Review: Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis


First of all, you should know that Kingsley Amis was a bit of an elitist, a misanthrope and a out-and-out curmudgeon. He didn’t have much time for women in a monogamous sense (as both of his marriages show) but he did spend a lot of time drinking (when he wasn’t writing) and Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis is a fairly good example of the dedication an amateur can bring to the subject (whilst being pretty sad all the same)

Amis was not a nerd but he was very much an enthusiast and one with definite opinions on the rights and wrongs of drinking. He was also a massive alcoholic and, as Christopher Hitchen says in the introduction, ” the booze got him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health.”

Still, with that in mind, perhaps the best way to approach this collection is with some understanding of the man and the era he came from. Sure, there’s some information here that is wrong (morally or factually) but there’s a lot to enjoy here as well. Amis may have been many things and not all of them were “nice” but he did know what he liked and what he didn’t like and he appreciated others who felt similarly:

“I dislike men and women when they are cold-hearted (a reserved manner is okay), unpleasant to those who can’t hit back (waiters, etc.), unable to allow others to finish a sentence, stingy, disinclined to listen to reason and fact, bad hosts, bad guests, affected, racialist, intolerant of homosexuality, anti-British, members of the New Left, passively boring.” (from The Letters of Kingsley Amis, ed. by Zachary Leader, 2002)

There. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, perhaps we can go on to the book itself. Divided into three sections, On Drink, Everyday Drinking and How’s Your Glass?, it covers a wide variety of topics that interested Kingsley: literature on booze, recipes, being British, the decline of pubs, what kind of bar tools and products you’ll need, purchasing and serving wine, being both a good and bad host (and guest), how not to get drunk and (when that invariably fails) dealing with the inevitable hangover.

The last section is dominated entirely by quizzes that will test your knowledge of alcohol. Most people have found this part of the book boring but I quite enjoyed it; I guess this is where my inner nerd (and Amis’ too) comes out.

I particularly enjoyed his list of G.P (General Principles). Some of the best include:

1: Up to a point (i.e. short of offering your guests one of those Balkan plonks marketed as wine, Cyprus sherry, poteen and the like), go for quantity rather than quality.

4: For any liquor that is going to be mixed with fruit juices, vegetable juices, etc., sweetening, strongly flavoured cordials and the like, go for the cheapest reliable article.

7: Never despise a drink because it is easy to make and/or uses commercial mixes. Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naïve–or worse.

8: Careful preparation will render a poor wine just tolerable and a very nice wine excellent. Skimping it will diminish a pretty fair wine to all right and a superb wine to merely bloody good.

These four have a lot to offer the modern consumer who is often tempted to go to extremes when it comes to purchasing booze and then gets upset when the product doesn’t match up to their expectations. Amis is quite right; don’t spend too much at the expense of getting the good stuff, buy the cheapest of the best, don’t be pretentious and make sure you prepare your drinks well.

Amis was at his best when he was cutting and dismissive. On Canadian whisky:

I can’t help thinking that the Canadians are a great crowd, but are perhaps the only people who could have produced a boring whisky.

He is less kind to the Irish:

The idea of medieval Irishmen inventing a rather complicated technique like that of distilling, or anything at all for that matter, is hard to credit.

On the Pina Colada:

Just the thing for a little 95-IQ female, fresh from a spell on the back of the bike, to suck at while her escort plunges grunting at the fruit machine. Mind you, he’ll be no ornament to his sex either, quite likely clutching a lager and lime–an exit application from the human race if there ever was one.

On being asked about what you think of the wine:

If asked what you think, say breezingly, “Jolly good,” as though you always say that whatever it’s like. This may suggest that your mind’s on higher things than wine, like gin or sex.

While Amis was fond of the classics (he counts a martini, gin of course, as the best cocktail around) he displayed a fairly remarkable ingenuity for getting the most of out what he had around him. He wouldn’t have been into mixology in the slightest, viewing drinking as an everyday pleasure, but he did appreciate good ingredients, prepared carefully, and who can’t get behind that?

In short, this book is perfect for those who enjoy a bit of British wit, don’t mind some stuffiness here and there and are willing to overlook his hypocrisies. There’s a lot of interesting information here, both historically-speaking and for the bartender-at-home. Amis does have his moments of clarity and the best advice he offers is at the end of of On Drink:

Well–if you want to behave better and feel better, the only absolutely certain method is drinking less. But to find out how to do that, you will have to find a more expert expert than I shall ever be.

Spoken like a true sot.

(For a different take on the book, read John Crace of The Guardian, which is also where I happened to find this rather excellent illustration by Neal Fox.)

Filed under: Reviews

Important cocktails of the past decade + eighteen other links


Robert Simonson of the New York Times looks back at a decade of innovation (and reinvention) when it comes to cocktails. St. Germain is indeed one of the most interesting liqueurs to hit the market lately and I really dig the idea of “bartender’s choice” as an option on a drink menu.

Dana Rourke of  the Live Organic Food Bar (located at Spadina and Dupont) shares her recipe for The London, a drink that you can feel good about imbibing, with The Toronto Star. To no one’s surprise, moderation is still the key.

Matthew Biancaniello’s an inspiration for anyone who’s gotten sick of the grind and taken up bartending because they’re an enthusiast (I can’t be the only one). His concoctions sound pretty interesting too…

For those of you who want to take a harder edge to your drinking, CAMH has released an online test that may help you get a handle on your drinking. Apparently, I drink more than 96% of males, aged 25-34, in Canada. I also spent over 1,700 hours under the influence of alcohol in 2009. Moving on!

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the Indiana University have found a molecule that may repair the enzyme mutation that causes people of Asian descent to get flushed faces when they drink. It does other stuff too (like cause cancer and neurodegenerative diseases) so this seems pretty important.

Jason Wilson of The Washington Post looks at rare cognacs. If it’s all about the bottle, how is this different from collecting any other kind of antique? I’m not sure what the deal is with spirits this expensive but an “indescribable” taste sure sounds interesting.

If you’re tired of creamy chocolate liqueurs, this Austrian spirit looks like just the thing to reverse that trend.

In need of some wintery cocktails? Cocktail Virgin Slut offers up some Boston Grog, Drink Snob has Writer’s Block while White On Rice Couple is all about the Sidecar Fizz.

Over at SLOSHED! they have a list of the ten most popular posts on their site for 2009. There are some really good recipes to be found so have a look.

For those of us who drink beer, here’s a handy flow-chart for determining which brand to go for (and yes, no one should ever be caught drinking lime-flavored beer). Once you figure that out, you can play Beer Battleship.

According to The Guardian, bigger whisky makers are feeling the pinch and have been shutting down plants in Scotland. With all the great new whiskies around, I can’t say I really care. If anything, this is a warning against getting too big and being bought out by a company like Diageo.

Beer companies aren’t really paying attention. Heineken now owns the Tecate, Dos Equis and Sol brands which it must hope will give it a leg up on Grupo Modelo (Parent company of Corona. Interesting sidenote: Anheuser-Busch owns half of GM.).

This follows an incredibly-sad statement in The Globe And Mail by Richard Musson, the vice-president of marketing for Labatt, who said that “in the end, what pays the bills is Budweiser.” Truer words were never spoken. Fuck innovation, let’s acquire someone else’s credibility.

Gothic Epicures VinCuisine has put together a handy list of all the best-value red and white wines for under $20 in the 2010 LCBO Vintages release.

While this cellar is presented as an “awesome” idea for storing beer, it would work so much better for wine. Still, it looks good.

Rachel Maddow makes a cocktail

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I love Rachel Maddow. Here, she teaches you how to make the Jack Rose with a healthy dose of snark.

Peter Peter Peter Peter. That is all.