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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: whisky

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 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:  EdduSilver Brocéliande

www.distillerie.fr

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III & IV by Marcel Proust

It’s month 2 of my 3-month Proustian quest to read his 7-volume mega-novel In Search of Lost Time. To lubricate the challenge I turn to a French whisky, distilled in Brittany, a part of France that Proust knew as a young beginning writer. Brittany inspires. I read and sip.

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THE WHISKY

It’s a cheery amber in the glass. Florals and vanilla oak on the nose. On the palate, engaging forest notes, lingering vanilla, all with a nutty, spicy bite. A pleasing cereal aftertaste that leaves you pondering what makes it different from anything you’ve tried before. (42% abv)

Maybe it’s the buckwheat! Eddu Silver Brocéliande is the only whisky in the world to be distilled entirely using buckwheat. Brittany’s own black buckwheat (blé noir in French, eddu in Breton).

The origins of Distillerie des Menhirs (named after the ancient standing stones common to the area) date back to 1921, when Francès Le Lay, the great-great grandmother of the present owners, began distilling and aging a hard cider brandy called lambig. That tradition passed down through the generations and in 1986 Guy Le Lay and his wife Marie Anne built the present distillery, initially for the production of cider, using only local ingredients, the distinctive Pommeau de Bretagne (with AOC designation since 1997).

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In 1998 they turned their attention to the distillation of whisky. But not just any whisky, rather one authentically Breton, using local buckwheat (at considerably more expense than barley). A separate building was constructed and a pot still acquired for whisky production alone. Their first buckwheat whisky, Eddu Silver, went on the market in 2002. Soon the three Le Lay sons were an integral part of the business.

Recently the even more idiosyncratic Eddu Silver Brocéliande came into production. Brocéliande is the fabled Paimpont forest of Brittany, where many of the Arthurian legends are said to have taken place, and where, if you looked hard enough, you might even find Merlin’s tomb. Distillerie des Menhirs sources oak from this magical, mythical domain and uses it to construct barrels for the secondary maturation of its Brocéliande whisky.

Buckwheat tenderized by The Lady of the Lake. Cheere! as medievals would say.

THE BOOKS

Volume III:  The Guermantes Way

I was not long into this book when I noticed an article on a news website detailing how a Canadian professor researching at the Centre National du Cinéma in Paris had uncovered what is believed to be the only known film footage of Marcel Proust. If it is indeed him, he is descending the steps of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris in 1904, following the high society marriage of Armand de Guiche and Elaine Greffulhe.

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Interesting that the church should be Madeleine, given how the madeleine, the French pastry, is forever associated with Proust. But more interesting is the fact that the Count and Countess Greffulhe, parents of the bride, were Proust’s inspiration for two central figures in this book, the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes.

The brief film clip is a further glimpse into how Proust, weaving solo down the steps past several richly garbed couples, was a part of this aristocratic milieu, but somewhat distinct from it. His pearl gray overcoat and bowler hat, favourite attire of Proust, is out of line with the black tuxedos and top hats of the other male guests.

At the beginning of Volume III the narrator moves into an apartment adjacent to the suites occupied by the Guermantes and is quickly enthralled by the prospect of becoming part of their social circle. Proust himself was constantly attracted to the salons of Parisian high society, and therefore it should be no surprise that they should occupy much of In Search of Lost Time. More than one hundred pages of The Guermantes Way is devoted to the personalities at play during a single visit to one such salon. A repertoire of diverse characters jostling for societal position make for engaging, but ultimately laughable scenes. Proust goes to great lengths, with his characteristically intricate sentences, to draw a sweeping group photograph of these characters. It does get tedious at times, as the Belle Époque itself must have been for the economic underclass which made up the majority of French citizens. The salon segments are at their most interesting when they touch on the famous real-life Dreyfus Affair, exposing the anti-Semitism that coursed through Parisian society at the time.

Volume III has its more universal and lasting moments, among them the death of Marcel’s much-loved grandmother, or when for a brief period the focus is on the clever Robert de Saint Loup and his army pals. But the class conscious Proust has mostly other preoccupations, so we need the thoroughly witty, thoroughly snobby Duchess, the painful Princess of Parma, and the grossly obnoxious Baron de Charlus, if the life of the salon is to come alive. They are all excellent reminders of why the French aristocracy of the day was on its last legs.

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Volume IV:  Sodom and Gomorrah

As the title suggests we’re in for forbidden sexual intrigue, much of it homosexual, albeit in language that reflects the guarded public discourse about the topic at the time of Proust.

The fourth volume of his masterwork opens with Charlus having his way with the much younger Jupien, something which the wide-eared narrator inadvertently overhears, confirming just what an insufferably fake the Baron is. It’s a storyline which is all the more intriguing when you know that Proust himself was gay, but went to great lengths to conceal it. His publisher, André Gide, thoroughly chided Proust for making his main character heterosexual. In fact, if you were to think of the narrator’s lovers as male, rather than female as they are portrayed, it would go a long way to understanding his behaviours. And a long way too in appreciating the frustrations Proust himself must have felt, plagued as he was by desires society would not permit him to exhibit. A friend of Oscar Wilde, Proust knew only too well the potential consequences of being open about his sexual direction.

Much of Volume IV is set back in the seaside resort of Balbec. The narrator’s love interest, Albertine, is not far away, as are the distasteful Verdurins, ensconced in a rented château and preoccupied with creating a rustic parallel to the salons of Paris. Pretension abounds, with the Baron de Charlus at the centre of much of it. The Baron has a new lover, the violinist Morel, but of course goes to great lengths to disguise the fact. The other relationships (and there are several of both sexual persuasions) are never anything but complicated. But, as we well know from the previous volumes, exploring the depths of human relationships is a strong suit of our man Proust.

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Now, for certain we understand the need for the cork-lined walls of the bedroom where Proust wrote and rewrote in his lined cahiers. He needed to be supremely focused if he were to translate his observations of the world he knew into this vastly perceptive, very long novel.

Three more volumes to go. Bring on another bottle of something French.

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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:  Johnnie WalkerDouble Black

www.johnniewalker.com

The Book:  The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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

THE WHISKY

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

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

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

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

THE BOOK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Whisky:  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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