Pairings of Beer, Bourbon, and The Kept by James Scott
Chapter One: Wicked Weed’s Black Angel
The Kept begins with midwife Elspeth Howell returning home to find her children have been murdered. Only her 12-year-old son Caleb survives. Things don’t lighten up much for the next 350 pages or so. I spent eight-plus years on the book (on my second attempt at writing it), and many days and nights the last place I wanted to be was in this shadowy world with this woman and her son and all of the horrific things they endure. Between that and the dark, curled feather that Caleb carries throughout the book, Black Angel, a sour aged in bourbon barrels with cherries and plums, from Wicked Weed (out of Asheville, NC, an astonishingly good brewery and a quick trip from the wonderful Malaprop’s Bookstore) reminded me of the mood of this opening both in its name—I always felt as though a dark presence hovered over this pair—and its complex sweet/sour/bitter flavor. Even if you’re not a fan of sours, I think this could be the one to change your mind.
Chapter Three: Corsair Triple Smoke Single Barrel Bourbon
The first time I thought the novel might really work was in graduate school, at Emerson College in Boston. I was in a novel workshop led by Mako Yoshikawa, and I brought in this chapter, where Caleb tries to burn the bodies of his brothers and sisters (it’s too cold to bury them) and sets the family house on fire in the process. The looks around the table during the discussion made me feel like I was on to something. I wasn’t sure this combination of genres and traditions would work if I threw them all together, and this is what Corsair distillery in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Nashville does. They experiment by putting a bunch of things they like together. I know what you’re thinking—I sound like a commercial. Well, this bourbon that tastes somewhat like a scotch is one of Corsair’s best, and that’s saying something. Drink it and the smoke stays with you for a bit, long enough to get through this chapter and the next, where the charred remains of the house smear across the snow. And yes, it is strong, but it’s also delicious, isn’t it?
Chapter Seven: Alchemist Heady Topper
You would think it gave me great pleasure to write one of the only happy memories Caleb can cherish—that of the day he and his mother shared a moment while she did the wash and he fished in the creek. In fact the opposite was true: so much weight rested on that scene that I avoided it for years, and once I sat down to write it, the tone eluded me for a long time. Searching for Vermont’s unicorn of beers, the much in-demand Heady Topper, should give you a taste of that search and, when you do find one, it pours like sunshine. You want another one? I’ve been hiding two in the crisper. One for me and one for you.
Chapter Nine: Fantome Saison
There’s this interlude where Caleb and Elspeth rest at a home owned by an elderly couple who believes in ghosts. This portion of the manuscript used to be a lot longer, by thirty pages or so, and the book as a whole is better for the cuts, but I miss that weird little ghost story. No, I know what you think, you don’t have to repeat it. When you’re drinking your Fantome, you’ll see the ghost mascot on the label and how the cloudy beer is a little spectral in the light. Can you see that? Thank you for telling me again that you didn’t enjoy this section. I’m glad we can still be honest with one another.
Chapter One: Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey
When I was young and my family would take trips to my grandparents’ house in Syracuse, New York, I would read in the backseat. You took trips like that, too? Well, somewhere on the New York State Thruway, I discovered my love for Southern Gothic literature. Having never been to the South, however, I imagined those stories to take place on the mysterious lands beyond the highway. It was natural, then, to set my version of one of those tales in the place where I’d pictured them years prior. If you would let me finish before you chug that, Hudson’s Baby Bourbon was the first bourbon distilled in New York State. I like the little bottle, too. Why are you laughing?
Chapter Seven: Bulleit Bourbon
Sometimes you tell me that The Kept reminds you of Deadwood, and I imagine you mean the HBO show and not the Pete Dexter book. This probably comes from thinking London White’s brothel resembles that of Al Swearengen. I take this as a huge compliment, as I think both Dexter and the show are brilliant, but I didn’t read the book until I’d finished mine, and didn’t see the show until White was already alive on the page. You’re nodding like you believe me but part of me suspects that you think I’m lying. Anyway, you’ll recall that Bulleit’s bottles were one of the stars of Swearengen’s, and they also feature prominently in the writers’ retreats my in-laws are kind enough to let me host in their house in the mountains of Georgia. While there, I edited huge chunks of the book, including this chapter. So all of those things happened. I meant to invite you. Didn’t I email you about it? No, I think you’d get along fine. No, you’re not a ‘secret friend.’ I’d be happy to introduce you. You tell me a time. No, you’re being silly.
Chapter Nine: Bell’s Two Hearted
I know that we agree on this at least: this starts the saddest section of the book. There are a lot of gifts in The Kept purchased with the intention of giving them to another, and none of them really work out. This scene really got to me, and in response to our broken hearts, I present you with the gift of Bell’s Two Hearted, which may be my favorite beer, even though they don’t sell it in Massachusetts for some reason. I remember it was around this chapter that you told me you weren’t sure I’d ever finish this book. It’s kind of easy to say that it hurt my feelings but that’s what happened. Thanks—I’m glad you like the beer—as I said, it’s my favorite—but are you even listening to me anymore?
Chapter Twelve: Rogue Dead Guy Ale
Sometimes writing a book is like floating in space: no oxygen, no sound, no response, everything so still it doesn’t even seem alive. The scope of things make you question their reality: If that tiny blue ball is earth, how can my dog be running in the snow there? How can my mother be eating lunch? How can your dad be pressing a tiny piece of toilet paper to a shaving cut? No, I haven’t been smoking pot, I really haven’t. No pills, either. You saw me at a party once and I had one of these Rogue bottles in my hand and you thought I was drunk. But I wasn’t—all the stress and weirdness had landed on me in a strange way and I wasn’t myself. In fact, I’d only just gotten that beer. It was still very cold.
Oh, yes, right. Sorry I got a little lost there for a minute. Sometimes you find one thing to hang on to, and you can center everything else around that thing. I wrote this story that Ethan the bodyguard tells Caleb, and I thought it worked, and that made me relax enough to write some more. How’s the beer?
Chapter Thirteen: Blanton’s Bourbon
At some point, all novels break open, and the questions start to be answered and the mysteries winnow down. I think, though you aren’t so sure, that this is that chapter for The Kept. It’s funny how sometimes you know my book better than I do, and you tell me something happens in a certain place and I argue with you and then you look it up and you’re right. We argued once about which bourbon comes in a bottle that looks a little bit like a grenade and has a small figure on the top that looks like something out of Monopoly. Neither one of us had it right, but you made me pay for the drinks as if I’d lost the bet. No, I don’t bring it up to get in an argument. It’s okay. It’s just good to see you again.
Chapter Four: Redemption Rye
I guess we’re at the end. I miss this book and I miss these characters. Here, take this bottle of Redemption Rye with you. Share it with your friends. Take some Emergen-C and drink some water so you don’t feel awful tomorrow. Don’t stop at McDonald’s. The sodium will give you a pounding headache in the morning. Me? I’ll be here. I’m writing another book. What’s that look for? I know it’s at least half my fault it’s been so long. I’ll see you soon. I promise.
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