November 17, 2010
Now, class, you will remember in this symposium’s first installment that we dealt with the dry martini, the pink gin, and the bullshot, the proper cocktails which mark a gentleman (or lady, I suppose) as a person of breeding, class, and distinction.
I hope you’ll forgive the sexism, but frankly, men are generally better at piss-artistry than women. And when it comes to drinking, you’ll never know what is enough until you know what is too much. As Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. And overdoing it, with a case of the wobblies and the possible messy culmination of parking the tiger, calling Ralph—call it what you will—is not a dignified state of affairs for a lady.
In conjunction with this lecture’s academic character, I should like to draw attention to our scholarly conclave’s origin—the symposium. Plato gave us the symposium’s classical prototype. The Greek symposium was a booze-up. The word is derived from sympotein, meaning “to drink together.” There you have it: Western civilization was born in the haze of a drunken Greek debauch.
This, by the way, is quite an improvement over Greek culture’s origins in the Pelasgians’ unspeakable goat-and-satyr orgies.
The relationship between culture and drink was nicely and succinctly put by William Faulkner: “Civilization begins with distillation.”
Now, I should like to deal with a couple of comments on Part I of this treatise. One reader asks if he might have come across me in Harare. I assume this is in reference to the African big-game hunter’s favorite tipple, the pink gin.
That we might have met in Rhodesia is possible. Before the troubles, I met a farmer there whose quarter-mile driveway had drainage ditches on both sides filled with empty Angostura bottles. When you consider that a man drinking daily would have difficulty putting away a bottle a month, that’s a lot of pink gins.
After embargos were introduced, the Rhodesians made their own “Angus Stewart” bitters. The Ugandans, ranked as the world’s leading per-capita alcohol consumers, make a gin from bananas called waragi. So the Dark Continent has contributed its own ethereal stars to the spacious alcoholic firmament on high.
Another reader wonders why I don’t talk about Scotch whisky, single-malts, etc. Because the brown liquid gives me a headache, I never touch the stuff. Chemists will tell you it’s “congeners” that give whisky its tincture. I’ll tell you what they give me: a squad of little jackhammer operators behind my forehead.
Back to my lecture. I’ll leave wines aside for the moment. A discussion of clarets, burgundies, and the inevitable introduction of wines from California, Long Island, South America, the Antipodes, and other places back of beyond is a minefield, with sniping wine bores behind every vine, nattering away about their hints of fruity this and that. It’s a subject better left for another time, if ever.
Let’s mop things up with some notes on after-dinner drinks of class. I’ve got no problem with port, but like wines, it’s a question of the vintner, year, and other variables that can disappoint. Forget Cognac; in France it’s a drink they give to Germans and other peasants. Your Froggy connoisseur drinks Armagnac.
Grappa is an Italian firewater that tastes like lighter fluid. First they make wine, then distill it into Cinzano. A further distillation produces STP, the valve-treatment additive. Finally there’s some horrible dribble left in the distillation column; out of that they make Grappa. Always order the cheapest in the house. It’s total piss, anyway.
Now to the apotheosis of after-lunch or after-dinner drinks—the kümmel. Found only in the poshest of clubs, golf ones especially, it is a clear alcohol flavored by caraway seed, cumin, and fennel. A couple of distillers, one in Hamburg, the other in Berlin, produce the genuine article. Best served in a tiny stem glass with a full circle of lemon rind over crushed ice, kümmel is the true nectar of the gods. It would have made Keats spit out his blushful Hippocrene. I’m not going to tell you who makes it or where you can get it, or even how it’s pronounced. It’s in very short supply.
I ended Part I with a drinker’s ditty. Why change a good thing? Here’s one from Benjamin Hapgood Burt:
One evening in October, when I was one-third sober,
An’ taking home a “load” with manly pride;
My feet began to stutter, so I lay down in the gutter,
And a pig came over an’ lay down by my side;
Then we sang, “It’s all fair weather when good fellows get together,”
Till a lady passing by was heard to say:
“You can tell a man who ‘boozes’ by the company he chooses”
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.
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