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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: single malt

The Whisky:  LaphroaigCàirdeas 2017

www. laphroaig.com

The Book:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Laphroaig. Whisky to separate the fearless from the fainthearted. Last year I toured and tasted at the Laphroaig Distillery on Islay. As the sign next to the peat kiln said: “A fiery, peaty punch in the throat!” Monstrous. Unforgettable. Frankensteinian.

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THE WHISKY

To the eye a restrained yellow gold, preparation for a more subtle Laphroaig nose than I’m used to. Sweetish medicinal, layered with citrus and vanilla. But on the palate, that’s the Laphroaig I’ve been waiting for. Fiery, peaty, creamed smoke–a gentler punch in the throat than some, but no mistaking that Islay madness. Love it, and at 57.2% abv, love it more. (non-chill filtered, no added colour)

Laphroaig is a renegade among distilleries. It still malts some of its barley in house, a rare sight these days. Its product is distinct and pulls no punches. Either you love it or you grimace. There’s no fence-sitting on this one.

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Laphroaig as a commercial product had its start in 1815. The whisky being distilled by barley farmers on this particular section of Islay had developed a reputation as something distinct and rather impressive. Much of it had to do with the character of the Kilbride Stream water (soft, peaty, without minerals) and the Glenmachrie peat bog (heather, lichen, and a high ratio of moss). They gave the whisky a smoky, iodine/medicinal profile.

Over the years the various distillery owners and managers have each left their mark on Laphroaig, perhaps none more so than Bessie Williamson, who ran the place in the 1950s and 60s, one of the first women to oversee the operations of a major whisky distillery.

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These days John Campbell is the distillery manager. Each year since 2008 he’s crafted a limited edition malt he’s labelled Càirdeas (Gaelic for “friendship” and pronounced car-chass). Past editions have included maturation in casks that previously held port, Amontillado sherry, and Madeira. With Càirdeas 2017 the focus is on the use of quarter casks (as in the standard Laphroaig Quarter Cask bottling) and its release at cask strength.

To begin, 5-11 year-old spirit is matured in first-fill ex-Maker’s Mark bourbon casks of European oak, then combined before finishing for a further 6 months in 125-litre quarter-casks of American oak.

The result? To quote John Campbell: “A dentist, a farmer and a carpenter captured in a glass. Slainte!”

THE BOOK

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, a Modern Prometheus. It was January 1, 1818 that the 20-year-old Mary Shelley published (anonymously) a Gothic novel informed by the age of Romanticism, and one of the very first works of science fiction. It has become an enduring classic of 19th century literature, with over 300 editions, including this handsome Rockport anniversary release, with outstanding illustrations by David Plunkert.

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In the summer of 1816 Mary Godwin had started what would become the novel, during a sojourn with her lover, the already-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, to a villa on Lake Geneva, home of his friend, the poet Lord Byron. To relieve boredom during a bout of bad weather, Byron had challenged his half dozen guests to each write a horror story.

During the nights that followed Mary’s sleep was plagued by the image of someone reassembling body parts to construct a man and bring him to life, only to have the creature turn against him. It was the stimulus she needed to write her story. Then, at the suggestion of Percy, she took on the task of expanding it into a novel.

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It is surprising the novel was ever written, considering the domestic turmoil taking place around her. During the months she spent working on the book, her stepsister gave birth to Byron’s illegitimate child, her half-sister committed suicide, as did the pregnant wife Shelley had deserted to live with Mary. She herself was pregnant again by Shelley (their first child had died), and with only five weeks to the time the baby would be born she was putting the finishing touches to the manuscript.

Mary_Wollstonecraft_Shelley_Rothwell.tifShe feared the public reaction to such a frightful story, particularly one from a woman, so she chose not to attach her name to it. Even at that the attention the initial, 500-copy publication of the book did receive was often hostile. One of the reviewers wrote: “The author leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.”

Only in its second edition, four years later, did her name appear. As it happened, it was the early theatrical adaptions of the book that led to its increasing popularity. Even so, by the time of her death at age 53 Shelley could never have suspected the monumental influence the book would eventually have, in both literary and popular culture.

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The Whisky:  Writers’ TearsRed Head

www.walshwhiskey.com

The Book:  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Word has it the youthful James Joyce had red hair. That’s enough reason for me to pair this Irish whiskey with his portrait of the artist as a young man.

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THE WHISKEY

An amber red to the eye, with a burnished glow. A pleasant nose, nutty sherry sweetness playing against a little candied vanilla. Solid charm in the mouth, the sherry overcoating the dried fruit and nuts. A creamy heat with a melange of flavours that makes for a intriguing surface complexity. Tears of joy, I assume. (46% abv, non-chill filtered)

Writers’ Tears and The Irishman whiskies are both products of the Walsh Distillery, located in Carlow, in south-east Ireland. The distillery, set in the beautiful 18th-century Royal Oak Estate, didn’t open until 2016. So the spirits presently coming off the assembly line are not actually distilled there, and won’t be for a while yet. This means that since the whiskies first appeared (in 2009 and 2007 respectively) the spirit has been sourced from the warehouses of established Irish distilleries. It is further matured and sometimes blended, under the guidance of founders Bernard and Rosemary Walsh, fashioning distinctive whiskies that have been very well received.

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For Writers’ Tears Red Head, triple-distilled single malt (likely originating at Bushmills) is further matured in hand-selected Oloroso sherry butts, from which it receives its distinctive red hue.

Writers’ Tears is part of the wave of new Irish whiskies that have come into production in recent years, helping to revitalize an industry that had fallen to a mere 1% of the world market in the 1980s. Think Teeling, Redbreast, Green Spot, among several others. They have stiffened the completion with the Scots, and made the world whisk(e)y scene all the more interesting.

THE BOOK

It’s been bracing to reread Joyce’s first novel as the abortion referendum took centre stage in Ireland. What would the author have thought of it all, would he still recognize the society he had grown up in more than a century ago? Would he conclude that for much of the population the Irish psyche had hardly changed at all. Could he live in the country now, the one that as a young man he was so desperate to escape?

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has had a profound impact on the generations of Irish writers that followed Joyce, likely a profound impact on writers anywhere who grew up Catholic, especially those who experienced the cruel school discipline of the Christian Brothers or their kind. I heard stories about it from Catholic friends who went to high school in the 1960s. Colm Tóibín would still experience it a decade later. For some, reading Joyce must have amounted to a deliverance.

IMG_9514The novel starts off innocently enough, in the voice of a child narrator recounting childhood stories. As the boy Stephen Dedalus matures so does the voice. We quickly see he has a way of interpreting the world that suggests he might one day be an artist. A writer perhaps, given his preoccupation with language. Even so, the weight of boyhood experience churns within him– in school, at home, in the streets of Dublin, in the confines of his own sexual awakening. For a time he falls victim to the mind-warp offered up by priests preaching about the unfathomable tortures of hell and becomes unduly pious. It takes time, but he emerges onto a path of self-discovery, his artistic trajectory intertwined with his new sense of sexual freedom.

Joyce would write: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

m_joyceThe manuscript was started in 1904, and after a lengthy false start under the title Stephen Hero, Joyce abandoned the novel. Eventually he returned to it, reworking it under a new title, only to have the completed manuscript languish in his hands, repeatedly spurned by publishers because of what they saw as salacious content. In frustration, Joyce once threw the pages in the fire. They were only saved by the quick action of family members. Finally, championed by Ezra Pound, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized in The Egoist, a London-based journal edited by the political activist Harriet Shaw Weaver. She would remain a patron of his work for most of his career. The novel’s first appearance in book form was in New York in 1916. An English publisher took it on the following year. Joyce had long since planted himself and his family in Trieste, in northeast Italy, very far removed from Ireland.

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The Whisky:  FlókiIcelandic Single Malt

http://www.flokiwhisky.is

The Book:  The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Notwithstanding its name (and these photos), what I saw of Iceland was mostly green when I visited in late March. There were remnants of winter, the time when Icelanders escape the heady hours of darkness with a good book, and perhaps a sample from the island’s first and only distiller of whisky.

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THE WHISKY

A terrific tourist website called Creative Iceland led me to seek out Eimverk Distillery, and the possibility of a tour. Although my efforts to connect with a bus to get me there (not far outside Reykjavik) were foiled, I did pick up a bottle of its freshly marketed Flóki malt whisky (“three year old single cask reserve”) at duty-free as I was departing the country.

The whisky is light amber gold in the glass, with a floral, malty nose that rises eagerly and with a good deal of promise. In the mouth hints of rawness remain (it is barely three years old after all) but these are well on the way to being smoothened out to something special. Already there is a palatable charm of oak spice and tempered sweetness. As stocks mature and their complexity increases, there will be much to admire in the bottlings ahead. As it is, I am pleased to be drinking the first single malt from a distillery dedicated to producing a malt all its own, sending out in the world a whisky as distinct as Iceland itself.

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Eimverk Distillery was founded in 2009 by Þorkelsson brothers Egill and Halli, who had come to the conclusion that the island’s barley (a tough, spicy strain geared for a brief, intense growing season) just might produce a rather unique whisky. Eimverk became very much a family venture — Egill as the Master Distiller, Halli the Distillery Manager, with Eva handling quality control and other aspects of production, and Sigrún taking care of finance and foreign markets. Þorkell and Björn grow the barley on their Bjálmholt Farm.

Following the production of gin and aquavit, then two young malts (one of which employs barley smoked in the traditional Icelandic way, using sheep dung!), the first whisky was released in November of 2017. It came after the 164 trials it took to get what the distillery was seeking. For the young malts and whisky, the name Flóki was chosen, in honour of Hrafna-Flóki, the first Norseman to intentionally sail to Iceland.

The family is intensely proud that all ingredients are 100% Icelandic. I can attest to the quality of the water, for even the ordinary tap water in Iceland tastes delightfully pure. And I can attest to the use of the island’s great resource used to power the facility – thermal energy, having personally soaked away hours in Reykjavik’s thermal pools.

Double distillation takes place in classic pot stills, and is a little slower, with more reflux, than in most Scottish distilleries. Maturation is in American oak barrels. The three-year-old single malt reuses casks that first held the young malts, that are then stored in unheated warehouses in rural Iceland.

The label and presentation box feature the Vegvísir runic compass surrounded by a trio of ravens and runes that translate as ‘the way from home is the way to home’. Black and silver and very attractive.

Eimverk is a first-class operation and the years ahead should bring celebration of some fine and interesting whiskies. If and when I find myself back in Iceland I’ll surely be showing up at the distillery doorstep, bus or no bus.

THE BOOK

I haven’t felt such impact of snow in a novel since reading Orhan Pamuk. The Sorrow of Angels (the title derived from ‘angel’s tears’, a phrase for snow, said to be used by natives of northern Canada) is close to being weighed under by it. The lyrical struggle to survive its unforgiving sweep across Iceland’s land- and seascapes is the essence of Jón Kalman Stefánsson‘s novel set in the West Fjords, and expertly translated by Philip Roughton.

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At its centre is an unnamed “boy”, though in strength and tenacity he is more a man. The story picks up from the first book in the trilogy, with the lad settling into a new life in an isolated village. He is consumed by the few books that are available to him, and when his chores are done, he reads alone, or sometimes to a blind sea captain who has a predilection for Shakespeare.

When the postman Jens arrives, literally frozen to his horse, the relative coziness of the boy’s rustic life gives way to confrontation with winter’s severest elements. Jens is to resume the job of delivering mail to a series of remote outposts and the boy will accompany him. Thus begins the novel’s major narrative.

Iceland’s winter would quickly vanquish lesser men. I was reminded of the frightful stories I heard of tourists arriving in Iceland in January who have no experience of winter driving. And, as a Canadian, I know the overwhelming thrust of a winter storm.

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Imagine then trekking the outer reaches of 19th century Iceland, mailbags in tow, in primitive garb, where blizzards blind any distinction between solid land and cliff edge. Imagine the unrelenting labour, the relief when shelter is seen faintly in the distance. When the narrative narrows and slows as the onslaught of snow seems destined to always repeat itself, the author’s lyrical gifts generally succeed in sustaining the reader. Personally, I would have preferred less authorial asides and a more divergent story, yet there is no escaping the ultimate power of this exceptional novel.

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The Whisky:  JuraProphecy

www.jurawhisky.com

The Book:  Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

To visit the Scottish island of Jura, as I did some months back, is surely to feel the combined auras of the single malt and a good book. The island of 200 inhabitants is home to the Jura Distillery. It is also where, in an isolated cottage in the north of the island, George Orwell wrote the iconic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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THE WHISKY

In the glass — amber red. On the nose the peat fire takes the lead, with anise following, and citrus spice a few steps behind. On the palate, not the rough-and-ready peaty chaps from neighbouring Islay, but nonetheless there’s lots of smoke to meet any challenge. Just enough in fact to let the pepper and spice and dried fruit show through. Very nice, now or in the future.  (46% abv, non-chillfiltered)

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[The ferry from Islay arriving in Jura, with Islay’s Caol Ila Distillery in the distance.]

The Jura Distillery is much more than a side trip while touring the big distillery guns of Islay. It’s a whisky world unto itself. I’ve never had a better distillery tour than the one Rachael gave me and my wife and a troop of six Danish whisky chums.

Commercial whisky production on Jura is rooted in the early 1800s. That era’s distillery eventually fell on hard times and in 1901 ceased operation. With the island’s population dwindling, in 1963 plans were set in place to revive the industry. A new distillery took shape in Craighouse, the island’s largest settlement, under the ownership of Glasgow whisky producers Whyte & Mackay (now owned by the Philippines-based Alliance Global Group). In recent years sales of Jura whisky has grown by leaps and bounds and the distillery looks to be a permanent fixture on the Jura landscape.

 

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That landscape has far more deer than people, and plenty of peat. In the early decades of the revived distillery there was no sign of it in the whisky, however. Its customers preferred light spirit, for use in their non-peated blends. First, with the release of “Superstition”, and most definitely with “Prophecy”, the peat is making a name for itself. The label calls it “heavily peated”, which it certainly is by Jura standards. There’s also an eye-like symbol on the bottle. I would suggest it was partly put there to keep an eye on this peated leap of faith.

The distillery would tell you otherwise, that there’s a one-eyed storyline in the island’s past. In the early 1800s the Campbells, rulers of Jura at the time, evicted an old seer, who set upon them a curse, prophesying that the last Campbell would leave the island one-eyed and with his worldly processions in a cart drawn by a white horse. Supposedly, it all came to pass in 1938 when poverty-stricken Charles Campbell, blinded in one eye during WWI, gave up Jura, escaping in, yes, a white horse-drawn cart. It’s a great back story to a fine whisky.

But I like to think that George Orwell’s writing of his prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four would make for a even better one.

(In 2014 Jura Distillery did pay homage to Orwell with a limited release – 1,984 bottles – of a 1984 vintage whisky. It’s well out of my price range, however, as it edges ever closer to $1984 on the secondary market.)

THE BOOK

Is there a 20th century novel that has added more words to our political discourse? Big Brother. Newspeak. Thought Police. Doublethink. Orwellian. When White House Councillor Kellyanne Conway spoke of “alternate facts” did it not send an Orwellian chill up our collective spines?

Nineteen Eight-Four has reemerged as essential reading. To follow Winston Smith into the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical documents and destroys the originals in order to produce what the state would have as the official history, is to enter into a manufacturing centre of “fake news.” To proclaim that 2+2 = 5, as the infallible Party would have it, is to view the photographs of Trump’s inaugural crowds and then in a White House press briefing hear it declared “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

UnknownAn iconic work of world literature to be sure (translated into 65 languages at last count), but it might come as a surprise to know just how close we were to never having this dystopian benchmark. George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Blair) struggled to write Nineteen Eighty-Four in the final few years of his life, much of that time marked by very poor health, including a bout with tuberculosis. Just six months after it was published in 1949, Orwell was dead, aged 46.

He had come to Jura from London in May of 1946, to an isolated house, Barnhill, owned by his friend David Astor, editor of the Observer. He came to escape the demands of journalism, plagued by an urgency to take on the writing of a complex novel that he’d had in mind for some time.

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He was hardly in a state of mind to begin, still grieving as he was for his wife who had died suddenly the year before. He was left with a young son, Richard, a boy he and his wife had adopted the year prior to her death. After a time he was joined at Barnhill by Richard and his nanny, as well as Orwell’s sister, Avril, who took over the cooking and household chores, to give Orwell uninterrupted time to write. And to spend time with his son, whom he adored.

That first winter was desperately cold. There was no electricity. They burned peat to keep warm and if Orwell wrote after dark it was by a paraffin lantern. Yet, perhaps not strangely to people who knew Orwell, the isolation of the Hebridean outpost suited him. And despite persistent respiratory problems, by the spring of 1947 he had written a substantial portion of a first draft.

Over the summer near tragedy struck. Orwell, together with Richard, Avril, and some friends came close to drowning when when their motorboat overturned near the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool in the frigid waters off Jura. They were rescued, but Orwell’s health deteriorated further. He pressed on with his writing, but by November was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was taken to a hospital on the Scottish mainland.

At the time there was no cure for TB. His friend Astor arranged for a new experimental drug to be shipped from the United States, and by the spring of 1948, still weak from the debilitating treatment, Orwell was declared free of the disease. He returned to Barnhill. Under pressure from his publisher, he plunged back into the book, working most of the time while propped upright in his bed, including the tedious job of retyping the manuscript so overwritten with revisions that only he could decipher it.

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By December of 1948, a fresh copy of the manuscript was on its way to his publisher, his deadline met. By June of the next year it was in print, to almost universal acclaim, considered a masterpiece from the very beginning.

Orwell was not to enjoy the acclaim for long. At the University College Hospital in London, on January 21, 1950 Orwell died. He was buried in a cemetery in Oxfordshire. The headstone reads “Eric Arthur Blair”.  There is no mention of his pen name, nor the writing that would forever stand as a warning to the uncertain world he left behind.

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The Whiskey:  Teeling Single Malt

www.teelingwhiskey.com

The Book:  The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

A few years ago I met Anne Enright at a literary festival. I have since regretted not asking her if she drank whiskey, and if indeed she had a favourite. I’m thinking a yes on both counts. And given she was born in Dublin, and, now lives just south of the city, that Teeling (the “Spirit of Dublin”) would be a sound guess.

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THE WHISKEY

A golden light glow in the glass. A subtle nose of fruit and oak. Fresh and inviting. It shines on the palate — dark fruit compote in balance with warm, rich spice, yet open and airy. Pleasingly integrated, with thinly oiled mouth feel. A tasteful burn lingers to a slow spicy fade. Strikingly good. (46% abv, non-chillfiltered, natural colour)

Teeling Distillery comes with a wealth of family history. The Teeling name can be traced to whiskey production as far back as 1782, when Walter Teeling established a distillery on Marrowbone Lane in Dublin. It is not far from Newmarket Square, where, in 2015, two brothers, Jack and Stephen Teeling, opened the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years. It is the sole distillery in a city that could once boast more than three dozen, the last of which closed 40 years ago.

Whiskey distilling is in the Teeling blood. Their father, John, founded the Cooley Distillery (known for such  brands as Connemara and The Tyrconnell) in 1987, eventually selling it in 2011 to Beam International (now Bean Suntory). Son Jack retained 16,000 barrels of aged whiskey as part of the sale agreement and with it the Teeling Whiskey Company was launched. (Hence, the choice of a phoenix rising from a pot still as the company logo.)

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With the new distillate maturing, Teeling worked with its aged stock to release several whiskies, all at an impressive 46% abv and aiming for the premium market. Among the core range of three is Teeling Single Malt, blended from whiskey (including some distilled in 1991) that has been finished in five different wine casks — Sherry, Port, Madeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and White Burgundy. The bold experiment works wonderfully well.

It’s indicative of the brothers’ philosophy of respecting the heritage of Irish whiskey while confidently taking a new path to produce whiskies that are clearly their own. They have turned a few heads in the process. They are part of a new wave of Irish whiskey that has drawn kudos worldwide. The phoenix flies high.

THE BOOK

At the literary festival Anne Enright read the opening pages of The Forgotten Waltz. It was as fascinating an author reading as I’ve witnessed.

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The thorny wit of Gina, the novel’s narrator, is scattered throughout an unrepentant account of her adulterous affair with Seán, a fellow Gina first spies in those opening pages. She catches sight of him from across her sister’s back garden, in the evening light of a summer barbecue, “at the moment the day begins to turn.” Gina’s take on her subsequent adultery is wry and guiltless. In tone it’s a distinct shift away from what we have come to expect of most novelists.

But it is the early years of the 21st century after all. Ireland is booming, though the prick of the bubble is not far off. Gina works in IT (“sort of”) and observes, through her skeptic’s lens, the over-extended lifestyles that have implanted themselves around her. She is ill-content with her marriage to Conner, and willing to lead herself out of it, working through the new scenario without much of a plan. “I can’t be too bothered here with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense.” It never does, and that’s what’s likeable, and honest about the novel. We’re never quite sure if Gina is capable of overriding perceptions of what’s going on in her life.

If there are down-to-earth moments in the whole tangle of relationships they belong to Evie, Seán’s daughter by his first wife. It is Evie that Gina comes to terms with, in the end, in a way she can’t seem to with the others. Perhaps it is because she is what Gina once was — a young woman with a whole uncertain life ahead of her.

CroppedImage680680-Enright-Anne-Credit-Hugh-Chaloner-webAnne Enright was the 2007 Booker Prize winner for The Gathering, a novel about a woman trying to come to terms with her brother’s suicide. Four years later came The Forgotten Waltz. Her most recent is The Green Road, a story of family spanning thirty years. Her subjects are diverse, unpredictable, with writing that is sharp and original, and with characters that ring deeply true. She is not to be missed.

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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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