Conversations Drinks Lifestyle
Drinking Smart: Writers and Writing on Booze
By Tony Sylvester
Jul 13, 2022
To see out the month of January (whether it's been wet or dry, for you), Tony Sylvester assembles a motley band of writers to contribute their favourite writing on the subject of booze.
Illustrations by Wes Robinson.
The past twelve months have been undeniably aberrant, not to mention abhorrent, but the turning of the calendar will always remain a moment for reflection and consideration, especially where one’s health and habits are concerned.
Whether it's been a ‘wet’ or a ‘dry’ January – or perhaps you're even considering a starker long term choice where consumption is concerned – we felt it might be prudent to elicit some expert advice on the matter, asking some of our favourite cultural writers to wade in with their choice musings on the grape and the grain. From the celebratory to the cautionary, what use are resolutions without research?
Author of Men And Style, Men And Manners, and the upcoming The Optimist: A Case For The Fly Fishing Life
A good book on drinking requires broad expertise, keen perspective and a utilitarian spirit. The broad scope of the subject is almost unrivalled—you want recipes that allow you to follow along from your home bar and a sharp point of view about what it all means. In Everyday Drinking Kingsley Amis leaves no bottle unturned in this incredible volume, that hails from a heroic era of drinking (for better or worse).
There are instructions, principles and an examination of the vital difference between a physical and metaphysical hangover (largely to do with the amount of self-pity involved). This is an acidic book: Amis advocates for a private refrigerator for your own cocktail needs, and keep it locked or you’ll never have what you want when you need it. There are theories on Bloody Marys, dealing with relatives, serving punch at parties and whether or not you need more ice trays (you do).
Amis writes about a different time. He believed playing music in pubs was the beginning of their downfall (possibly true). But you are not going to learn about natural wines, anything biodynamic or developments of recent decades. But that’s alright, in most cases he discusses enduring principles, including his description of a milk punch that should be taken “upon waking, in lieu of breakfast”—that’s the spirit!
Creative Director of Berry Bros & Rudd
For anyone looking to take their hooch seriously, I would highly recommend scouring second-hand book shops for dog eared copies of The Compleat Imbiber. Edited with loving care by the renowned British wine writer, Cyril Ray, the Imbiber was a series of spirited anthologies published from 1956 until the early 1970s. Featuring such literary sages as Kingsley Amis, John Betjeman, Iris Murdoch and Laurie Lee, these wonderfully ramshackle compendiums were intended for cultivated readers who appreciated the finer things in life.
Wine and spirits take centre stage against a backdrop of travel, art and philosophy; all supported by the most wonderfully evocative and amusing illustrations. Ray himself described the collective musings as follows: “Here […] we have the whole cream of the literary world of today bringing original thought to one of the vital pleasures of living. The art of intelligent drinking has occupied many books, most of them ephemeral, for vintage, like beauty, fades. But wine remembered is immortal.” I could not have put it better myself.
Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Adams
Author of I Am Dandy, We Are Dandy, and the forthcoming biography of Charles ‘Champagne Charlie’ Heidsieck
The first time I met Christopher Hitchens he was drinking whiskey. Ditto every other time I saw him, although it may have been wine once. He was, putting it mildly, a fan of what he called “the grape and the grain.” As the author of dozens of books as well as weekly and monthly columns, Hitch was also the Platonic ideal of the high functioning alcoholic. He was said to be an inspiration for Tom Wolfe’s boozy brit journo Peter Fallow in “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but both men denied it.
Booze was both fuel and lubricant to Hitch. As he put it: “Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.” He was discriminating in his taste without being a snob: something as mainstream as Johnny Walker Black was good enough for him (and, according to him, secretly good enough for the Pakistani military leadership.)
Like the best writers on the topic of alcohol, Hitch spent less time telling us what to drink rather than how to drink. In the midst of the Iraq War he took a break from alienating his left wing friends in order to alienate restaurant workers by devoting an entire one of his Slate columns to the proposition that diners should insist on pouring their own wine so waiters don’t interrupt conversation.
Hitch was a man famous for his often controversial opinions and the skill in which he defended them. He once said that the four most overrated things in life were champagne, picnics, lobster, and anal sex. At Hitchens’ memorial service, Stephen Fry, taking advantage of the fact that there could be no witty reply this time, said “three out of four ain’t bad.”
Author of Out Of The Woods and editor of The Quietus
One of my strongest memories as a child growing up in 1980s England was the smell that billowed from pubs when I walked past, safely clutching a parental hand – a naughty and tantalisingly adult waft of cigarette smoke and a warm liquid sweetness that I assumed had something to do with drink, like the scent of the cork I used to pull off my parent’s solitary sherry bottle – the only booze in the house – and sniff.
When I first read Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy of novels, all set in the fictional Midnight Bell pub, the immediacy of his prose reminded me of those earlier, magical imaginings of what pubs must be like. Hamilton died an alcoholic, and his deep intimacy with the destructive liberation of booze, and the temples in which it is drunk, is what gives his accounts of turbulent characters on either side of the saloon bar such vivacity and depth. The sourness of rooms fugged with unfiltered cigarettes, wool suits damp from rain-slicked streets, bad perfume, breath soured by port and lemon and pints of mild rises wondrously from his pages, a cinematic evocation in which his brutish conmen, mendacious actresses, downtrodden clerks and helpless souls buffeted by the tides of the Depression and Second World War played out their tragic, English lives.
Writer and musician
Recently I have been poring, feet up on the sofa, over a rather curious collection of historical writing on drink and drinkers entitled Merry Go Down: A Gallery Of Gorgeous Drunkards Through The Ages, painstakingly compiled under the rather absurd nom de vin ‘Rab Noolas’: Saloon Bar backwards for the more linear minded. This exhaustive volume races along chronologically from the biblical to the modern taking in Plato, Shakespeare, Boswell, Byron, Dickens and Joyce amongst many many others.
Originally published in 1929 by the wonderfully folkloric sounding Mandrake Press, the ambitious volume was the obsessive, apparently all-consuming work of one Peter Warlock, whose life was cut short months later. By all accounts he led a rather wild 36 years consisting of classical composition in the contemporary style of Elgar or Vaughn Williams, a career as an inflammatory music critic, and an occultist in the Aleister Crowleyian vein whose dedication to the demons, drugs, drink and sex magick scandalised the small Kent village he called home, leading on more than one occasion to his arrest for domestic carousing and habitually riding his motorcycle naked along leafy lanes. He died, by his own hand, a broken man unloved and unappreciated, but as his illegimate son the art critic Brian Sewell noted, performing one final noble act of mercy; placing his pet kitten outside the kitchen before gassing himself.