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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: whiskey

The Whisky:  Writers’ TearsRed Head

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.



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.


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.


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?


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 Whiskies:  Jack Daniel’sSampler

The Stories:  A  Christmas Memory & One Christmas by Truman Capote

It’s been a particularly busy Christmas (what with nine house guests and all!), but there has to be time to revisit my favourite Christmas story, this year accompanied by its companion piece, accompanied by some samples of Southern whiskey. Truman Capote’s aging cousin, Miss Sook, would surely approve.



The flagship Old No. 7 Tennessee whiskey: amber to the eyes, vanilla and caramel to the nose, and on the palate a lightly honeyed, alcohol bite cutting the sweetness. Smooth and inviting, surprisingly good.

Tennessee Honey: A honey liqueur blended with whiskey. Label says it all.

Tennessee Fire: A cinnamon liqueur blended with whiskey. Label says more than enough. Liquid candy.

Gentleman Jack: Thinner than expected. Smooth and light. Gentlemanly.

Single Barrel Select: Amber glow. Sharper profile to the nose. Coming on strong on the palate at 47%. A more powerful punch. Spicy, sweet edge, but with a smart, more distinctive flavour mix: pepper, dark fruit, nut. The finest of the lot.


Produced in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s has grown into one of the great success stories of American spirits, with 500 employees and annual sales of more than 11 million cases of the square-bottled, black-labelled No. 7, in 160 countries. It is hardly the folksy operation that its image might suggest. Marketing, in fact, has done wonders for it.

And whiskey it is, not bourbon. Charcoal filtering (using New England sugar maplewood, charred on site) is the distinguishing aspect of production. The distillate  from the copper stills is dripped through a 10-ft column, what the company calls “mellowing”, before being stored in JD’s own handmade oak barrels.

tl-horizontal_mainJasper Newton “Jack” Daniel, of Scots-descent, was born around 1850 (the exact date is unknown). He was the youngest of his mother’s ten children (his father had three others). His mother died not long after Jack was born and eventually he fell under the care of a callous stepmother (and mother of a few more to add to his father’s count). Jack ran away from home as a young teenager, and was taken under the wing of a local lay preacher and, as fate should have it, a moonshiner. Dan Call taught him the trade, though some now suggest it was really the man’s black slave, Nearest Green, who did the teaching. Jack and Call teamed up to found a legal distillery. Before long the preacher’s faith caused him a change of heart, and Jack become the sole owner.

By the mid-1880s the Lynchburg distillery had expanded to become the second largest in the county. A dozen years later the square bottle was adopted and an iconic whiskey made its first appearance on the production line. Jack died in 1911 but the Old No. 7 (the distillery’s original government registration number) would live on to become the No. 1 selling American whiskey in the world.


Truman Capote was also shaped by a troubled childhood. He was born in 1924 in New Orleans. When he was four his parents divorced, his mother took off to New York, and Truman was sent to live with her relatives in Alabama. They were an odd lot, though the boy found refuge in his relationship with an aged, but childlike cousin, whom be called “Sook.” She called him “Buddy.”

truman and sookThe pair seemed inseparable, until at age 8, Truman was returned to his flighty mother, now living with her new husband in Manhattan. He was soon showing promise as a writer, but within a few years they sent him off to a military academy to toughen him up. It proved a disaster. Estranged from his family again, he gradually developed a persona as an entertaining story-teller, a raconteur, a bon vivant. Among his classmates it made him the centre of attention. It would carry him through life, and make of him a legendary literary figure, the author as well known for his story-making antics among the social elite as for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood.

The roots of his two poignant Christmas stories go back to the years he spent as a young kid in Alabama.  “A Christmas Memory” was originally published in Mademoiselle magazine in December of 1956.

“Its fruitcake weather!” And Sook and Buddy set out into the countryside, hauling their “buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage”, to gather pecans needed for Sook’s annual Christmas cake-baking marathon. Whiskey was a central ingredient and their encounter with the old bootlegger adds to the story’s edge of nonconformity, as does the scene of the pair getting tipsy on the leftover booze.

Its appeal is in the evocation of rural Alabama in the 1930s, together the portrait of a boy who struggles to find love and acceptance as a stern reality swirls around him. It is as affecting as anything Capote wrote.

truman and father“One Christmas” was the last of Capote’s short stories, first published in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1982. He would die two years later of complications brought on by alcohol and drug abuse.

In this story Buddy leaves his beloved Sook for New Orleans by bus, forced to spend Christmas with a father he has never known. He is thrown into an adult world of restaurants and parties, and his father’s gigolo lifestyle. Buddy plays on his father’s need to gain his affection and when he heads back to Alabama at the end of the visit it is with an expensive model airplane. And a child’s fragile understanding of a father’s imperfections.

Together the stories allow glimpses into Capote’s erratic childhood and the emotions that underpinned a highly creative, unorthodox life.



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The Whiskey:  PowersJohn’s Lane 12 years

The Books:  Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas and The Dubliners by James Joyce

Literary Dublin of a century ago calls for a dram to which James Joyce himself would give the nod.


Bright gold, with a darkened orange glow and looking very smart in the glass. A dried fruit-filled nose — sweetish, dense and lively. On the palate, smooth yet chewy, sun-dried spice and caramel. Warm, intense, purposeful, an altogether superior dram. Lingers long, and with the best of intentions. (non-chillfiltered, 46% abv)

Powers whiskey dates to 1791, when innkeeper James Power opened the John’s Lane Distillery on St. Thomas Street in Dublin. Over time it prospered, and by 1871, rebuilt in a grand Victorian style, it occupied seven acres, employed 300 people, and distilled nearly a million gallons a year. It was a Dublin landmark, renowned for its pot still whiskies.

When Alfred Barnard, author of the monumental “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” visited in 1886 he was more than impressed. Of the kilns he wrote: “. . .indeed elegant buildings. . .with open groined roofs, lined with wood and stained oak, like small English parish churches, in fact superior to many we have seen.” And so the spirit moved him. “The old make… was delicious and finer than anything we had hitherto tasted. It was as perfect in flavour, and as pronounced in the ancient aroma of Irish Whisky as dear to hearts of connoisseurs, as one could possible desire…”

In 1966 Powers, together with Jameson and Cork Distilleries, joined forces under the umbrella of Irish Distillers Ltd. Within a few years Powers’ Dublin operations had closed and was moved to County Cork. Over time the question arose as to what was the taste of the best spirit of the old John’s Lane Distillery. In other words, what had gotten Barnard so fired up?

Hence, the John’s Lane, first released in 2011. Whiskey in the style that made Powers famous —  a special mash of malted and unmalted barley that is triple-distilled in traditional copper single pot stills, aged for 12 years, mostly in first-fill American bourbon casks, with a small amount in Spanish oloroso butts.

The result is a fine, historic example of single pot still whiskey that feels like it could have come straight off the production line in 19th century Dublin.


Samuel Riba, the anxiety-driven Spaniard at the centre of Dublinesque, is obsessed with Dublin. Unfortunately for him he lives in Barcelona and speaks no English. A newly retired literary publisher, he’s sorely disillusioned with the state of literature, prone to continuously grieving that he had never published a writer of genius. In what he conceives as a grand gesture, Riba gathers a disparate group of male friends and plans a pilgrimage to the city of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to coincide with Bloomsday, June 16, the day Joyce’s novel unfolds. It will be a funeral for the printed page.

It does not go well. His cohorts are unpredictable and veer from what Riba has in mind. They are prone to drinking sprees while Riba has sworn off alcohol, having solemnly promised his wife he would under no circumstances slip off the wagon. More disconcerting is the roaming, mysterious figure of a thin, bespectacled young man in a trench coat, looking all to much like Joyce’s protégé, Samuel Beckett.

If all this resembles metafictional play with an underlying seriousness, then take comfort that you are in the hands of Enrique Vila-Matas. He is a contemporary master of the genre-bending novel, who long ago eschewed traditional plot and character development as outdated and no longer of any real service to the reader.

Other approaches achieve more interesting ends. To Vila-Matas the author is as much a part of what he has read as he is of personal experience. Literary references abound, far beyond Joyce and Beckett — to Philip Larkin, Nabokov, Paul Auster, Tom Waits, David Cronenberg, Coldplay. The list goes on. Dublinesque is a contorted travelogue, a narrative essay somewhat in the shape of a novel. It is also great fun.

In the end it is about one man coping with the world in which he has found himself, plowing through, oscillating between joy and despair, making what he can of a wife who has turned to Buddhism, parents he can never satisfy, and companions who seem one unspannable step from deeper friendship.

Vila-Matas has written, “We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality.”

In his view reality cannot be “trapped and narrated.” Writers should give up trying. Vila-Matas has written dozens of books, translated into some thirty languages, to support his argument.

Vila-Mantas returns again and again to James Joyce. He is a founding member of a group calling itself the Order of the Finnegans, whose members venerate Joyce’s Ulysses. He is likely less taken with Joyce’s first book and its multi-layered realism (or in Vila-Matas mind, what passes for realism).

The Dubliners, despite how far some authors, including Joyce himself, have veered from its approach to fiction, is a stunning collection of short stories, as memorable as any set to print in the hundred years since it was published. Again and again it sets language adrift from the story itself, universal in its simplicity and depth, taking the reader, as the sequence of the stories do, from childhood to old age.

“The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” (Araby)

“She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed: and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.” (A Mother)

“One by one they were all becoming shades.” (The Dead)

To which I would add, “The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.” (Grace)

The book was written when Joyce was in his early 20s, about the Dublin that he knew, its streets and dwellings holding secrets only the most keen observer of human nature could capture with such unobtrusive insight. The stories give their characters space to be who they are without judgement, almost without authorial direction. They are who they are, our entry into their lives often cut abruptly, as if to say, you had your look, move on. Life goes on.

The manuscript of The Dubliners was rejected by a total of fifteen publishers. Some thought parts crude, sacrilegious, libellous, (twice it got as far as the printer, who refused to bring it to press). No one, however, would deny its mastery of language. By the time it was published, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was in print and Ulysses was already taking shape. The Dubliners sold a few hundred copies and fell out of view.

Only to come to light years later as the ground-breaking work that it is. Maybe for postmodernists, it can’t capture reality. But for the rest of us it connects to our own reality and that is meaningful and very good.

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The Whiskey:  Bulleit BourbonAged 10 Years

The Books:  Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner by John Williams

The drink and the books emerged from adjoining states – Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado. From another era, when times were less hurried, questionably rougher. A “Frontier” bourbon makes for a good pairing, if rather more refined than what was available to the characters.

The Bourbon

I am not a huge fan of bourbon, but this I like, very much. The amber-copper in the glass, together with aromas of vanilla and spice in deft balance with the oak, offer a firm, but friendly, handshake. It promises nothing too sweet and delivers nicely. Again, a well balanced flow — of caramel, fruit, and rye pepper. The dryness reveals depth and a complex, but homely, precision. Smooth, dry, and hold the sugar. My kind of bourbon. (45.6% abv)

The man behind the company is Tom Bulleit. He gave up a law practice in 1987 to follow a long held dream, that of bringing back to life a recipe for a high rye content bourbon distilled by his great-great-grandfather in the mid 1800s. Augustus Bulleit, who kept a tavern in Louisville, Kentucky, had distilled countless small batches before he found what he was after, and today Tom Bulleit sticks to the small-batch approach, delivering to the market three versions — the standard Bulleit “Frontier” Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, and the newest product – the selected reserve Bulleit Bourbon 10.

Made with grain grown to Bulleit’s specifications, together with Kentucky limestone-filtered water, the limited release spends 10 years in charred American oak barrels. It is filled into Bulleit’s 1880s replica bottle, bearing its trademark thin, slightly off-centre label, and then packaged in an eye-catching orange replica box.

Bulleit Distilling is owned by the spirits multinational Diageo. Bulleit 10 is distilled under contract with Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Tom Bulleit is upfront about this, as he should be, considering Four Roses is one of the preeminent bourbon distillers in the U.S. Even so, he has worked hard to set Bulleit apart, to establish its distinctive reputation, based largely on its heavy rye influence, and on the pioneering story behind the founding of the company.

The Books

Butcher’s Crossing fits into the genre of the American western, though not comfortably. It’s revisionist western, western in locale and era, but hardly in sensibility. It’s a very fine book of any sort.

It is not a novel for anyone expecting the idyll of the lone prairie, but then the title would likely send that message anyway. The single-minded slaughter and skinning of thousands of buffalo, trapped in a high mountain pass, is told in overwhelming detail. As is near death from lack of water. As is survival in a ferocious winter blizzard. It is such believable detail that grips the reader, overtaking his senses, leaving him awed by the author’s descriptive powers.

It is a simple enough story. In the 1870s a young Harvard dropout, with a head full of Emerson, goes west to experience nature in its primitive, unpredictable state. He is looking for something to change his life and finds more than he bargained for. His destination is Butcher’s Crossing. It has a cheap hotel, a saloon, a “barbar” shop, hookers, bad whiskey, and not much else. There’s a big trade in buffalo hides and deals to be made. It’s the deal, and how it eventually weighs relentlessly on the four men involved, that propels the narrative.

It is the author’s first mature novel. (He wanted everyone to forget the first.) Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960 to little fanfare. John Williams would eventually go on to win the National Book Award for his novel Augustus (ah, another link to Bulleit). However, his writing remained little appreciated until the recent popularity of Stoner, the third of his four novels, a book first published in 1965.

Stoner, also largely overlooked when it first came to print, has reemerged after fifty years to become an international bestseller. It has been a huge hit in Europe, although, ironically, has still to gather much notice in the United States, where it is set. (A misreading of the title – the novel has nothing to do with drug culture – might be some of the reason, though likely not much.)

William Stoner’s is a life well-examined. He is a farm boy who goes off to college to study agriculture, only to be suddenly, and with some confusion, smitten by literature. His life turns abruptly and he goes on to spend most of it as a university professor. Literature gives direction to an otherwise wearisome existence. He has made a poor choice in marriage, he becomes increasingly estranged from his daughter, petty university politics threaten his career, a deep love affair finds no future. What has his life amounted to? Nothing that will be remembered. He has been a survivor and, with some small victories, a quiet hero. It is not how most Americans wish to see themselves. There is no cause for celebration. A likely reason as any for its failure to find a broad audience in its home country.

John Williams deserved much more. His writing is clean and thoughtful and expertly controlled. It flourishes in a way that causes truth to continuously surface. Both books (both very different books in setting and atmosphere) take the reader on journeys with characters whose time is often ill-spent and leads to heartbreak, but who are intensely human. The novels are a celebration of what literature can offer, in the way that nothing else does.

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