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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: single malt

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:  Reisetbauer Single Malt7 years

www.reisetbauer.at

The Books:  A Whole Life and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

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These books needed a compatriot, a nonconformist who found in his Austrian homeland something that translates well far beyond its borders.

THE WHISKY

Once past the mundane label, the light amber-coloured whisky comes into its own. An offbeat nose of wine-charged muskiness, circling about nuts and chocolate and spice. After advancing with a certain amount of trepidation, a swish about the mouth reveals an earthy brew mixing cereal notes with hops and well-aged fruit. A catchy alcoholic bite. A lingering funky warmth. An odd one this, memorable but not for the purists. (abv 43%)

Hans Reisetbauer had established a stellar reputation as a distiller of fruit schnapps when in 1995 he decided to try his hand at single malt whisky, one of the very first entrepreneurs in Austria to do so. He aimed for a distinctly Austrian take on the dram.

hans_reisetbauer_2010_4aHe set aside four hectares of his farmland in Axberg, northern Austria, to grow his own barley. Both malting and the 70-hour fermentation took place on site. He undertook double distillation in copper pot stills that had been modified to his specifications in order to fully capture the distinct aromas Reisetbauer wanted in the whisky. And, eschewing the tradition of ex-bourbon or sherry maturation, he directed the double-distilled spirit to casks from two of Austria’s top winemakers, casks that once held Austrian Chardonnay or the country’s famous sweet wine Trockenbeerenauslese. He waited until 2002 before bringing his first whisky to market.

The grapes used to make Trockenbeerenauslese are harvested after they have succumbed to noble rot, so the trace of botrytis in the whisky is entirely legitimate. There are other unexpected aromas and tastes, but there is no denying the whisky is distinct and makes a proud statement of being in a class of its own. Not to everyone’s taste, but whisky making is now a multi-cultural mix, and this Austrian distillery has tailored a place for itself. Reisetbauer subsequently released a limited edition 12-year-old, with a much classier label (see photo), and now a 15-year-old.

THE BOOKS

Vienna-born Robert Seethaler‘s A Whole Life is clear demonstration that a brief novel (in this case just shy of 150 pages) can tell a monumental story with remarkable impact. Seethaler traces the life of a rugged mountain labourer, from childhood in the first decade of the 20th century to the height of manhood, to decline into old age. Andreas Egger’s end, like his beginning, is lived largely out of sight of the forces of modernization.

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To anyone weaned on brash, plot-driven novels constructed to corral the reader’s attention, this book will seem tame fare. But it is richer for its simplicity, its modest, yet unpredictable pacing. The writing is forthright; the craft is there, without ever making a show of itself. A Whole Life is, above all, strikingly perceptive, encapsulating what matters in the life of one person, and in doing so speaking to each one of us. It is the universal writ small, resonating large.

As a four-year old, the orphaned Egger arrives by horse cart in a mountain village and at the doorstep of a heartless, oftentimes sadistic uncle. He endures a brutal boyhood until he is old and muscled enough to retaliate. He strikes out on his own, slow to speak, burdened by a permanent limp, yet willful and graced with exceptional physical strength. He finds hard work and love; tragedy and war find him.

The novel is enriched by a mountain landscape more powerful than the stoic man who inhabits it. When an avalanche brings great adversity, Egger works his way past what would have defeated a lesser man, building and reinforcing his own path through life. What more is there for him?  For any of us?

avt_robert-seethaler_1482It is a novel to hold on to and reread. As is the recently released The Tobacconist, the second of Robert Seethaler’s four novels to be translated into English.

The year is 1937. Arriving in Vienna from the Austrian hinterland is the youthfully innocent Franz Huchel. At 17 he’s been apprenticed to the tobacconist Otto Trsnyek. He knows nothing of the trade, but before long settles into the daily routine of reading the newspapers for sale in the shop and sorting out the idiosyncrasies of the customers who regularly drop by.

One of them is an impatient, aged Jewish professor, Sigmund Freud. And in due course he and Franz become friends and confidants. Franz needs help sorting out his amorous misadventures with an erratic Bohemian girl Anezka. Freud enjoys the company and the cigars the young man brings with him.

But more serious situations loom. Without warning there are Nazis in the streets and the Gestapo lurks in the doorways of ordinary citizens who happen to be Jews. As the tobacconist goes missing and Freud and his family prepare to escape the country, Franz has decisions to make about how to deal with the menace that threatens his own life.

A marginally longer novel, The Tobacconist is written with the same restraint and attention to telling detail that distinguished A Whole Life. Its timeframe is much shorter, but its impact is no less.

These are two exceptional novels, expertly translated into English by Charlotte Collins. Hopefully she is in the wings, ready to translate more.

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The Whisky:  Embrujo de Granada

www.destileriasliber.com

The Book:  Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

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I’ve decided it’s about time to take on thick, classic works of fiction that over the years have slipped by me unread. First up, that knight-errant of La Mancha. Along for the adventure is a Spanish malt whisky in a hand-painted ceramic bottle. It would fit quite comfortably in Sancho Panza’s saddlebag.

THE WHISKY

Soft, bright mahogany in the glass, and on the nose baked spice overlaying honeyed floral notes. Pleasantly sweet and creamy on the palate.The sherry aging has served it very well.  Excellent Spanish whisky at 40% abv.

Embrujo de Granada is the star product of Destilerias Liber and the creation of Fran Peregrina, a chemical engineer whose heart found a home in the making of whisky with an Andalusian influence. Founded in 2001, the distillery was only the second in the country to produce whisky (the other being DYC) and the first to make a single malt.

Located in Padul, just outside Granada, it draws on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada for its water supply. The climate (chilly winters and hot, hot summers) plays a definite part in what finally ends up in its bottles, though not as much as the maturation in select ex-sherry casks of American oak, some of which have held the best Jerez for twenty years.

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The malted barley is Spanish as well (from Albacete), as are the copper stills. These unusual flat-bottomed stills were designed by Fran Peregrina himself, and crafted by a local artisan. This version of Embrujo de Granada is a limited edition. Its ceramic bottle (with a hand painted pomegranate, symbol of Granada) salutes the centuries old pottery traditions of the city.

All in all, Peregrina has taken the techniques of Scottish distillation and let the Spanish terroir and heritage have its say. The result is a well-made, thoroughly pleasing sherried dram. One worthy of a classic partner.

THE BOOK

I once read a 200-page abridged edition of Don Quixote. Shame I didn’t take the time to bring myself to the whole marvel, rather than a cut-rate version. The relatively recent and much-lauded translation by Edith Grossman offered the perfect prod to return to the book, and this time take on the 900+ pages. That led to the gift of a second, older translation by John Ormsby, a fine press version printed with marvellous woodcuts by Enric-Cristobal Ricart. I fell under a double spell.

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Often billed as the first modern novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second a decade later. Four centuries on, my reading of Cervantes proved a constant surprise, the multiple approaches to the story not being what I expected of 17th century writing. In the second part of the novel Cervantes cleverly plays the story against an unauthorized sequel that had been published in the Spanish city of Tarragona in 1614 (by an unscrupulous writer named Avellaneda). It has the scent of postmodernism.

The sublime contrast, in physical make-up and worldview, between Don Quixote and his donkey-riding squire Sancho Panza is the driving force of the novel. Often hilarious, it builds, perilous adventure after perilous adventure, to an ending that is unexpectedly bittersweet and deeply moving.

Don Quixote, the idiosyncratic romantic, the lanky knight-errant atop his haggard steed Rosinante is a man for all time. His squire’s earthy witticism, in parallel with Quixote’s naive rhetoric, echoes through a richly imagined narrative. Their escapades, to win the favour of the knight’s illusory lady love Dulcinea, brings the reader face-to-face with a host of characters — goatherders, friars, criminals, prostitutes, slaves, an odious pair of aristocratic pranksters. No wonder translators are lured back to it again and again.

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Edith Grossman’s 2004 version maintains a contemporary readability without ever sacrificing the feel of 17th century Spain. It is a tough translation trick and Grossman has done the modern reader a great service, as did Ormsby for his generation when that translation was first published in 1885. It is still fluid today, and blended with Ricart’s woodcuts, the 1933 Limited Editions Club printing is a standout.

So, after several decades of putting it off, Don Quixote won me over, and decisively. The Embrujo de Granada added to the experience, all the while keeping in mind that the classic is a classic all on its own.

 

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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:  Hammer Headaged 23 years

www.stockspirits.com

The Books:  The Trial and The CastleFranz Kafka

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Given the Bohemian origins of both the whisky and the writer, this match-up could seem predictable. But, of course, being unorthodox, it is anything but.

THE WHISKY

Light gold in the glass. A touch sweet on the nose, notably floral, but with a nut-sharp undercurrent breaking through. Relatively light on the palate, with warm lemony spice. Easy going down. One better than its name. (40.7% abv)

The name is derived from a cast-iron hammer mill, made in 1928 and found on the premises of the Prádlo distillery in communist Czechoslovakia. It’s the type of mill associated with long-standing, traditional Scottish distilleries, used for grinding barley.

The Prádlo distillery, located on the outskirts of the city of Plzeň, 90 kilometres west of Prague, had for decades made a variety of pot distilled spirits. In the late 1970s it decided to make the leap to single malt whisky. Václav Šitner headed the team charged with the task, but restricted from travelling to Scotland, he had only books to guide him. The team used Czech barley and the local pure, clear Bohemian water. When peat from the southern part of the country didn’t work out, they imported peat at great expense from Scotland. The whisky was laid down in barrels made entirely from Czech oak. The first batch went on the market in 1984 and the communist elite had a rather well made alternative to vodka.

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Then, just a few years later, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Suddenly the Velvet Revolution brought democracy to the country. And the whisky was all but forgotten. Twenty years later the Stock Spirits group of the UK were being given a tour of their newly acquired distillery. By the way, they were told, we’ve had some whisky that’s been maturing for a couple of decades now…though it’s probably not very good, by your standards.

Well, nothing to rival Scotland’s finest, but a great deal better than expected. A bit of a marketer’s dream, if a challenge as well. A vintage Czech, communist-era single malt whisky. Rather enigmatic.

THE BOOKS

Rather, well, Kafkaesque.

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The Trial was written in 1914-15, but, like much of Kafka’s writing, was not published until after his death in 1924, at age 40. Often considered the Czech author’s best work, it is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century, an especially notable accolade, given the fact that he had not finished with it, and likely didn’t intend for it to be published. It remains somewhat rough around the edges, which adds to the mysteries at its core.

It first appeared in English in 1937, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, a translation that has long been considered flawed. This 1998 translation is by Breon Mitchell, based on Kafka’s original text that only became publicly available a decade earlier. The publisher terms it “as close as possible to the state in which the author left the manuscript.”

The novel’s narrator is Josef K., a bank employee who wakes up one morning to find himself being led to a tribunal and charged with a seemingly serious but unspecified crime. He is left to the mercy of a perplexing court system where logic has no foundation, where each attempt to extricate himself from the injustice of his situation only frustrates him further. The plot carries him through a bizarre maze of events, leaving the reader to construct and reconstruct meaning from them. There is no ultimate satisfaction to be gained, not that Kafka ever intended that there be any. In the end  Josef K. is left a frayed, defeated man, while the reader is often left intrigued but decidedly perplexed.

The Trial has often been viewed as a reflection on arbitrary arrest in a totalitarian state, foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and Stalin. The 21st century reader, under constant surveillance by security cameras, living where government and corporate databanks overflow with what was once considered personal information, finds even more in Kafka to provoke debate.

The Castle is another of his unfinished works, also published posthumously. In fact, the book ends in mid-sentence, and we will never truly know what shape Kafka had in mind for the book, if indeed he was thinking that far ahead when he stopped writing it in 1922.

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Still, even in its incomplete state it is, like The Trial, a fascinating, if consistently perplexing, novel. The protagonist K., like Josef K., has an ultimate goal, one that seems attainable, but which he is never quite able to reach.

K. arrives in a snow-covered village dominated by an alluring hilltop castle. He learns it is home to Count Westwest and his officials who govern the village. Yet only a chosen few villagers have access to it, and Klamm, an elusive figure who occasionally ventures into town, is the closest most of them come to putting a face to their overseers. K arrives with the understanding that he will be employed by the Count as a surveyor, but these hopes are quickly dashed. The forthright K. is not deterred. He sticks doggedly to the notion of gaining access to the castle. Klamm is his best bet.

When K. lures away Klamm’s mistress, Frieda, and makes love to her among the pools of beer on a barroom floor, the possibility of such a meeting, needless to say, is severely compromised. K. fights on, and a story of a kind unfolds, shaped by detours into the lives of a curious cast of characters. Many of whom are surprisingly affecting.

52375026Even though The Castle is often taken as a comment on dehumanized bureaucracy, it is equally a story of alienation, of the need for friendship in a world increasingly void of meaningful human contact.

Kafka once wrote to a friend: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?”

The Trial and The Castle, together with a nod to the Hammer Head, never once led me to question my reading choice.

 

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The Whisky:  AmrutKadhambam

www.amrutdistilleries.com

The Book:  Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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India consumes more whisky than any other country in the world (an astonishing 1.5 billion litres annually), most of it distilled in the country. The finest of its distillers, like the finest of its writers, have delightfully upended what people have come to expect of the country.

THE WHISKY

Light mahogany behind the glass. Firm and spicy on the nose, with lighter fruit and floral notes. Rises to the head of the class on the palate– an intriguing blend of warm peat, oak and honey. Fine creamy texture. Delicious. Yes, and it lingers. (50% abv)

India doesn’t flow easily off the tongue when speaking about single malts. Most jaws would drop at being told that Amrut Distilleries in Bangalore, India, bottle some of the most highly awarded whiskies in the world. And would probably be further agape on learning that when the first Amrut single malt was introduced in 2004, the owners had the audacity to launch it first in Scotland, whisky’s sacred homeland.

Scots take their dram very seriously. They sipped and were a bit stunned. India? It took several more years, and a Jim Murray score of 97 in the 2010, for the wider world to join the party. To date, Amrut single malt has produced 14 different bottlings and is now sold in 32 countries. Exemplary reviews continue to accumulate, including for Kadhambam.

Kadhambam is a Tamil word meaning ‘mixture.’ Amrut took a single batch of peated spirit with the aim of coming up with “a completely different whisky with multi-personality characteristics.” It was matured first in ex-Oloroso sherry butts, then Amrut’s own ex-Bangalore Blue brandy casks, then finally Amrut ex-rum casks. The result could have been an incoherent mash-up. But, perhaps not surprisingly for the Amrut’s master blender Surinder Kumar, it emerged complex and refreshingly distinct. (Jim Murray promptly chimed in with a 96.5.)

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Amrut Distilleries was founded in 1948 by J.N. Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, and is now run by his son, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, from premises located just outside Bangalore. Grandson Rakshit has also become an important element in the running of the company. Amrut produces a wide variety of spirits for the vast Indian market. In fact its single malt whisky accounts for only about 5% of business.

Single malt production in India comes with its own set of challenges. Equipment was not immediately available, leading to the manufacture of their own distinctive pot stills. The barley is transported all the way from the Punjab and Rajasthan, and, in the case of the peated barley, from Scotland. The annual evaporative loss of spirit (in a climate where temperatures range between 20˚- 40˚C throughout the year) can be upwards of 12% (vs 2% in Scotland). The whisky matures at three times the rate in northern climates. Monkeys have been known to be a nuisance in the still rooms!

Production at Amrut is labour intensive, a conscious decision by the owners in a country with a huge labour force. There are 450 employees, many of them women. Much of the bottling and packaging is done by hand, no mean work load considering 4 million cases of liquor go out the door each year.

THE BOOK

It has now been 25 years since the publication of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie‘s masterful second novel. It is unlike any novel of India to be published before or since. It was as if a post-colonial train packed with every character Rushdie could imagine came hurtling into Bombay station, where everyone dispersed onto several platforms, about to inhabit an immensely ambitious novel, one that  would tell not only their own individual stories, but the coming-of-age story of their newly independent country.

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It is midnight, August 15, 1947. In the first hour of this first day of independence from Britain, 1001 children are born. They come to be known as Midnight’s Children. One of them is the novel’s narrator, Saleem. Born in the same nursing home, and also at the stroke of midnight is Shiva, the kid who will grow into his arch rival. The “cucumber-nosed” Saleem is born to great attention, Shiva to disinterest. The first to prestige and wealth, the other to the back alleys of Bombay.

A devious nursemaid, however, has switched the infants, setting much of the book’s complex, whirlwind plots in motion, taking the reader on a wild, earthy ride through the first thirty years of India’s independence. It is a novel bent by magic realism that has been very favourably compared to Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Grass’s “The Tin Drum.”

The novel took shape following Rushdie’s extensive ramble through India in 1975, undertaken on a shoestring  budget (the £700 advance on his first novel). He had grown up in Bombay, but purposely set out to immerse himself in the country as a whole. Not only was he soaking in the sensual overload which is everyday life in India, but he was grappling with the tumultuous path down which the then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was taking the country. Back in London, there grew in Rushdie’s mind the notion of a central character whose life runs in parallel to India’s own. Not only that, but someone who sees himself as the very one responsible for the twists and turns of the country’s fortunes. It would be a bizarre, frightfully energetic novel.

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What saves it of course is Rushdie’s resourcefulness as a writer, especially his choice of narrative voice, one he calls, “comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous, and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator’s increasingly tragic over-claiming. . .’ A voice that constantly embraces risk, it pulls the reader along with a nonchalance infused with biting satire.

Saleem is by turns crude, insightful, poetic, infuriating, provocative. Always engaging. That voice of his might well change within a single sentence. It is often in the first person, but could just as easily be in the third.

“. . .He also developed a penchant for lapsing into long broody silences, which he interrupted by bursting out suddenly with a meaningless word: ‘No!’ or, ‘But!’ or even more arcane exclamations, such as ‘Bang!’ or ‘Whaam!’ Nonsense words amidst clouded silences: as if Saleem were conducting some inner dialogue of such intensity that fragments of it, or its pain, boiled up from time to time past the surface of his lips.”

The novel, like the whisky, never fears surprising those who share in it.

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