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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Tag Archives: Kevin Major

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 Tequila:  Sieta LeguasReposado

www.casasieteleguas.com

The Book:  Under the VolcanoMalcolm Lowry

I started reading Under the Volcano while in Mexico, finished it back in Canada. A parallel to Lowry’s writing of the book: started in Mexico, completed in Canada. The clever tequila also spanned both countries.

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THE TEQUILA

It is light in the glass, straw with a tinge of green, having spent 8 months in white oak. It’s noteworthy from the start, on the nose the woody agave in fine balance with the vanilla and citrus. On the palate, add a dash of pepper and spice. Complex and flavourful. Very well made. (38% abv)

Siete Leguas‘s founder Don Ignacio Gonzalez Vargas named his distillery after the horse belonging to Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary general. Siete leguas/seven leagues (34km/21mi) was said to be the distance the horse galloped at a single stretch during one of Villa’s military conquests. (Well into Under the Volcano, a horse appears, with the number seven branded on its hindquarter…)

Siete Leguas has been based in Atotonilco el Alto, in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, since it first went into production in 1952, bringing together two distilleries Vargas had started in the 1940s. It remains family-owned and still uses traditional methods in the making of its tequila. The spirit is comprised of 100% blue Weber agave, grown in the estate’s red volcanic soil.

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Once the leaves are stripped, the piñas are examined and those approved for production are split, before being slow-cooked in masonry ovens. Some are then ground in the time-honoured way, using mules to drive a volcanic stone wheel, while others are crushed using modern sugar cane shredders. With the “aguameil” extracted, the two liquids are blended (the proportions remain a secret) then fermented and finally distilled in copper pot stills. Siete Leguas is among the oldest tequila producers in Mexico, and it continues to be one of the most celebrated.

THE BOOK

Under the Volcano was published in 1947, just as Don Ignacio Gonzalez Vargas was establishing himself in the business of making tequila. Not that the book is much of an advert for the spirit, given the central character, Geoffrey Firmin, ex-British consul in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, is constantly drunk on tequila or mescal. In fact, as a revelation of the effects of alcohol on the human condition, there are few novels to rival it.

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The book could only have been written by Lowry, a man who through much of his life struggled with the demon drink. His upbringing, on the surface at least, would seem innocuous enough — born in England to a well-to-do cotton broker, prize-willing athlete, student at Cambridge, a young man not wanting for money or opportunity. His mother, however, had little time for him, something which tormented him all his life, and while at college his homosexual roommate committed suicide, after his advances were rejected by Lowry. His drinking escalated.

He travelled widely and took up writing. While still in his 20s he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in New York City, following a particularly bad bout with alcohol. His dual obsessions – writing and drink – shaped his life, finding crucial expression when he took up residence in Mexico, arriving there on 2nd of November, 1936, the so called “Day of the Dead.” He chose that same holiday in 1938 as the timeline for his narrative when he set to work on Under the Volcano.

a001-malcolm-lowry-bwThe novel would consume the better part of ten years, most of it lived (after his deportation from Mexico) in a beach shack north of Vancouver. The novel, when it was finally published, following numerous rejections, met with critical acclaim, though it was out-of-print at the time of his death ten years later. Lowry’s reputation revitalized in the decades that followed, and now Under the Volcano is considered one of the outstanding novels of the 20th century.

Although he lived in Mexico for a relatively short period of his life, Lowry was obviously deeply influenced by the country. It stirred his writing talents in the way no other country of the many he visited had been able to do. As an evocation of Mexico alone, the novel is entirely memorable. Yet, it stands out on so many other levels, rising out of the Consul’s stupor to deal with the classical tragedy of failed life and love, condensed over twelve hours. The Consul’s fate is set from the beginning and only a writer of Lowry’s brilliance could make us want to experience it all.

Set, as it is, with the Second World War looming, Under the Volcano takes on ominous dimensions. Lowry himself called it “a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall.” Complex, constantly symbolic, almost impenetrable at times, clearly heartrending at others, it begs to be reread. Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of tequila left in the bottle.

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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 Bourbon:  Booker’s

www.bookersbourbon.com

The Book:  The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Booker Noe was a one-of-a-kind distiller, Eric Hoffer a one-of-a-kind philosopher. Together, can they ever help me understand how Trump ended up President?

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Straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered, Booker’s is pure orange-mahogany and, at a whopping 64% abv, not to be intimidated. Intense nose  of caramel, oak, and nutty rye. Lots of sweet heat in the mouth, complex waves of wood and spice. An outlier. A tough Southern charmer. (batch 2015-15, aged 6 yrs 7 mths)

THE BOURBON

Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam, was master distiller at Beam distilleries in Clermont and Boston, Kentucky from 1965-1992. He liked to choose favourite barrels from the centre (fifth and sixth floors) of the rackhouse, where he believed the temperature and humidity made for perfect maturation, and from these bottle a little bourbon for his family and friends. In 1988 the idea went public and Booker’s Bourbon was born. It revived interest in premium bourbon. After he retired Booker travelled widely as a Beam ambassador, telling stories about his Kentucky roots, a glass of his beloved Booker’s never far out of reach. He was 6 ft. 4, of ample girth, a straight-talking man with a ready smile, full of homespun wisdom. When he died in 2004 he was already a legend.

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Booker’s is one of four “small batch” bourbons marketed by Jim Beam, together with Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden. It’s generally considered the best of the bunch, although each has its champions. Jim Beam, the world best selling bourbon brand, is now under the umbrella of Japan’s Suntory Holdings, but Beam decendants are still very much in evidence. Booker’s son Fred is now the master distiller, carrying on the tradition of releasing premium products that stir up the market. Booker’s Rye, the first rye whiskey under the Booker’s brand was named “World Whiskey of the Year” in the 2017 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

Booker would be proud.

Would he have voted for Trump? He strikes me as a man who bucked the system, and Kentucky went 62.5% in favour of the Republicans, carrying all eight electoral seats. I’d give Booker the benefit of the doubt. I won’t let it stand in the way of a good slug of his bourbon.

THE BOOK

Eric Hoffer was born in New York City in 1898. His parents had emigrated from Alsace, then part of Germany. Hoffer learned to read at an early age but when he was 7 he suddenly went blind and for the next 8 years remained that way, never returning to school. When he suddenly regained his sight, he devoured books, fearful he might go blind once again. Hoffer was a self-taught man, had no academic training, spending much of his working life as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. He didn’t marry and in his off hours could often be found in the public library. He filled countless notebooks with his own thoughts about what he read. From 1951 to the time of his death in 1983, he published ten books on moral and social philosophy. His first remains his best known — The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

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Interest in the book spiked when Dwight Eisenhower listed Hoffer as his favourite author. Sixty-five years later Hilary Clinton was distributing copies to her staff during her campaign for president. Needless to say, Trump wasn’t. His acolytes would have recognized Hoffer’s description of a mass-movement leader:

Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable. The main requirements seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it…

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I came to this book after seeing repeated references in articles that attempted to explain how a bombastic reality show host / real estate tycoon with no political experience massed a following big enough to send him to the White House. Although the book moves about in various directions, my own interest spiked when I read, as I did time and time again, hypotheses that seem to fit Trump to a capital T.

The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world. . . .There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.” 

The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.

Hoffer’s book was written shortly after the end of WWII, with the rise of Nazism and Fascism still fresh in the author’s mind. They serve as ready reference, but so does Christianity and Islam, and an array of other political revolutions. What’s fascinating is the thesis that there are common elements underlying all mass movements (no matter if they end up for the good or not), often a reflection of the human willingness to turn a blind eye to reason.

Hoffer style is terse, with a steady stream of aphorisms. He packs a lot into a page, so much so that it is an effort to retain all the points he makes. I took to adding check marks in the margins, at points I would return to…

All mass movements, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, reverent hope, hatred, and intolerance.

Sobering.

 

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The Pastis:  Henri Bardouin

www.distilleries-provence.com

The Books: Suspended Sentences and Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

France has had it hot this summer. I suspect there’s been a lot of sipping of that favoured French summer drink — pastis. Where I live, an August not quite so hot, but made for a sip of pastis, together with a pair of books set in Paris and Provence.

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THE PASTIS

Most prefer it with water, often as an aperitif. I take it chilled and neat. Straw yellow in the glass, with herbaceous green highlights. On the nose, a potent aromatic mix, liquorice/star anise holding forth. On the palate, the anise stands its ground, surrounding a complex, intriguing infusion of 65(!) plants and spices, among them cardamon, mint, rosemary, chamomile, wild thyme, mugwort, lemon verbena, kidney vetch, borage, garden angelica, grains of paradise. Some summer days I relish a vigorous, inspired aniseed drink, (as I did this year on the day a partial solar eclipse did a colander-cut across the bottle). (45% abv)

Pastis is the French branch of the family of anise-flavoured spirits. Others include sambuca, ouzo, arak, raki (see the blog entry for January 2015), and mastika. The mix of the multitude of plants and spices to be found in Henri Bardouin pastis is the creation of Distilleries et Domaines de Provence, located in Forcalquier, a small town in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France. The distillery was established in 1898, refining the centuries-old tradition of making tonics and digestifs from the abundance of medicinal plants to be found in the terroir of the Montagne de Lure. Pastis means “mixture” in the Provençal language, and while all makers of pastis combine many different ingredients (foraged locally or imported), none use so many with quite the same refinement.

Henri B

The dried plants and spices are first macerated, each in its own optimal quantity of alcohol, at a strictly-regulated temperature and duration of maceration. Distillation follows, again the approach varying from one plant or spice to another. And finally the various flavour components are brought together, in a precise order dictated by decades of experience.

It makes for an uninhibited drink of earthy proportions.

THE BOOKS

When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, much of the literary world outside France was left confounded. Few Anglo-American readers knew anything about the author, given that only a handful of his many published works had been translated into English, and most of these were long out of print.

Publishers rushed to catch up. Suspended Sentences brings together three novellas from 1988-1993. It has been said of Modiano that “he is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature.” There is a distinctive similarity among this trio, indicative of the style and preoccupations that fill the author’s total literary output since his first book was published in 1968.

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If there is a starting point to understanding Madiano’s work it is his discovery of his own father’s past during the WWII Nazi occupation of France. A Jew in Paris, he refused to wear the yellow star, and was detained by the Gestapo, Auschwitz his likely fate. However, he was released due to the intervention of a friend. As an older teenager, his son (born in 1945) came to the realization that his father survived the war because he did business on the black market and was associated with the Rue Lauriston gang, the French criminal underworld in league with the Gestapo.

It is a circumstance that underlies the whole of Modiano’s fiction. Though his writing might surround itself with the Paris of the post-war period, it consistently turns back to the Nazi era, seeking, but never finding, a satisfying understanding of it. It is fiction with the author never far removed from a storyline shaped by inadequate memory, overlaid with a directionless melancholy, while thinly embodying the genre of the detective novel.

The three novellas — Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin — are portraits of Paris, of its streets and cafés, and the secretive lives lived behind its shuttered windows. It is fiction that weaves in and out of stories, never with a firm grasp, struggling to makes sense of a fragmented past. Fiction fascinating in its momentary detail, and fascinating as variation on a single theme.

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Honeymoon (1990) opens in a stiflingly hot Milan in August. At a hotel bar to escape the heat before catching a train to Paris, a documentary film-maker, Jean, learns that a Frenchwoman, Ingrid, has committed suicide in the hotel two days before. And he is astounded to discover that, as a young man of 20 hitchhiking in the south of France, he had encountered the very same woman, together with her lover Rigaud.

Jean casts aside his film plans and disappears into the outskirts of Paris, in pursuit of the story behind Ingrid’s death. Not surprisingly, to those who know Modiano’s work, it leads back to the time the Nazis occupied the city. And in this case also to Provence where Ingrid and her lover had escaped on the pretext of a ‘honeymoon.’

The fragility and inconclusiveness of the story is to be expected of Madiano, and to be relished. His words, spare and illusory, never quite reach a point of clarity, assuredly capturing the desolation of its human narrative. The novel circles the unknowable, exposing the entanglements of memory. It is fleeting and evocative, as atmospheric as a ‘film noir’ scene set in a Parisian café along an all but deserted street in the 1940s.

 

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