Written by DAVID COGGINS
Illustrations by JAKOB SMEDHAGEN
There are many ways to drink and the late Kingsley Amis enjoyed most of them. Not only did he set the standard for drinking English writers — among fierce competition — he wrote extensively on the matter, which he viewed as more indispensable than food. The classic description of the hangover in Lucky Jim is considered the high water mark for being laid low, while his regular columns considered all matters alcohol. Those columns found a new audience when they were collected in the indispensable Everyday Drinking. And why shouldn’t they be celebrated? We look to Amis for wisdom and humor, for outrageousness and rampant opinioneering. He was fiercely devoted to whisky and ale, knew that gin can be enjoyed neat, and when he wrote that a certain punch is “to be drunk immediately on rising, in lieu of breakfast” you grasp his priorities. Perhaps most crucially, he directed readers to “make up your mind to drink wine in quantity.” As you wish, Sir Kingsley.
But much has changed since Amis and his liver ruled the world — and almost all that change has been to the good. If you drank wine in the 1950s you would be drinking something French. While it was possible to enjoy the first growth Bordeaux at a more earthbound price, your options were on the straight and narrow, some very high but most very low. No longer. Now it’s possible to enjoy good wine, intuitively made, from around the world. As Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ wine critic, says: this is a golden age for wine drinkers.
In his sympathetic new book, How To Love Wine, Asimov rightly celebrates makers who prize terroir — the local conditions that, in the best cases, dictate a winemaker’s approach. More people are responding to the land, as opposed to, say, the palates of certain well-known critics. These days it’s possible to get a bright Riesling from Long Island, elegant Rioja Crianza from Spain, and an upstart Champagne — all from one small store in the West Village. These tenets are celebrated from importers (like Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner), forward thinking stores, like Fort Greene’s Thirst, and in open-minded wine lists, like Freemans Alley in Manhattan and Diner in Brooklyn. There are more wines made with limited mediation from producers, fewer additives, often organic and biodynamic. Here’s to that.
St. John’s Martini
- 1 part Dolin dry vermouth
- 3 parts Plymouth gin,
- 1 dash Angostura orange bitters
- Lemon twist
The specs I use are ¾ oz. vermouth, 2 ¼ oz. gin. Mix with ice and stir until very cold. Serve up.
And that’s just wine — what of spirits? You don’t have to go far to discover a deadly serious cocktail ethic and a bartender with a finely waxed mustache and an air of mild disdain. But while precision and historical knowledge are welcome, there’s a danger of careening into fussiness, and drinks that arrive in half hour intervals. Fort Defiance, also in Brooklyn, is a straightforward restaurant that serves good food, with no pretension. You might be focused on their veal cheeks and grits, and not even realize that they make a terrific martini. But you really deserve to have one. The St John’s Martini, as it’s called, is Plymouth gin (as is right), dry vermouth, orange bitters and a twist. It’s a very fine thing.
“Dining culture as a whole is becoming more open minded at the same that it’s becoming more local.”
It’s interesting that dining culture as a whole is becoming more open-minded at the same time that it’s becoming more local. Producers look widely for the best methods, and then translate those for what suits their place in the world. Fine dining in 1950s America imitated formal French cuisine and atmosphere. Flowers on a white tablecloth and a staff in black tie are now very rare sights. From Minetta Lane to Momofuku, Prune to Roman’s — these are, above all, New York restaurants.
When Suntory, the venerable Japanese liquor company, set out to build their Yamazaki distillery, in 1923, they sought a setting whose climate imitated that of Scotland. They settled on an area outside Kyoto that offered good water, moderate temperature, and high humidity. In their faithfulness, they even spelled whisky as the Scots do, without that needless ‘e.’ For many years Yamazaki was not widely available in America, and when it was it did not have a devoted following. But Yamazaki evolved, they developed elaborate blends, and refined their single-malt scotches. Now, Yamazaki has an international audience that appreciates it on its own terms.
It’s a reminder that what we value in a restaurant or at the bar is, understandably, not an imitation (however faithful). We want something that expresses the culture itself. The modern drinker has an affinity to small producers, while embracing liquor from further afield. Yes to aged Spanish brandy, good Mezcal, lambic beer, and orange wine. The art of drinking continues to improve while the pleasure remains timeless.
Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver
- 1 hefty shot gin
- ½ pint bottle of Guinness
- Ginger beer
“Put the gin and Guinness into a pint silver tankard and fill to the brim with ginger beer. I cannot vouch for the authenticity or the attribution, which I heard in talk, but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something. I should think two doses is the limit.”