I AM a man who enjoys a drink - most drinks - with the exception of rum, but regular drinking is not on any more. It starts to get worse in your mid-twenties and one day you wake up and you're not young any more. I guess it's that time in my life. I'm married, I have responsibilities, I have to go to the dentist more often . . . and the weeks are starting to fly by, so I've opted to mod-erate my drinking. I'm happy to talk about it, but I can't glamourise it. And there you have it.
The best hangover I know is from beer before the meal, red wine with (preferably Chianti) and whisky to follow. These, unfortunately, are my favourite drinks. I have tried, really I have tried, to re-educate my palate - but to no avail. Champagne is a wonderful thing, but what if there's nothing to celebrate? Wine without food I can't seem to do, and beer - much as I love it - makes me belch and then makes me fat. I suffered for six months in a gym to shed three months of beer. Work that one out.
So you see, when it comes down to it, there is really only one drink for me - and whisky is it. We all have our preferences, mine being a Macallan or a bourbon, Maker's Mark, and with or without ice, depending on mood and whether or not I'm in Scotland. But if it's a Cutty Sark or nothing, that'll do.
Unfortunately, this is not a dilemma I find myself faced with too often. I have a friend who is a barman, and the bar is only five blocks from our apartment in New York. Two or three whiskies make for a fine feeling indeed, but the next is on the house - and you don't want to be rude. The good news is he only works Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. And do I have any interesting drinking anecdotes? Too many, and I'm trying to forget them - thank you.
I'VE only had two mint juleps in my life, and they were not handed to me by a white-suited, straw-hatted, decadently rich Gatsby on a Long Island terrace. I made them myself in the English Cotswolds, on a failure of a summer's day.
But I keep hoping. The very name has glamour. So, of course, does margarita or rum punch or tequila sunrise, but theirs is a slightly tawdry glamour with hints of the horrible 'Happy Hour' and too closely connected with abominations like pina colada and 'Long Slow Comfortable etc etc'. A mint julep is above all that. 'Mint' is fresh and cool, pristine and pure. 'Julep' is smooth and luscious and slightly decadent, sexy as cherries in the mouth.
A mint julep is the Lolita of drinks, innocence hiding more grown-up attractions. OK. OK. I'll quit romancing and revert to recipe writing. This is how you make a mint julep:
First you put great big stemmed goblets in the freezer. Then you use the food processor to chop up handfuls of mint leaves with granulated sugar (a tablespoon of sugar and a fistful of leaves per julep). When you've got a grainy emerald-green mush, you add ice-cubes (two cupped hands per person). This makes a terrifying racket, but in no time you have brilliant green granita. Don't continue beyond the chopped ice stage or you'll get green snow, not so pretty and less easy to drink. (Note for non-processor owners: put the ice- cubes in a polythene bag, then in a tea towel, and bash with a rolling pin. Chop the mint with a knife and grind into the sugar with a pestle or spoon.) Fill the cold glasses with the cracked mint ice and put back in the freezer.
That's the boring bit over. Leave the glasses in the freezer until you've got everyone assembled and set up to be impressed. Then bring out the glasses (now wonderfully frosted over like the purest Lalique) and pour a shot of whatever strong hooch anyone wants over the ice. Rum, whisky, gin, vodka, even Veuve Cliquot or Dom Perignon if you don't care about the sacrilege. They are all wonderful. The first sip of a julep is strong and boozy and very satisfying. By the end of the glass it's mostly melted ice, pleasant and deceptively mild. After that it's time for another go with the food processor or the rolling pin.
FOR a politician, this is a dangerous article to write. A mild preference expressed for any spirits would no doubt lead to headlines of the 'Why Tony Blair likes three Bloody Marys for breakfast' type. I am tempted to lie and say my favourite tipple is herbal tea, occasionally enlivened by a dash of lemon. On the other hand, such a statement could seriously damage my standing in my County Durham constituency.
The truth is my favourite tipple varies with time, place and company. The one thing that has changed dramatically is my capacity to enjoy it, whatever it happens to be. Gone are the old student days and a little beyond, where nothing seemed to affect my ability to live it up without any great physical debilitation. In part, it's to do with generation and being out of practice. When you lunch nowadays with the younger journalists as a politician, it's usually 'large bottle of mineral water please'. The older sort can't stand this kind of thing. There's at least one distinguished columnist of an older generation who has regarded me with complete contempt ever since I asked for a fresh orange juice at his club. 'When Labour used to win elections,' he said frostily, 'they didn't do it on orange juice.'
Mainly, however, I blame it on the children. Because the concept of sleep has altered so dramatically with the burdens of parenthood, I just don't seem to be able to take it any more. So it's only in moderation and on occasion nowadays (notice how subtly I have slipped that in). And, as I say, it varies.
But if I had to choose one, the tipple I would take is the one I used to enjoy on holiday in Scotland. There is a friend of mine who lives in Crail - a beautiful village on the east coast, 12 miles or so from St Andrews. Before fatherhood and for a little time after, I would spend some time with him and other friends. We would take bicyles and cycle into St Andrews. On the way back, having been round the town and devoured as many Scotch pies as possible, we would stop at a hotel and drink Belhaven 80/-, a beer rich and powerful and entirely what thirsty and deserving travellers required. It was, I suppose, 'real ale' - not with that awful fizz of so many cask beers - and it had a taste that was distinctive and memorable. I've no doubt I could drink a pint of it in London and wonder what all the fuss was about. But there, at that time and with those friends, it seemed an elixir.
MY PALATE and purse couldn't compete with those of a true connoisseur, but I'm a bit of a wine buff on the
quiet. My favourite beverage, however, is sorrell - not the bitter-tasting English herb, partner of rue, so beloved of Jacobean dramatists, but a delicious West Indian drink.
The exact recipe is impossible to describe because everyone has a favourite formula. When sorrell is the topic, heated argument ensues. Even the superior sorrell sold in the cramped stalls of Trinidad, or in London's Portobello Road, is home-made; part of its charm is that it comes in disguise, bottled in whatever empties are to hand. It's a rich, dark, cherry-red liquid, not unlike a claret to look at, with a tendency to froth if it has been stored for a long time. There's a hint of clove, and sometimes ginger, to balance out the sugar. Sorrell should be drunk bitingly cold - and in a tall glass if your tastes are as extravagant as mine. A bottle can cost pounds 5, but you can buy it by the glass for around 90p.
The drink is most widely available around Christmas, when the sorrell plants produce their flowers from which the calyxes are removed before they are plunged into boiling water. But I wouldn't recommend a DIY sorrell-making session, even if you could come by the plants.
Printed recipes are vague, hence the grounds for dispute. But a bona fide West Indian version goes as follows: '3lb sorrell (with calyx removed); 2lb sugar; 16 cups boiling water; left overnight, strained and bottled the next day with four cloves per bottle.' If only it were as simple as that] It's like those curry recipes you beg for, when you've eaten one that genuinely pleases the palate - only to speculate, when you're trying it for yourself, that one secret ingredient may have been consciously omitted]
The making of sorrell is usually shrouded in a conspiracy of silence, but some experts are a little more forthcoming. Ellie says it must contain a dash of sherry. 'Sweet or dry, Ellie?' I ask, my taste buds balking at the idea of Bristol Cream. 'It doesn't matter,' she replies. Gloria says you should add rum, but my teetotal friends blanch at the thought.
According to my West Indian cook book, the sorrell-making tradition came from 18th-century England. The drink was often made by Barbadian cooks employed by colonials when the Trinidadians refused to work for such masters. Like most things West Indian, it has been handed down by word of mouth; its precise cultural roots are lost in the mists of time and the mixture of races, but it is yet one more thing the West Indians have made uniquely theirs.
You drink sorrell on its own and, if it's really good, on your own - and keep selfishly quiet about where you bought it. It's refreshing and satisfying, and reaches parts other straight drinks don't even know about. Once you've
tasted it, you will be hooked.
MY favourite tipple? That's
a hard one for me to answer because, apart from those drinks which taste like liquid puddings, I like them all. Most, however, depend on whim, climatic conditions or geographical location.
Beer makes me even fatter. Vodka I only relish neat, very cold and as an accompaniment to blinis oozing with Beluga. That leaves rum, brandy, gin and whisky, all of which I admire for their uncompromising honesty. But to knock back rum, you have to feel piratical; brandy, Byronic - and as I grow older, both moods become rarer. Gin has a Hogarthian appeal and I succumb too often. So that leaves whisky.
Malt or blended? Well, I love malt, but tend to reserve it for special occasions. It always seems to taste better in Scotland for one thing; an illusion I'm sure, but drinking is a subjective vice. Malt also tends to be rather expensive.
As to blended, there is of course whisky and whisky, but I've only failed to finish one bottle; a Birmingham Brewers own 'special selection' which tasted like distilled badger droppings.
Of course I've got favourites. My own top three suggestions, in no special order of preference, and in the form of a riddle: the Glorious Twelfth, a sober facade in Clubland, and the least well-known, a clansman's sword. The only one I like much less can be avoided by assuming vagueness. Otherwise I'm not that fussy.
The great virtue of blended whisky is that any occasion will serve: the urban pub, the farmhouse kitchen, the drawing-room, the dressing- room, the attack of writer's block, the emotional crisis, the celebration, the soothing nightcap and come to that, right now - 7.30pm.
Answers: Famous Grouse, Justerini & Brooks (J&B), Claymore, Haig.