Welcome to the first instalment of the Boozy Bookshelf, in which drinks writer (and the writer of Drinks) Adam McDowell profiles an essential read for people with a keen or professional interest in adult beverages. We kick off the series with a title that McDowell insists is the best drinking book of all time.
To some 99% of the reading population, Kingsley Amis is remembered as a great novelist: One of the most visible members of a group that critics called the Angry Young Men, he captured life in mid-20th century Britain with a twitching — and very funny — resentment. His best work bristles with impatience for a more modern Britain (or at least better pay in the meantime), laced with knowing smirks at the buffoonery and pretension of past generations.
Amis is best remembered today for the 1954 novel Lucky Jim. Its turning point involves a young university lecturer stealing a bottle of port from his hosts’ sideboard and passing out in the guest room without first extinguishing his cigarette. He awakes with the best-described hangover in the history of literature, and a burning need to hide the ashy evidence. If you read Lucky Jim and it doesn’t make you laugh out loud — and let’s be honest, how many novels do? — I will, as the English say, stand you a round.
Booze writing was a side project for the otherwise famous Amis, and the volume released in 2008 as Everyday Drinking, which I regard as a personal bible, is in fact a compilation of three titles — namely, On Drink, Every Day Drinking and How’s Your Drink, which were originally released in 1972, 1983 and 1984, respectively. They’re all examples of general drinks primers, a category of book that barely exists in our time (not that there aren’t people trying to revive it. Ahem). Whereas boozy books today usually have a laser-tight focus — the subject could be wine, or rum, or bitters, or the recipes of a particular cocktail bar — what Amis serves up is general advice for the casual drinker; nuggets of wisdom for the bar, home or cocktail party. His subjects run the gamut from how to serve beer (“At the table inquire, ‘Anyone not for beer?’ Subtract the number so signifying from the total sitting down”) to drink pairings (non-vintage Champagne goes with “anything, everything or nothing”) to how to deal with a hangover (Amis believes you have to deal not only with the physical aspect, but also the spiritual, or “metaphysical,” hangover).
While there is useful information herein about, say, the best way to prepare a pitcher of martinis in advance for a dinner party, Amis is probably at his best and most refreshing when being self-deprecating. An example: “I once shared a half-litre bottle of Polish plain spirit (140 proof) with two chums. I spoke only twice, first to say, “Cut out that laughing — it can’t have got to you yet,” and not all that much later to say, “I think I’ll go to bed now.”
Meanwhile, some of Amis’s nuggets are out of date (the warning that “French” wine may actually be Algerian, for example, can probably go unheeded today) or just plain wrong, owing in part to the fact that the practice of cocktail historiography was less developed in Amis’s day. He asserts that the martini was “probably” invented in New York circa 1910; drinks writers are pretty certain these days that the most famous cocktail of them all is half a century older, and it actually hails from California.
All of that means that Everyday Drinking is best read with a degree of caution, and will ideally end up in the hands of someone whose drinks knowledge is already fairly well-grounded in other sources. Like an Encyclopaedia Brittanica from, say, 1927, Everyday Drinking is out of date but remains a work of elegance, grace and historical interest.
But hold on — no, that won’t do as an analogy. What dusty old encyclopedia sparkles with the viciously lacerating wit of Everyday Drinking? The chapter I re-read most often (and this is an eminently re-readable book) is the “Mean Sod’s Guide,” a sarcasm tour de force that gives tongue-in-cheek advice on how to host a cheap-ass dinner party. (You’re not meant to follow it, but to snicker at the notion of people so mean that they serve Yorkshire pudding without gravy.) It says everything you need to know about Kingsley Amis and his love of convivial, generous boozing and entertaining that he reserved one of his sharpest cuts for people who dared to serve him stale bread and a skimpy Scotch after dinner. And what would-be worldly drinker wouldn’t aspire to the offhanded, biting sophistication of the chapter’s punchline — which would apply just as well to any number of outlandish drinking anecdotes and episodes in the book: “If you think that all or most of the above is mere satirical fantasy, you cannot have been around much yet.”