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Literature

10 books about booze to get you ready for drinking on New Year’s Eve

  • From the James Bond novel that helped invent a cocktail to Ernest Hemingway’s great love for the daiquiri
  • Raise a glass to the best writing about all things alcoholic
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 9:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 9:36pm

This isn’t a collection of books about drunkenness or alcoholism, though both feature. Rather, it is a celebration of those who write well about alcoholic drinks.

With drink, and especially wine, it’s easy to write in a technical way and leave out what makes alcohol interesting for most people: its intoxicating properties.

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Most drink-soaked fiction – by Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton and others – ignores the nerdy stuff. It is the intersection between connoisseurship and drunkenness that interests me.

Here are 10 good examples.

1. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead is neither Waugh’s best book, nor his funniest, but it is the best from a booze point of view. The scenes of drunkenness between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder include some of the funniest parodies of wine talk: “A little, shy wine like a gazelle.”

There’s also the excellent cognac-off between Rex Mottram and Ryder, which is a masterclass in razor-sharp snobbery.

2. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

No apologies for including such an obvious choice – the Bond novels have been very useful to drink writers and the drinks industry.

Casino Royale stands out as it has given us a cocktail, the Vesper martini: made with “three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold”.

3. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Just as Bond is associated with the dry martini, so Hemingway is with the daiquiri. A Farewell to Arms mentions a wide variety of alcoholic beverages. Though it is set during the first world war, there’s an optimism about all the cheery Italian drinks it mentions: Campari, Cinzano, marsala – the book could have been funded by the vermouth marketing board.

There’s also some decidedly Bond-esque connoisseurship: “The best kummel comes in those bear-shaped bottles. It comes from Russia.”

4. A Long Finish by Michael Dibdin

Drink is the lubricant of many crime novels. A Long Finish focuses on a grudge between two families of vignerons in Piedmont, and it includes great descriptions of the uncompromising wines of Barbaresco.

Wine also represents the faultlines in Italian society; the conflict between the families stems from in which side each family took during the second world war. Nobody writes about Italy’s dark underbelly better than Dibdin, and his detective, Aurelio Zen, enjoys the long alcoholic soak as much as Philip Marlowe or Maigret.

5. A Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

Lanchester’s debut novel is a cookbook-diary of Englishman Tarquin Winot, whose relatives and acquaintances die with alarming frequency. A love letter to the ultimate gastronomic civilisation – France – this book contains recipes, mouth-watering descriptions of meals and plenty about booze. It includes the perfect martini (seven parts Beefeater gin to one Noilly Prat) and an unbeatable description of one of my favourite reds, Chinon, that is so spot on you can almost taste it: “both playful and fruity in some moods, darker and even a touch forbidding in others …”

6. Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by AJ Liebling

Published in 1959, this is an account of Liebling’s time in Paris in the ‘20s. Like Lanchester’s novel, it is a hymn to the pleasures of French gastronomy. Indeed, Liebling paid a heavy debt to pleasure in the form of gout so severe he could barely walk. There are paeans to France’s liquid treasures: burgundy, Beaujolais, cognac, and, most memorably, to the greatest rosé of all, tavel from southern Rhône: “The taste is warm but dry, like an enthusiasm held under restraint, and there is a tantalising suspicion of bitterness when the wine hits the top of the palate.”

7. I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine by Roger Scruton

This book is ostensibly about wine and philosophy, but Scruton also writes movingly about his relationship with his father, and his political and spiritual awakening in Paris in 1968. Scruton isn’t interested in grape varieties and types of barrel; instead he looks at wine’s cultural and religious roots, and acknowledges its transformative power.

8. The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto by Bernard DeVoto

The Pulitzer-winning historian wrote this mock heroic about the joys of the cocktail hour in 1948. He grasped that the job of a drink writer is not necessarily to be right, but to take a strong stance on unimportant things. DeVoto forbade all cocktails except the martini (his perfect ratio is 3.7 parts gin to one part vermouth) and the old fashioned. The Hour is enormously fun and endlessly quotable: “You can no more keep a martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss in there.” Just don’t treat it as a guide to making cocktails.

9. Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis

This collection of Amis’ writings about drinks is a mixed bag. He isn’t very interested in wine but when it comes to spirits, he is your man. Amis even has his own cocktail, The Lucky Jim: 12 parts vodka, one part Martini Rosso, two parts lemon juice. The best chapter is the one on “boozemanship”, which is “the art or science of coming ahead in drinking matters”. It is Amis’s very funny take on gamesmanship, and includes the perfect way to deal with a wine bore.

10. Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch

Lynch has a lesson for all writers on drink: “Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull.” The 1988 book is powered by Lynch’s anger at producers cutting corners and abandoning time-honoured methods to make their wine more modern.

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It’s also very funny – take his writing about blind tasting: “When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it; she puts it on her own.” Difficult to argue with that.