is about as surprising as it gets. First introduced in select travel markets, it met with immediate success and was added to the core range in 2011. By doubling down on the peated malts found in JW’s long-standing Black Label, master blender Jim Beveridge was able to appeal to the increasing segment of whisky drinkers who lean towards a smokier dram.

Using the same 40 malt and grain whiskies found in the Black Label mix, Beveridge significantly upped the percentage of Coal Ila and Talisker (both, like JM, owned by spirits giant Diaego) and did some adjusting to the other malts. JW bumped up the price from the Black Label, introducing a shiny black, translucent bottle that stands out from the others in the core range. Clever marketing, but also a fine and clever whisky that, despite its non-age statement, looks very sharp in the sleek Johnnie Walker line-up.

THE BOOK

It has often been said that the Vietnam War is the first war in history to have its story written by the loser rather than the winner, ironically the war Americans most wish to forget. We know the books, the movies, the Broadway musical. What The Sympathizer does first and foremost, is bring an overdue, fresh perspective to the war, giving voice to the generally voiceless Vietnamese fighters.

la-bio-viet-thanh-nguyenDebut novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam but grew up in the United States. He has a foot in both countries, and like the Captain, his novel’s unnamed narrator, the author is in a unique position to see the war from both angles. This is clear from the opening lines: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. …I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” It sets the course for an intense tragicomedy, a multi-layered, ultimately devastating narrative.

Situated dead centre in the chaos of the April 1975 American evacuation of Saigon, the first 65 pages leave the heart pounding. The Captain, right-hand man to a General leading the South Vietnamese in support of the Americans, is the one to decide who among his compatriots will be left behind and who gets to board the last U.S. flights struggling to make it off the tarmac amid enemy bombardment. Only when the scene shifts, first to Guam and then California, does the reader breathe and assess what the author has set before us: historical realism, espionage, social satire, meditation on war.

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The novel is bookended by intense scenes of escape and torture. Between them, it refocuses several times, including when the narrator is hired as a consultant for a movie being made about the war (a movie which bears a strong resemblance to “Apocalypse Now,” as does its director to Francis Ford Coppola).

Meanwhile the Vietnamese escapees drift bored and frustrated in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Gradually the General sets in motion a plot to return to their homeland and overthrow the communist government. It is doomed to failure of course, but the attempt to bring it about proves as intriguing as if it did have a chance of success.

The Sympathizer is many things, but like any novel of war, it is an account of shifting moral ground. There can be no ultimate resolution. The Captain’s struggle for survival is what there is, but it is more than enough to hold the reader to this striking, justly important novel.

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The Whisky:  Balblair 2001

www.balblair.com

The Book:  Chocolat by Joanne Harris

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I’m looking for a whisky that compliments fine dark chocolate. But more than that — a sophisticated whisky with light, lasting appeal all its own.

THE WHISKY

Bright summer straw in the glass, and fresh white fruit on the nose, laced with almond and spice. In the mouth there’s mild oak, with an agreeable nip from its 46% abv, enhanced by a peppery sweetness. Overall — elegantly assertive, and very good company.

Balblair Distillery is located in the village of Edderton, near the shores of Dornoch Firth in the northern Highlands, not far from Glenmorangie. It was founded in 1790, making it the second oldest working distillery in Scotland. During its first century it was in the hands of the Ross family, and still today four of the nine employees at the distillery bear that surname. In the 1890s it was rebuilt on a site a half-mile from its original location, closer to the railway line, but still able to draw on Allt Dearg for its water supply. Financial problems forced its closure in 1911, and it was not until 1949 that production resumed, under new ownership. Today it is one of five distilleries in the portfolio of Inver House, and currently runs at full production levels, distilling 1.8 million litres annually. Fifteen percent of it is bottled as single malt.

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Inver House reshaped and restyled Balblair. It introduced new, distinctive packaging, with a modernistic, rounded bottle accented by Pictish markings (homage to the Picts, the tribal people who lived in this part of Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Medieval period.) More importantly, it instituted a program of vintage releases. Each new release is now designated by the year the whisky was distilled. Our 2001 vintage, for example, was released in 2012. Balblair 2001 was a landmark whisky in that it was the first of the distillery’s single malts to be released at the higher 46% strength, as well as being non chill-filtered and bottled without added colour.

It has been aged in quality ex-bourbon, American white oak casks. Its profile is relatively light and fresh, but with a gentle kick from its extra strength. It’s a subtle, mature style that pairs with very nicely with select flavours.

Such as dark, rich, single-origin chocolate.

THE BOOK

Hence, Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

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The novel is set in southwestern France, in the fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tonnes. The setting reads like a movie set and indeed Chocolat, the 2000 movie, released not long after the publication of the book, was a huge hit. You might say the success of the book ran in tandem with the somewhat altered storyline that struck the big screen.

I’ve not seen the movie, but I couldn’t help but read the book through a cinematic eye. It has an engaging, if staged, presence that, like much well-crafted chocolate, can be seductive well past its stylish packaging.

A single mother, Vianne Rocher, arrives unannounced in the village of 200 inhabitants at the beginning of Lent. Vianne has long lived a nomadic life, and now with her young daughter, Anouk, seems anxious to set down roots. She turns an abandoned bakery in the village square into Le Céleste Praline, a chocolaterie whose confections transfix many of the residents, as well as the reader.

Her nemesis has his business across the way, in the form of the Catholic Church. Priest Francis Reynaud views the shop and its earthy temptations as a threat to the souls of his parishioners and would like nothing more than to see Vianne close her doors and leave town. Fractures begin to appear in the village’s placid exterior. Vianne has stirred things up, revealing dark undercurrents that includes spousal abuse and ethnic prejudice.

The characters are memorable, if not particularly nuanced. The best drawn are Vianne herself and Reynaud, who share the narration of the story, as well as recall much of their past lives. The story pits good against evil (a morality play of sorts) and it is not a surprise who wins out in the end.

Sitting on a sun-dappled porch, fine whisky at hand, does much to enhance the experience of partaking in C/chocolat.

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The Whisky:  Highland ParkDark Origins

www.highlandpark.co.uk

The Book:  Winter TalesGeorge Mackay Brown

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George Mackay Brown’s bleak mid-Winter Tales, set in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, many touching on the Yuletide season, has me wishing for a warming dram of Orkney spirit.

THE WHISKY

All-natural, dark amber, not-quite mahogany in colour. (Christmas) sherry on the nose, with smoke and spice and nuts. Lovely sweetish, smokey burn on the palate. The taste of sherried spice, with earthy tones of nuts and chocolate. All in fine balance. Lingering mellow, sweet peat. (46.8% abv, non-chillfiltered, no added colour)

Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland and a landmark of the Orkney Islands where the ancestry is more Norse than Scot and a distinct, independent character prevails.

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Founded in 1798, Highland Park has followed a colourful path to its present status as producer of some of the most highly regarded whisky anywhere. The distillery was founded on property formerly owned by Magnus Eunson, said to be a preacher and butcher during the daylight hours, illicit distiller and smuggler when the sun went down, which it does quite early during much of the year on Orkney. Dark Origins is homage to the man, his ominously hooded, shadowy image covering much of the whisky’s presentation box.

Here Highland Park has gone to the darker side. Inside the black matte bottle is a no-age-statement spirit, 80% matured in first-fill sherry casks (twice as many as its standard 12-year-old). It is a denser, peatier HP whisky, strongly influenced by the sherried European oak.

Yet it is Highland Park still. No ex-bourbon casks. Warehouses that use the traditional, labour-intensive dunnage method of maturation. And peat gathered from Hobbister Moor — a sweeter peat, distinctive to treeless Orkney, derived from heather and other low vegetation, rather than from trees as in Islay.

It is an experimental, range-extending, market-savvy Highland Park, but still one where quality itself is never in the dark.

THE BOOK

George Mackay Brown is Orkney’s most famous literary figure. He was born in the town of Stromness and, except for a brief period at college on mainland Scotland, lived there until his death in 1996. He was never a well man, physically constrained by tuberculosis during much of his life. Yet, working within the solitude forced on him, he produced some of the most admired Scottish literature of the 20th century.

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The collection of short stories, Winter Tales, published the year before his death, brings together some of his best short fiction. As an admiring Seamus Heaney wrote, his poetry and prose passed “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” In these stories, some drawing on the history of the place, more confronting the impact of modern life on its traditional ways, we are immersed in the scent, the moodiness, the aura of the Islands. Hardly surprising, the stories have a folkloric, mystical, ageless quality. It is as if an Orcadian stone mason had crafted the prose, surrounded as he would be by ancient standing stones, Norse ruins, and the great fortress of the North Atlantic.

George Mackay BrownLight and darkness are major elements of the stories, as are the reoccurring rituals of the calendar year. Several of them draw to an end at Yuletide, referencing the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, to which the author converted during the second half of his life. A favourite story is Ikey, with its 12 monthly segments that follow a tinker lad and his various encounters as he tramps about Orkney, culminating in the discovery among alehouse ruins of a shed, and from it a mother’s song and “the hidden sweet cry of the child.”

Through the 18 stories the reader turns from a recruiting visit to Orkney by Captain Bligh, to shipwrecked Scandinavians, to a wood carver escaping a nagging wife only to become a celebrated folk artist. Mackay Brown captures the timeless rhythms of human tenure on the islands, entwining his intimate knowledge of its past and present.

They are the stuff of hearthside tales, ones for which a dram of fine island spirit would only add to their telling.

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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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