Magazine article The Spectator

Lifting the Spirits

Magazine article The Spectator

Lifting the Spirits

Article excerpt

AS THE governor of North Carolina said to the governor of South Carolina, `It's a long time between drinks.' I never quite understood the humour of that joke, if a joke is what it is. That is until I found myself sitting at a dinner-table recently, staring at the empty wine bottles in front of me with a sinking desperation as we finished the main course.

The worst part of an evening out is that dreadful hiatus or and purgatory when the coffee has not yet been served and the alcoholic refreshment has run out. Worse still, I suppose, is when, after the coffee has been poured, the hostess offers her guests only soft drinks, or at best some leftover white wine that has been warming nicely in the meantime.

These days, to ask for spirits would make one seem a lush. Yet at this time in the evening both the soul and the digestive system crave something more than plonky plonk. It is then that one begins to long nostalgically for the heyday of the afterdinner drink, that moment of golden conviviality and civilised excess when small glasses were passed around and something very alcoholic was poured into them.

Away with your Bailey's Irish Cream et al. I refer not to those stomach-churning subjects of Eighties television advertisements, but to the strong, serious stuff that opens the floodgates of conversation and catapults a mundane evening into the realm of an occasion.

Ever since drinking port became fashionable in England in the late 18th century, there has been a fine tradition of prolonging the hours spent around the diningtable. There were stories about people remaining at the table drinking port for over three hours. Pitt the Younger, a `three-bottle man' (albeit the bottles were smaller then) occasionally went straight from the port to the porte of the House of Commons.

But port is out these days. It has been relegated to the miserable province of middie-aged businessmen sitting smugly in the Savoy Grill or at tedious Conservative Association dinners. Port reeks of chauvinism and Little England. In my view, though, the best reason for abandoning port is that it produces the most vicious hangover, far worse than that engendered by whisky or brandy.

Ah, brandy. To paraphrase Dr Johnson: claret is for boys, port for men, but brandy is a drink for heroes. Brandy has more staying power than port. One glass or balloon can be made to last a whole evening. It sits well with the increasingly fashionable cigar, now even acceptable as a smart woman's smoke. It is more versatile than port, going tolerably well in its Cognac form with a tarte tartin and certain other apple-based puddings.

Which brings us to the main point, the finale. The best after-dinner drinks are those that can be imbibed with the pudding. The most distinguished of these is Imperial Tokay (made from the Tokaj grape) from Hungary. Michael Broadbent, the wine writer, described this as 'a prince among wines, more of a liqueur than a wine'. There is a dry Tokay, but the sweet one is the drink to which Broadbent was referring. The tsars of Russia so valued its exquisite honey taste and golden-brown appearance that they kept their own private vineyards. When they were ill, they asked for a glass, believing the drink contained healing properties. …

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