The Single Most Important Fact You Need To Know About Drinks

“Fact” is such a contentious word in our post-modern world. After all, what is a fact?

When you actually start to interrogate that question, it turns out to be not as simple as it seems. After all, a dog may be a dog to me, but it’s a chien to my Francophone downstairs neighbour.

How about this one? Queen Elizabeth I died on 24th March 1603. Or did she? Thanks to Pope Gregory XIII, the whole calendar changed in October 1582. But not for everyone because, you know, the Reformation and all that. Britain didn’t go his way, calendar-wise, for another 200 years. But that’s how we figure all dates now, historical or otherwise. So as far as Elizabeth was concerned, she died on 6th April.

Facts can be tricky buggers at the best of times.

To make matters moderately easier, here is my go-to definition of the world fact, courtesy of my old university supervisor, the late Thomas Wiedemann: a fact is that thing upon which we choose to agree so that we may have an argument.

To see this in action, one need only think about climate change.

It’s a big and complicated thing, and pretty much every scientist who has ever studied it in any detail at all will tell you it’s real and it’s happening. That this is a contentious issue comes down to one thing: those who don’t want to believe it, down to their vested interests in fossil fuels, chemical processing, you name it, do not accept the scientists’ facts. They have their own facts to support their case. Because they do not have facts in common, they cannot argue. So the problem remains, festering and unaddressed.

What has this to do with drinks, you ask.

Well… taste is subjective. When we speak of taste, we have to define what we mean. Are we talking about the sense of taste, or the experience of tasting?

In the case of the former, we understand the five key tastes our taste-buds detect: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and savouriness. But the latter involves our sense of smell as well. We process this combination of taste and smell to create the idea of flavour. And how we perceive flavour is unique to each of us. It is also an abstract concept which we only have language to describe. This is limiting. How many times, after  all, have you heard strange meats described as tasting “like chicken”?

When we describe flavour, we reach for simile and metaphor to try to put the idea of our experience into someone else’s mind. It is a form of telepathy limited by the constraints of our imaginations, our vocabulary and the language we speak.

It is as far removed from the concept of “fact” as it is possible to get. It is all, in fact, opinion.

Which brings us neatly back to the title. The Single Most Important Fact You Need To Know About Drinks is this: if you like it, it’s good.

That’s it.

You are the arbiter of your own mouth. It doesn’t matter if you’re tasting vintage Krug, Mateus rosé, bathtub gin or Louis XIII. Do not let some pontificating bastard (like me) sway you from your own judgement.

On this, I think we can agree.

Review: Wiston Brut NV

So here’s something off-topic: I am a big fan of Alsace Pinot Noirs. They are delicate, interesting, occasionally austere, and sometimes they’re not very good. But when they’re great… well…


This is because of the weather. They have great terroir in the Alsace. But the weather is, in wine terms, somewhat unreliable. And this makes the production of a truly great Pinot Noir round that way …

[Sporting Metaphors Alert]

… akin to a Usain Bolt world record, going through Eau Rouge flat out on full tanks, hitting an ace on your second serve to win a fourth set tie-break at the Wimbledon finals when a double fault will lose you the game.

It takes commitment and nerve and an absolute precision confidence in what you’re doing.

So… what has this to do with English wine, you ask.

I will tell you.

It is often said that England’s South Downs have terroir that is geologically similar to Champagne, and that thanks to global warming, our French cousins “better watch out” because with better weather comes riper grapes blah blah.

This is an argument that doesn’t hold water. Or wine. For two reasons. 1/ Alsace shares a geologically similar terroir to Pfalz in Germany, where a sexy little micro-climate gives the Pinot a banging ripeness that Alsace, in most years, can only dream of. And 2/ England’s “hotter summers” seem to bring us a washed out ripening season, which is no friend to the grape.

I bring all this up because I have long been enthusiastic about English wine. I see it as a quixotic endeavour, and I love the passion behind it. But, at every English wine tasting I have ever attended — and we’re going back to the 80s here, when I did the vendage for a couple of autumns at a vineyard not far west of Oxford — there’s always that sensation that you’re saying nice things as you would to a backward child. You know, you want to be supportive. Unless it was about that Pinot Noir I tried at Denbigh’s in the late 90s, which reminded me of the old joke about what Budweiser and getting it on in a canoe have in common.

All of this slightly apologetic, “oh, jolly well done” feeling evaporated when I tasted Wiston’s NV Brut sparking English wine. For the first time, no apology was necessary. In fact, if you change “cleared” for “made”, I felt rather like Christian Slater at the end of this little scene here:

The Wiston itself is complex, zingy and fresh, with the yeasty, bready notes you would expect from a sparkling made with the three main Champagne grapes and in the Champagne style.

But there’s another thing going on here. This is a wine that is not trying to be something else.

Most of the other English sparklings I’ve tried, like Nyetimber and Chapel Down and so on, taste like ersatz champagne. And they carry a price tag that means the wine in the bottle does not live up to the positioning.

Wiston walks with confidence, greets you warmly with a firm handshake and a steady gaze, and is resolutely itself.

It doesn’t hurt that their winemaker, Dermot Sugrue, is obscenely talented and supported by a team with a clear vision, from the owners down, to help him deliver time and again.

But what he and the Goring family have achieved at Wiston is the creating of a genuinely English wine from great terroir and frequently unreliable weather.

That puts me in mind of a great Alsace Pinot Noir. And that makes me very happy.

Rules To Avoid A Hangover

I am hung over.

I know, I know. It’s not clever. I have taken Alka Seltzer. The prospect of a fry up, frankly, turns my stomach. Thai food could help. But the prognosis is grim.

I am hung over because I broke The Rules.

The Rules are many. They exist for a reason: to keep you safe. And they are largely undocumented. So, to assist you, the drinking public, here are some of them:—

  1. Don’t drink with Australians.
  2. When someone says “how about tequila/mezcal shots?”, it is not a good idea.
  3. Don’t drink with chefs.
  4. A fifth martini is never a smart choice. Dorothy Parker stopped her little poem at four for a reason.
  5. Don’t stay for a lock-in on St. Patrick’s Day.
  6. Have I mentioned the thing about the tequila?
  7. Don’t drink with Scandinavians, especially if there’s vodka involved.
  8. When someone says, “Have you tried…?”, just don’t go there, it will only end in suffering.
  9. Don’t drink with actors.
  10. Don’t drink.


Vodka… Huah!… What Is It Good For?

What is the point of vodka? Someone needs to explain it to me. Because I can see no discernible purpose for a drink that tastes of… nothing.

Vodka fans, you can keep all your “subtle hints of” bullshit. You know, deep in your souls, that if you drink vodka on the rocks, you’re only really tasting any taint on the ice from your freezer. That’s why you put a twist in it. To make it taste of something.

That’s why people make flavoured vodkas, which are abominable and pointless in themselves.

I do not understand why you’d go to all the trouble of distilling wheat, barley, rye, winter wheat, apples, potatoes… milk, for God’s sake… and then strip the flavour out of all of them.

Which is why I feel this burning need to borrow from Edwin Starr to ask, what is it good for?

Getting drunk.

A vodka and orange is just an excuse to get drunk while drinking orange juice. A Bloody Mary is an excuse to get a little sozzled at brunch.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. What bothers me about vodka is that its an entire section of the market that is all about positioning and very little else.

What, exactly, is the difference between your ordinary Russian Standard and your fanciest bottle of Belvedere? Answer: positioning, and fuck all.

Posh vodka is a scam. And that’s all there is to it. I’d go so far as to say, if you’re in the market for a bottle of vodka, buy anything you like.

Except Smirnoff.

We’ll talk about why next week.


In Praise of Well Liquor #2 Old Overholt Rye

Having rather put the boot into some of the darker aspects of the rye whiskey business, it’s time to show some love to the stuff. Because, when done right, it might just be my favourite thing in the world. That’s over and above even rum, upon which I was practically weaned.

The problem with rye is that it’s scarcity makes it comparatively expensive. Even the excellent entry level Jim Beam Rye costs between £20–30, depending on where you buy it. (Amazon sells it for £20, then it’s upwards from there.) Rittenhouse, also delicious, shows a larger price spread of £33-45, the higher levels being more than double what you’d pay for it in the States.

And that’s before we even start to consider Sazerac, the rye at the heart of New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, at an eye-watering £50 a bottle.

The key question, then, is: is it worth it?


Yes… Emphatically so.

Especially when you pony up for the Sazerac. With its hints of brown sugar lurking within the caramels imparted by its time in oak barrels, not to mention its cinnamon, allspice notes and slight whiff of a ripe grain field after a fresh fall of rain about it, it is superior stuff — a whiskey of real distinction.

Sazerac’s even a little pricey in the States. They simply don’t make very much of it. But the great survivor, Old Overholt, is made in larger volume.

Old Overholt is a fascinating product. Now produced by Jim Beam, it remains one of the few consistently produced American whiskeys, Prohibition notwithstanding.

It is one of those curious quirks of history. When the last of the Overholts, Henry Clay Frick (grandson of the founder, Abe) died in 1919, just before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, he left the business to Andrew Mellon, who would become the Treasury Secretary in Warren Harding’s prohibition over-seeing administration. At which point the business was looked after by the Union Trust Co., who received something in the region of 2 million gallons of rye.

Whether or not such government connections helped Old Overholt remain distillers of “medicinal” whiskey, available on prescription under prohibition’s repeal in 1933, remains to be seen… What’s more interesting, historically, is that is the only rye whiskey still made to a traditional Monongahela recipe. It is the oldest consistent whiskey style in America.

In the States, it is also cheap. You should be paying about $15. Though not here, where you’re looking at about £30 for a litre. Of course.

But it is still worth it, and not just for the fact that you’re tasting an historical recipe and the favourite tipple of one Doc Holiday. It’s that it’s delicious. It’s clean and bright on the palate, without the sweetness that typifies its cousin, bourbon, and with pleasing notes of cloves and white pepper.

If you’re new to rye, Rittenhouse is perhaps the place to start. It’s friendlier than Old Overholt, which takes rye’s austerity seriously. But, as with many of the taciturn persuasion, once it warms up to you, you’ll have found a stalwart friend.

If only there were more of it lurking in British bars.

Since it’s so damned cold…

… I thought we should talk about ice. This rather serious and bewhiskered gentleman is Frederic Tudor. And I’d like to suggest that he did more for the cocktail industry than almost anyone else in the 19th Century.


Because he pretty much invented the ice trade.

Tudor began his business in 1806, when he was just 23, buying his first brig to ship his first cargo some 1,500 miles from Charlestown to Martinique, and harvesting the ice from ponds on his father’s farm. “No joke,” said the Boston Gazette, when it left town on 10th February. “A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.”

As you’d imagine, most of it melted.

But, despite incurring debts so severe that he spent a year in debtors’ prison in 1812, Tudor was onto something. Not least because he had the foresight to secure exclusive rights to supply ice to a number of Caribbean islands, including Cuba.

By 1825, thanks to his supplier Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, they had figured out how to mass cut ice, improving production, and they’d had nearly 10 years to improve insulation on his ships. By 1833, they were exporting to India. In fact, when the first ship arrived at the Ganges that year, everyone thought it was a joke. But 100 tons of ice survived the journey.

Tudor may not have been the best business man in the world — he lost a bunch of money in the coffee trade — but his insights about the ice business changed the world. Harvested ice was vital for shipping fresh foods west on the burgeoning American railroad system in 1870s. It allowed meats and vegetables to be exported for the first time. And it allowed for cold drinks.

It’s no accident that Tudor’s first successful markets are the party towns of Havana and New Orleans. Nor that India, original home of the gin and tonic, should become one of the biggest importers of arctic ice.

By the time Jerry Thomas opened his first New York saloon in 1851, the ice trade is well established. And without ice, his 1862 book How To Mix Drinks would have been very thin indeed.

Plant produced ice only really begins to supersede harvested ice at the turn of the 20th Century.

So, since you cannot have cocktails without a reliable supply of ice, it stands to reason that Tudor’s ice exporting innovation was a major motor under-pining the bar business.

Alongside the Industrial Revolution, which brought people into cities, created jobs that gave people disposable income and leisure and a desire for novelty for the first time, which in turn led to a different kinds of bars and drinking habits appearing in different ways around the world, ice is critical to modern drinking. You cannot have a cocktail bar without it.

So the next time you order a gin and tonic (India), a daiquiri or a mojito (Havana), a Sazerac (New Orleans), a martini shaken or stirred, hell, even your Campari soda (Turin), tip your glass to Frederic Tudor. Without him and his competitors, the drink in your hand would certainly be different.

No. It’s Not.

Every time I walk past a branch of Jamie’s Italian, I have this barely resistable urge to reach for the spray can and write “No, he’s not” underneath the sign.

However, when I saw this recipe for a port and rum negroni in today’s Guardian, I could resist no more.

It’s not a fucking negroni.



For the love of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong here: it sounds delicious (unlike the accurséd apple martini). And 10 Greek Street is a lovely place. But this is not a fucking negroni.

It’s a valid drink. It might be a little sweet for my taste, but I bet it will sell like gangbusters.

But, dear bartenders, you are the heirs to such luminaries as Jerry Thomas and Harry MacElhone. Do you think they ponced about naming their creations an XX martini or a YY negroni. No they bloody didn’t. They used their imaginations and came up with great names for their drinks that survive to this day.

Give it a name of its own.

Because it is not a fucking negroni.