I come from a family that thought it was wicked even on Christmas Day to drink more than one Sherry. I was first introduced to real alcohol when I joined the Navy and I never turned back. I find the subject fascinating because it has so many facets, there is the pleasure of drinking, there is the urge to drink, one can make alcohol in its many forms, and one can talk about it endlessly
This piece started because a young acquaintance of mine is talking about the pleasure he got from wine he had bought at something like £50 a bottle, or six pounds a glass if you like. This took me back to the 50s, when I earned so little I could not afford to drink except on special occasions. Sophie and I played bridge with some close friends, who were probably as poor as we were, we played for a penny a hundred – losers pay. The money was used to buy half bottles of good wine, as recommended by the vintner, because we were tyros in this matter. We drank it with a celebratory meal, when we had gathered enough from the kitty for the wine. I see these wines on wine lists, they never cost less than £25 a bottle, and I am afraid that I want more from life and in particular from my £25 than a bottle of wine. This particular friend and I started making wine, he from the fruit of the field, I from tinned grape juice, and packaged fruit juice – 60 gallons a year. We really took it seriously, recording everything you could think of, daily temperature, weather, specific gravity and a host of other things which in consequence enabled us to steadily improve the quality of the wine, until at parties when we had blind tasting, and brought in reasonably priced commercial wine, we were pleased to discover that the tasters didn’t all go for the bought wine. One thing I did discover, which has been a policy of mine ever since, is that, not going into the higher echelons of the very best, but in the general run-of-the-mill wines, especially home made, the outcome of two wines carefully mixed is generally better in flavour than either of the constituents.
Have you ever sat watching television, drinking wine? Firstly the act of lifting the glass and taking a swallow becomes reflex, secondly, when the glass is empty filling it becomes a reflex, you taste little, you drink a lot, assuming it’s there to be poured, and if it’s home-made it will be in a huge jug, so alcoholism can also become a reflex. My brother also made wine, and like all winemakers some of the brews were not up to scratch. He took a pressure cooker, made a spiral, inserted a thermometer and distilled those wines he didn’t like two or three times, to make a very good alcohol. This he mixed with brown sugar and coffee to make Tia Maria and from then on his Tia Maria parties were legendary. The fact that most people suggested he supplied a white stick with every third bottle, didn’t detract from the pleasure.
Like all pleasures, there are pitfalls, and in excess – problems. When I was in the Navy, and 18, totally broke, I was invited to a party and had to buy something to take with me. Remember I was an ing?nue where it came to drink, hadn’t even had my first tot, and was looking to buy something I could afford. I was persuaded to buy barley wine, which I believe is not a wine but a strong – Oh how strong, beer, and when I gave it to my host he roared with laughter and suggested that I drink it. I woke up on his settee the following morning having no idea of what had happened at the party. I was told later that it was considered locally as dynamite. (See also The Passing Out Parade on Old Gaffer)
Living in Ireland one inevitably comes in contact – shall we say – with that dangerous brew from potato mash – poteen. The first time I tasted it, there was no indication of its proof, it was in a hip flask which was basically a medicine bottle with a screw top, but I suspect it was very high because as soon as it came in contact with the tongue one had a sensation of the whole contents of the mouth expanding – a little unnerving..
As someone who lived through the age when drink-driving was acceptable, and who appreciates for that very reason the necessity of having a ban, the one thing that I believe has resulted has been a reduction in the spontaneity, the conviviality, and if you like, some of the absurdity of the parties in those days. When people sitting around a table where half the guests are throwing it back as if there’s no tomorrow, and the other half are drinking some pallid soft drink, I suppose this is inevitable. Of course there are always taxis, but it’s amazing how often this fact is forgotten.