Full bodied, good bouquet ... Evian?

It's not what you drink, but why you drink it, says Douglas Johnson - w ho admits he's a waterholic
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The Independent Online
The cigarettes are handed round. One of those present says: "No thanks, I've given up." Everyone looks. They ask when this decision was taken and how difficult it has been. Privately, they say to themselves: "It won't last." But there is no critic ism. Even those who believe that there is a right to smoke feel a certain admiration. Former smokers occupy the high moral ground.

But let us suppose it is drinks that are being handed round. One of those present declines: "Can I get you something else?" asks the host. "No thanks, I've given it up," comes the reply. "It's not just the driving; I've given up drink for good. Perhaps you've got some mineral water?" Everyone looks. This time there is no admiration.

The distinctively horrid word "teetotal" is bandied about. It should apply only to those who are ill or who adhere to some fanatical religious faith. The abstainer does not occupy the high moral ground here, he is suspected of adopting a supercilious attitude to the rest of mankind.

If the abstainer is a woman, then it is not too bad. Women can't drink and shouldn't try. Drinking is for men, and any man who gives it up is betraying something of his masculinity. This is disagreeable. And it is also distasteful to have to answer queries about the state of one's health, when it is obvious that the questioner probably seeks to gloat rather than to sympathise.

Instead of saying that alcohol doesn't agree with one, there is a tendency to invent and to talk about training for the London Marathon, or how one is returning to the years of splendid youth when, prior to the age of 17, no alcohol was ever consumed.

Naturally it is assumed that every abstainer is a secret drinker. It is true that tonic and a slice of lemon looks like gin and tonic. In a French cafe, as you sip your grenadine, someone asks if you are enjoying your kir. Welsh pubs are said to have concealed entrances for the use of the local Methodist preacher, and every French village has its story about the woman who would shrink from any drink in public, but who was regularly found unconscious by her husband in their house alongside the empty Calvados bottle.

But the cynics do not understand a simple fact: those who have repudiated alcohol actually like the fruit juices and mineral waters that have replaced it. There is the bouquet of Vichy, the smoothness of the slightly acrid Isabelle, the thirst-challenging properties of Perrier, the full flavour of Benoit ... but I must not go on, otherwise I will begin to sound like the wine experts ("give me an adjective and I will find you a wine to go with it").

It is true that there is a certain rivalry. We, too, could talk about les quatre grands from France - Evian, Volvic, Contrex and Vittel. We, too, can talk about sources - the Black Mountains and the Ochil Hills. We have our little local places. ("It's called Plancoet, it's near to some decent Roman sites, and its water is delicious.") Old men reminisce about the first time they tasted Buxton water, and we all remember Sam Weller's first visit to Bath and his experience with the chalybeate taste of the w ater.

You are aware that when you sit in a restaurant with a blue-bottled Ty Nant before you, you are a splendid sight, and a bottle of sparkling Malvern in the ice-bucket makes you the equal of any champagne swiller; a few drops of Angostura or a piece of lime in Evian or in tonic water makes the most splendid of aperitifs, and you cannot but notice that the couple staring into each other's eyes have a bottle of Appollinaris between them.

But of course, as with every addict, there comes a time when you wonder whether your enthusiasm should be controlled.

After all, there have been some strange teetotallers. Tetley, the brewer, used to tour the north of England urging his listeners not to drink his product, and in Oxford there used to be a man who would go into pubs and put salt in people's beer. In Brittany, an old sailor told me that he believed in total abstention, except for rum. One doesn't really want to be associated too much with such people.

There is no reason to get caught up in the rivalry between Chateldon and San Pellegrino and choose one's restaurant in Paris accordingly. Saint Paul wrote to Timothy: "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities." It could not be clearer. Perhaps the kindly but obnoxious person who used always to be present saying: "A little one won't do you any harm" is right. Perhaps one should look more tolerantly on the man who said: "What's that water that goes down well with Camembert? I can't remember its name, but it's a deep red colour."

And alcoholic drinks are a great destroyer of social barriers. In the 1840s it was reported that a workman asked a duke for a light. This was exceptional and it was thought worth recounting how the duke gave him one. But for years all classes have drunk the same - or almost the same - drinks together.

Chesterton once said that the safest way to drink was to do so carelessly, without caring very much for anything, especially for the drink. So in future, when I am asked what I would like to drink, I shall reply: "Anything that's going, I don't mind." But then I shall add, "Providing it's mineral water."