Six of the Best … Fictional Drinks

Leave a comment

Some people are of the opinion that literature goes best with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I’m sure that for many people, this is spot on, but I’m afraid I’m not one who agrees. Literature should be paired with alcohol. Books and booze, as I’ve long said, are two of the greatest things that humanity ever came up with, so it seems rude not to enjoy them together. Indeed, my relationship between alcohol and literature was best summed up in a line in Charlie Hill’s novel Books:

“Someone who reads too much without wetting his whistle regularly will become stupid; someone who drinks too much without diluting his drink with literature will end up in the gutter. Only the two together preserve culture; only the two together are culture.”

And I’m not alone in this belief. In honour of World Book Day 2019, the Independent published an article celebrating the pastime of reading in pubs. But even if that’s not enough, you simply need to take a quick look back through the annals of literary history to see that the two have been linked forever. In her 2013 book The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing beautifully explores the struggles that some writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver had with alcohol. Everyone knows how booze defined the lives and literature of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. In fact, just about the only author who didn’t seem to spend their free time in the pub was my dear Agatha Christie, who eschewed alcohol in favour of – unbelievably – double cream.

So what are we going to drink while we read?

My go to beverage is usually wine. White wine ideally, and something German like Riesling or Gewürztraminer, but I’ll always settle for a good Sauvignon Blanc, and any number of reds, from Malbec to Merlot. The oldest evidence we have for wine in human society dates back to around 6000 BC in what is now Georgia, and it’s fair to say that it’s defined many aspects of our culture since. It has long played an important role in religion, for example, being associated with blood in ancient Egypt, being used in Roman Bacchanalia and associated with the Greek cult of Dionysus, and even still being consumed in Judaism and Christianity to this day, in the Kiddush and Eucharist respectively. There’s nothing quite like a glass of wine.

Or how about beer? Beer dates back 13,000 years and is believed by some historians now to be the entire reason that civilisation exists. Before beer, humans could be nomadic, but brewing takes time, so people would have had to stay in one place for longer periods of time for the grain to ferment. This led to the construction of villages, and later cities, which meant agriculture could take off and change humanity’s path forever. After water and tea, beer is the third most popular drink in the world, and the surge in craft breweries in the last decade proves that it is in no danger of disappearing. People continue to experiment though, and there are now craft beers available that are based on the flavours of almost everything including coffee, sriracha, lobster bisque and Christmas cake.

Maybe you prefer your spirits? Mine is vodka, and I’m one of the only people I know who drinks vodka neat. A lot of people prefer gin, though, and in recent years gin has been the mainstay of booze culture. Originally Dutch, when it arrived in Britain it was served by the pint as people didn’t quite know what to do with it. Fortunately, this incredibly dangerous and foolish habit has long died out, and gin is far more respectable. In 2017, there was even a haunted gin sold for the first time, each bottle of which had been personally cursed by a white witch. According to those in the industry, however, gin is slowly beginning to drop away and we can expect a rum revolution in the coming months. Famously associated with pirates, navy personnel used to receive a rum ration when heading out to sea, forever linking it with ocean goers. It even became a vitally important trade good when Australia was founded, due to the lack of coinage. These days, it forms the basis of one of my favourite cocktails, a Zombie.

Speaking of cocktails, maybe they’re what you prefer. The first cocktail recipe book appeared in 1862, and the first cocktail party was held in 1917 in Missouri, but they didn’t really come into their own until Prohibition kicked in across the USA and speakeasies sprang up all over the country. With a secret bar having the potential to be raided at any moment, drinkers preferred these drinks that could be finished quickly, and gin soon replaced whisky as the nation’s favourite spirit as it didn’t take so long to make. Cocktails became less popular throughout the twentieth century, but towards the turn of the millennium interest grew once more, and cocktail culture is again a key part of society, with new concoctions being created all the time. Despite this, no one still really knows where the word “cocktail” comes from.

But we’re travellers in fiction. So why should we limit ourselves to drinks in the real world? Without further ado, here are six of the best fictional drinks…

Lacasa

Let’s start with something fizzy, to wet our whistle. Since we’re setting out on a journey through the fictional world of beverages, it seems only sensible to turn to a famous fictional journey to find some inspiration. In The Road to Oz, the fifth book in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Dorothy returns to the eccentric land once more, and at a birthday party for Princess Ozma. Although what the drink actually contains remains up for debate – and in Oz, it could literally be anything – it is said to be much nicer than soda water or lemonade. From this, we assume it is non-alcoholic, but it’s always nice to try and explore something new.

Vesper

James Bond is credited with inventing the Vesper martini but it is the only drink on this list that has made it into the real world. Now a staple on the list of official cocktails established by the International Bartenders Association (IBA), the drink has remained a favourite. Unlike a traditional martini, a Vesper uses gin and vodka instead of just one, Kina Lillet instead of vermouth, and lemon peel instead of an olive. Oh, and it famously, it was shaken, but not stirred.

Bond listed it as his favourite drink, and after first sharing the secret with a barman in Casino Royale, noted, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.” However, despite the IBA including it on their list and its notoriety, it is now impossible to to create the original recipe. Kina Lillet was discontinued in 1986, and in 1992 Gordon’s gin cut their proof. Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray gin both work adequately now, and Cocchi Americano often replaces Kina Lillet, as it has a bitter finish. In 2006, Esquire published an updated recipe which ended, “Shoot somebody evil.”

Moloko Plus

This is probably the drink on the list that I’d least like to have a go with, but it’s an iconic drink of fiction – if for all the wrong reasons – so I thought it deserved a spot on the list for sheer imagination. Moloko Plus is a drink from the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, and the ingredients are very vague. What we do know, however, is that there are several forms and they all are made primarily of milk and some kind of drug, such as barbiturates. On at least one occasion, the characters introduce one that doesn’t have any drugs in, but instead contains small chips of glass. This is a “moloko plus, with knives”. Drunk to prepare for a session of ultraviolence, it’s also possible to give it to minors, as the drugs involved are technically not illegal. You know, I think I’ll stick with a White Russian.

Butterbeer

The Harry Potter universe is so vast that, just like with picking the best fictional vehicles, I had to include something from here. Witches and wizards do drink many things that we Muggles would recognise, such as tea and hot chocolate, but they’ve got a plethora of their own drinks to choose from. Prop yourself up at the bar of The Leaky Cauldron and you could settle in with a pumpkin juice, pale blue nettle wine, laughter-inducing Gigglewater, a disgusting infusion of Gurdyroots, or even a glass of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky. However, the best drink in the series is of course Butterbeer. With a very slight alcoholic content that disagrees with house elves, it’s otherwise considered alright to serve it to minors. Said to taste like a less-sickly butterscotch, it’s a thick, foamy and refreshing drink. Like the Vesper, many people have tried to reconstruct it, with various degrees of success. I’ve had it made from several different recipes – some alcoholic, some not – and all I can say that is if I was at Hogwarts, I’d be quaffing the stuff back like it was going out of style.

Frobscottle

Speaking of drinks you can’t get enough of, we come to frobscottle, the drink favoured by Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant. Because he refuses to eat children, the only food available to the BFG are disgusting vegetables called snozzcumbers that taste like, depending on who’s eating them, cockroaches and frog skins. On the other hand, the only drink the BFG has is frobscottle, a fizzy soda drink that tastes incredible. It is unique among carbonated beverages because the bubbles sink downwards rather than rising up, but this does lead to, what the BFG refers to as, “whizzpopping“.

Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster

We can’t finish this list, of course, without the “best drink in existence”. Showing up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy having been invented by ex-President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, humanity has yet to find a way to replicate it so far. Famously, while we’re not sure entirely what it tastes like, we do know that the effects of drinking it are similar to “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”. Official advice is that you should never drink more than two of them unless “you are a thirty ton mega elephant with bronchial pneumonia”. The recipe is one that can only exist in the mind of Douglas Adams, and ingredients include, four litres of Fallian marsh gas, a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, the juice from a bottle of Ol’ Janx Spirit, the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger, and a single olive. Drink, but very carefully…


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“Uncorking A Lie” by Nadine Nettmann (2017)

1 Comment

“When bottles of wine are sold for large amounts of money, they end up in the news.”

A couple of years back I tried a novel about a sommelier who solves a murder at a vineyard thanks to her extensive knowledge of wines. I decided then it seemed a bit ridiculous, but I’ve drunk a lot more wine since then and the reduction in brain cells causes me to make many bad choices. So here we are again, reading the sequel, and while I’ve built that up to sound like I’m going to hate it, I don’t.

Katie Stillwell works as a sommelier at Trentino, a fashionable restaurant in Napa Valley and lives, works and breathes wine. There seems nothing that she doesn’t know about it, and she’s now in training for her Master Sommelier exams. One of her regular customers is Paul Rafferty, a wealthy lawyer who is throwing a party at his mansion to celebrate his purchase of a $19,000 bottle of wine and invites Katie along to the tasting. The fellow party guests might not care for Katie much, but they all adore wine. When the bottle is opened and at last tasted, however, only Katie realises that something is wrong. The wine is counterfeit and not at all what the label says it should be. Before she can get to the bottom of it however, Paul’s assistant is found dead in the cellar.

Convinced that someone at the party knows more than they’re letting on, Katie confesses all to Paul and he hires her to get to the bottom of how he came to possess fake wine. Katie finds herself thrown into the murky waters of counterfeit wine and before she knows it, she’s in danger herself. She’s got to use all her skills to solve the crime, but who can she trust, and who else will end up dead?

My primary issue with the book is the same as last time. While the plot itself is quite fun and I enjoy the concept of a detective sommelier (no matter how contrived things have to become for her to get a particular clue), it is the actual writing that lets the book down. I feel it just needed another couple of rounds with an editor to tidy it up and give it a polish. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and there is strange expostion that does nothing to further the story and doesn’t need to be there. One particularly stuck out for me when it’s mentioned what sandwich Katie buys and then specifies that they likes all the ingredients in it, like we couldn’t assume that entirely pointless detail without it being said.

Katie herself is also something of a Mary Sue, apparently never being wrong about wine. I’ve got friends in both the wine and whisky industries, so I know that expert tasters exist and I know enough myself to be able to tell major grapes apart, but narrowing down a specific year or vineyard is not an everyday ability. Granted, Katie has had years of training, but it still comes off a bit too convenient sometimes. The other characters, however, are interesting and obviously have more depth to them that we aren’t always allowed to see, and the plot itself is great. I’ve read books about counterfeit art and wills before, but wine is an unusual one, and there is indeed a burgeoning criminal industry of it.

It might not be an expensive Riesling of a book, but it’s still a pretty decent house white. Uncomplicated and unusual with a sickly sweet finish.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Trip To Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing (2013)

1 Comment

“Here’s a thing.”

Earlier this year a friend let me borrow The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which tells the stories of loneliness behind some of the greatest artists in history. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an earlier book of hers – The Trip to Echo Spring – which focuses on authors and their reliance on alcohol. As a writer who enjoys a glass of wine or six, it’s a topic close to my heart. In this book, Laing travels with width of the United States to explore the places inhabited by six of America’s greatest writers and their struggles with alcohol – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, and the poster boys for drunk authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Combining biography, literary criticism, travel writing and a treatise on the effects alcohol has on the body, Laing builds up a picture of these six men and the struggles they went through. My immediate confession is that while I’m aware of the impact they had on the literary scene, I’ve only read two of them – Fitzgerald and Cheever. I know enough about them all to be able to appreciate who they were, however, and the book helps fill in a lot of their, often tragic, backstories.

Laing travels, usually by train, around the USA, taking in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, St Paul, and Port Angeles, all places that meant something to our heroes. She explores their early lives, the relationships they formed, how they came to develop alcohol addiction, and which ones made it through the other side, and which ended their own lives over it. There are some poignant moments, including John Berryman struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, Cheever suffering from poverty in Manhattan, and Raymond Carver having marriage and fatherhood thrust upon him while still a teenager.

It is Fitzgerald, however, that shines for me. Perhaps because I know most about him and Zelda, but whatever misfortunes befall him, he can’t help but appear faintly ridiculous. Once, someone walks in on him in his room wearing several layers in an attempt to sweat out all the gin – while still drinking gin. Elsewhere, he drives around in a car with no roof in the rain until he decides he’s got pneumonia and has Hemingway take him to a hotel and promise to take care of his wife and daughter when he’s dead. Laing adds that a “few whisky sours put a stop to this nonsense”, and Scott and Ernest are out drinking again within hours.

Laing also uses personal experiences in the text, mentioning her mother’s lover Diana who was an alcoholic for many years, but has since become sober. Despite the humour of Fitzgerald, The Trip to Echo Spring is pretty sombre and a reminder that alcohol is indeed a poison and not to be messed about with. Like in The Lonely City, however, she shows how these people used their flaws and vices to create some of the greatest work in history, and she does a good job of exploring the relationships between alcohol and the written word. A thoughtful and interesting piece.

Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

Leave a comment

If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

Leave a comment

We've all been there.

We’ve all been there.

Click! … Here it was again.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a drink. If there’s a glass to be had, I’ve probably already had it. Up until my early twenties, I also remarkably got away with never having a hangover, which, if you’ve never experienced it, makes you feel powerful and godlike. However, I’m twenty-eight now, and while it’s an age that means I should know better, it’s nonetheless also an age in which my hangovers have become more pronounced than ever. But at least they fade, whereas the characters in this novel seem to be cursed with hangovers that never end.

George Harvey Bone is a man with a problem. He is hopelessly, uncontrollably in love with Netta Longdon. She, however, is far cooler in her affections towards him. Knowing how he feels, she makes use of him to provide money and drink for her and her friends, often the men she is actually intimate with. But Bone is weak and drunk, and love is powerful, and he believes that if he keeps on trying, he will soon be welcomed fully as “one of the gang”, and then he and Netta will run away together to start the perfect life he knows they can have.

But Bone has a slight problem that might ruin everything. Every now and then, he slips into what he terms a “dead moment”. These can last hours or days and when he surfaces from them, he can never remember what happened in them. What he doesn’t realise is that in these moments he doesn’t seem to want happiness with Netta – he wants her dead. Bone is living two lives; one in which he worships her, and another in which he wants to kill her for treating him like she does. Which Bone will win out?

Set among the pubs and bars of London and Brighton, on the eve of the Second World War, the novel takes us to the seedy underbelly of society, where the unemployed rub shoulders with failed actors and everyone is three sheets to the wind. George Bone is a pitiful protagonist, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him. We’ve most of us been in a position where we love someone who has no desire to reciprocate our feelings, and often we know what fools we’re making of ourselves, but there are few people to fall in love with that are crueler than Netta.

While readers can see how hideous she is – beautiful but poisonous – Bone seems aware of it too, but is unable to help himself, though that’s probably due to the amount he’s drunk throughout the novel. You find yourself rooting for him, even in his “dead moments” when he is overcome with murderous rage and forgets the real world. He’s sympathetic, sure, but also fairly pathetic. As the novel progresses, you get caught up with his desire to kill as Netta becomes more and more vile, and her friends even more terrible. It all culminates in a tragically bittersweet finale where Bone has to come to terms with reality.

The threat of war coming up fast is never far away from any of the characters minds and, by the time the novel ends, Britain is at war with Germany at last. It’s a novel of worry and social inequality, about wanting and hoping, and life failing to deliver time after time. It’s darkly comic, and said to be Hamilton’s finest novel, but I’ve nothing to compare it with. It stands out though, and is definitely one to read if you have any feelings at all. It’s going to play havoc with them all.