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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: vatted malt

The Whisky:  The Spencerfield Spirit Co. – Sheep Dip “Old Hebridean” 1990

The Book:  Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Sheep Dip vatted whisky together with a classic novel about romance-driven sheep farmers. Both making the most of their refined rustic qualities.


Shining dark amber in the glass. Sweet peat, honey and citrus, heathered brine on the nose. Salty caramel, smoke and spice over the taste buds. Finishing rich and memorable. Blended perfection! (40% abv)

Spencerfield Spirit Co. is a small independent whisky producer, the initiative of Alex Nichol and his wife Jane Eastwood. Nicol had worked at Glenmorangie, Laphroaig, and a number of other spirit companies, including Whyte & Mackay, which is presumably where he got to know Richard Paterson. The acclaimed master blender oversees the blending of Spencerfield’s limited but exceptional range of whiskies. They fit nicely into a niche market, reaching people who demand quality, but who are looking for something a little different.

Located in Inverkeithing, across the Forth Rail Bridge from Edinburgh, Spencerfield looks over the Firth of Forth. It occupies a 16th century farm property, complete with dogs, cats, pigs, and racehorses. Sounds like just the place to produce whiskies with names such as Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose.

Behind the quirky names are some seriously good spirits. The first vintage for Sheep Dip, “Old Hebridean” has received a good share of the accolades. Named for a rare breed of Scottish sheep, it brings together a trio of single malts – Ardbeg, Dalmore, and Fettercairn – each distilled in 1990 or earlier and matured for about ten years in their own individual casks, before coming together in first-filled, freshly charred oak, for another ten years. It marries the characteristics of all three whiskies into something distinctly itself.


Far From the Madding Crowd was Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, but the first written after he quit work as an architect to devote himself to writing. The novel proved a great literary and commercial success. It steered his career to the writing of the other of his famous novels set in what he termed Wessex, that “partly real, partly dream-country” of southwest England.

The story’s first life was in Cornhill Magazine, in serialized form for the twelve months of 1874. Just prior to its final installment, all twelve were published together in book form. Hardy revised the work substantially for future editions, in the process restoring some of the more controversial elements that had been edited out when it first appeared. These included some elements of the depiction of the central character Bathsheba Everdene, an independently-minded woman, out of step with Victorian England, a woman whose sensuality lives barely beneath the surface of her exterior self. She is a feminist, long before the term ever came into use.

The woman farmer Bathsheba is pursued by three men of diverse backgrounds and temperaments, two of whom share her interest in the rural, farming life. But it is the third, the dashing young soldier, whom she weds. The Sergeant quickly proves a disaster, rekindling the hopes of the other two. What might have been love gives rise to doubt, deception, and eventually gun play. It’s a page-turning reflection on the true nature of attraction and mature love.

Hardy’s characters are richly delineated. They more than fill the pages of the novel, but do so within the context of the landscape, language, and traditions of West Country England. The story has qualities that make it a natural for the cinema, though, of course, Hardy could never have anticipated this. Yet another film version of the story is due for release shortly, which will no doubt rekindle interest in the novel.

The book I read is a particularly handsome edition, printed for The Limited Editions Club in 1958, with original wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker, who also designed the sheep-farming motif for the paper that covers the side boards. The spine is – what else? – natural sheepskin.


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The Whisky:  Douglas Laing & Co.Scallywag

The Book:  The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I know of no other fox terrier smart enough to find herself on a whisky label. Nor do many find themselves in seriously good fiction. Asta, the canine charmer in Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime story jumps to mind, on the big screen at least. Alas, in the book she had the temerity to be a schnauzer. But for the sake of good whisky we’ll link the two. Scallywag, meet Asta. THE WHISKY

In the tulip glass a golden yellow, then, within range of the nose, sensitive, delicately sweet, and spicy. A mélange of vanilla, earthy nut fruits, sherry. No one overwhelming the other. Together — a subtle triumph. The palate activates the spice in a semi-creamy, peppery fruit compote, a charming lead-up to Christmas. (46% abv, non-chillfiltered, no added colour) And yes, it goes without saying, a top dog of a whisky.

Douglas Laing & Co. is a Glasgow-based, innovative independent bottler. Founded in 1948 by Frederick Douglas Laing, the firm was subsequently run for many years by his two sons, Fred and Stewart. In 2013 the brothers amicably split the assets and went their separate ways, Fred and his daughter Cara heading up the original company, and Stewart and his two sons establishing Hunter Laing & Co.

Douglas Laing & Co. remains one of Scotland’s largest independents, with a broad range of premium single malts and blended whiskies, from the serious and sophisticated to the rogue Big Peat, the very popular, adept mash-up of four Islay malts. The label image resembles a bruiser of a lumberjack on a bad hair day, which seems no hindrance when it comes to winning awards. Scallywag follows in its footsteps, except this time the malts are from Speyside (including Glenrothes, Macallan, Mortlach, Inchgower and Dailuaine). The high-end blended malts are aged in Spanish sherry butts and ex-bourbon casks. The packaging is fun, 1930-ish sophisticated.

Scallywag, a small batch release first bottled in 2013, was inspired by the distillery’s long line of smart but mischievous fox terriers, in particular one by the name of Binks. The dog has since passed away, but the inspired dram lives on.


The Thin Man was Dashiell  Hammett’s fifth and final novel. It was published in January of 1934, just a month after the repeal of Prohibition in the United States. The country was ready to drink and the novel gave every reason to, if one were to judge by the lifestyle of the chic New York couple at the centre of the story. Scotch arrives on page two and a drink is forever close at hand, any time of the day. Hammett’s book defined the hard-boiled detective story, making Nick and Nora Charles among his most enduring characters. They’re a witty, wisecracking pair, having great fun with the game of love, indifferent to what society makes of them. They are the perfect vehicle for Hammett’s mastery of dialogue.

The plot (and all crime novels must rely heavily on plot) centres around the murder of Julia Wolfe, secretary and former lover of Claude Wynant, a one-time client of Nick. Ex-detective Nick is drawn into solving the crime against his will, complicated by the fact that Wynant is a strange no-show throughout the book. His lawyer is on the scene, as is Mimi, his ex-wife, and new hubby, and nobody seems to be playing it straight with the two young adult children.

What rescues the novel from being mundanely convoluted is Hammett’s writing style and his development of the lead couple. The writing owes a debt to Hemingway in its threadbare, forthright manner, relying for effect on the candour and cheekiness of Asta’s owners, Nick and Nora. The dog, too, has his moments, and perhaps even more of them in the movie and its several sequels. Asta’s a scallywag, no doubt about it.

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