Homer’s Odysseus always pours the first drink from his wine bowl to the ground as libation to his gods. An uncle of mine, a gambler, did the same thing, though he would dip his fingertips in his whisky-soda and flick the drops about him mumbling solemnly, like a pandit at puja.
One thing only time teaches us is how to drink correctly.
I cannot tell good wine from great, and I know nobody who really can. The Indian who swirls and sniffs the waiter’s sample pour is doing it for form. His nose is inexperienced and he does not have a palette for wine. There’s a reason for this. The food of wine-drinking societies, like France and Italy, keeps tongues refined through its subtlety. The quality of meat is important, because it is cooked little—and without spice.
Tippler truths: (clockwise from right) Martinis may sound fancy but are inexpensive; the doctors in M*A*S*H preferred martinis of home-made gin; in whisky, like wine, an expensive price tag is a marker of taste; and cigars go best with champagne.
Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
The sensitivity of Indian tongues has long been obliterated by garam masala, mirchi and pickle. Even salt must be added excessively by Indians to standard recipes, as those who cook from European books will have noticed, because our tongue is unable to pick out the first few grains. Indians like strong and stimulating flavours, revealed by our culinary adjectives (chat-pata). European and Chinese food must be modified for us, because Indians dislike the subtle (pheeka). This lack of refinement extends to alcohol. The Guardian reported that the Australian wine Yellow Tail has two tablespoons of sugar added per bottle. It isn’t surprising that such rubbish passes for good wine in India.
Were I to have regular access to duty-free alcohol, my drink would be whisky. I don’t, and so it’s martinis. This might sound fancy, but they’re actually inexpensive. Their primary ingredient is gin, which costs Rs255 a bottle (it’s OK to buy cheap gin and we shall see why later). The expensive bit is the vermouth (Martini Torino Extra Dry, Rs1,374), but that’s only half a capful’s worth and a bottle lasts months. The martini also has olives, and that sits well with the doctor’s orders to eat greens. One irritating problem I have with the olives, however, is not knowing what to skewer them with. Toothpicks float to the surface and make the drink look cheap. Metal oxidizes, and makes clanging sounds, attracting attention.
I enjoy the ritual of mixing my drink. I have good martini glasses, and an excellent steel shaker with a washable filter. I do not shake it two-handed over my shoulder, like a Hollywood extra playing the maracas. I use one hand and toss the drink and ice about horizontally till my thumb is numb from cold. That is a sign that it’s ready.
Martinis of home-made gin are the favourite drink of the layabout doctors in the upscale TV series, M*A*S*H, and quite rightly. A vodka martini isn’t really a martini.
When my friends visit from Surat, I offer beer and gin at lunch, but they only want whisky. I left Surat when Mumbai was still Bombay, and no longer find whisky in the afternoon civilized.
But I cannot say it because they will accuse me of acting posh. And it is true that Fitzgerald’s characters in Gatsby drink whisky on hot afternoons, poured always from bottles wrapped in towels.
My friends drink Royal Challenge (RC) (and then say boastful things, ending with the words: “open challenge!”). One day I served Laphroaig, which they hated, silently suspecting I was palming off rubbish, and demanded their beloved RC for the next round.
I like Islay malts (Bowmore and Ardbeg above all) but my favourite whisky is the strange, almost putrid Macallan. So far as I know, Macallan is only ever advertised in The Spectator, with a sketch of the bottle and four words: “The Macallan. The Malt”.
One of the best writers in journalism was The Spectator’s Jeffrey Bernard. He wrote a weekly column on drinking and gambling, called Low Life. Married four times and forever broke, he described his life as “fast women and slow horses”. His columns became the hit Broadway play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, starring Peter O’Toole. It was named for The Spectator line published in explanation when, passed out or in hospital, Bernard was unable to file his column. He died in 1997, months after his leg was amputated from diabetes, but he didn’t stop drinking or, thankfully, writing about drinking. When a book of his columns was published, the Daily Mail reviewed it under the headline: A suicide note in instalments.
The Spectator is one of the few places where Hendrick’s Gin is advertised. It is very expensive and supposed to taste of cucumber and rose petals. I do not buy it. Vodka is, or should be, tasteless. Those who drink it must consider buying the inexpensive brand, because they’re all the same. And this is true also for gin, and every drink that adds mixers. The only expensive alcohol that tells is red wine and whisky. This is because they are aged, unlike vodka and gin, more than 50% of whose manufacturing price is spent on advertising.
The other expensive thing that is worth it is caviar. Watching the upscale series Frasier, I was deeply moved by the episode in which the Crane brothers buy smuggled caviar in desperation. But it’s important to know what the value of what you consume is, and this is to be a man of taste.
At five-star hotels, a large Ardbeg costs Rs1,100. A bottle of it costs Rs2,250 and contains 8.3 drinks. This is a mark-up of 400%, and I do not drink malt away from home.
Something else I do only at home, and this time wrongly, is smoke cigars. My smuggler Rizwan denies this, but my guess is that the ban on public smoking has hit cigar sales. This is because a cigar cannot be smoked at home. It must be clipped and lit in public where people can examine the band. I smoke Montecristo Petit Edmundo. They are expensive, thick (52 ring) and, critically, short. This means they may be smoked comfortably without jaw fatigue, which sets in when longer cigars are smoked (I imagine it might be easier for women).
Cigars make all booze tasteless, and cannot be had with anything other than champagne. Pakistani writer Munir Attaullah once wrote of sipping Clos du Mesnil (a Krug) while smoking a Cohiba. I saw immediately that here was a man of taste. Expensive taste, mind you. It’s silly to buy pricey champagne because all bubbly is flavoured, heavily sugared and aerated. Imagine Appy with 10% alcohol. That is, in fact, why champagne goes well with cigars. Provided it’s been competently bottled, and often it isn’t, a glass or three of cold Sula Brut will do for me at brunch.
People talk of those who drink to get drunk, but I have known nobody who drinks to stay sober. Conan O’Brien reported that the highest state of inebriation was when you began messaging your ex, wanting her back. This is quite true, though in Plato’s Symposium, the drunk playboy-warrior Alcibiades pines for Socrates instead.
Parties are insufferable for non-drinkers. I once soldiered through an evening sober and it was awful because everyone else was first incoherent and then clingy. But greater crimes have been committed under the influence than acting asinine.
Salman Khan’s Land Cruiser ran over the sleeping workers of A1 Bakery outside my house in Bandra one night in 2002. Salman, ever the hero, fled, blaming it on the policeman guarding him. The young constable was fired, and died, in penury and in shame, of tuberculosis, making it two people that the accident killed, and another crippled. Salman is, of course, still a hero. I wondered what he was drinking that night, and found out it was Bacardi at the Juhu nightclub Rain, and that did not surprise me. Does he still think of that night when he has a few? Who can say?
In Dublin, the pubs are full in the day, and red-faced men stand outside silently facing the street, alone with their beloved pint of Guinness. I understand superstar Rajinikanth sits by himself after his evening walk, and broods in the dark over a bottle of Black Label.
I like the thought of him doing that, though I find Black Label lacking in character. It is, of course, an evocative name.
The editor of Deccan Chronicle was once a reporter at that great magazine, Star ’N Style. She interviewed Mithun Chakraborty 30 years ago and asked him how he relaxed. Mithun said he liked going to a hotel, I think it was Holiday Inn at Juhu, and “eating khichdi with ghee, washed down with Johnnie Walker Black Label”.
When I worked for her years later, I made bold to bring up the interview but she couldn’t remember it. She said: “Oh, the actors would just tell us to make up whatever we liked”.
That disappointed me profoundly. Not that journalists made things up, of course, but that the story of Mithun eating khichdi and ghee “ washed down with Johnnie Walker Black Label” might not be true.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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