While looking for post-holiday reading this past weekend, I picked up a copy of Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking. Unsurprisingly, it’s shockingly well written. Amis has a deft, wry touch, and his voice feels unusually well suited to writing about drinking. Amis was, of course, a famous drinker. Born in 1922, Kingsley was raised a drinking culture, and he made the most of it, good, bad and hungover (Amis’s advice on aiding the hangover, both physical and metaphysical, is worth the price of admission alone). The book has the feel of a sliver of time—all the cocktail recipes are unremittingly old school; for example, the Bloody Mary recipe requires ketchup—but it’s a delicious sliver, and lying on the couch I drank it up.
A lot has changed culturally from the time that Amis wrote his columns that now comprise the volume Everyday Drinking, a collection of all of his drink-related essays previously published in the books On Drinking, Every Day Drinking, and How’s Your Glass? For one thing, we as a society have a fairly comprehensive understanding of alcoholism, which was a fuzzier topic during the years that Amis wrote these essays, the ‘50s to the ‘80s. Interestingly and somewhat presciently, Amis avers that dipsomania (his term) is genetic, a concept that only gained widespread acceptance in the last couple of decades.
But what really seems to have changed is larger and deeper, though not entirely unrelated. Knowing what we know about alcohol, our culture likes to either justify our consumption of it with health claims (red wine, you might have heard, is good for counteracting the effects of immobility–among many other things), with irony (just look at the preponderance of “dive bars” in chic areas of New York), or with nostalgia (the rise of the artisanal cocktail culture, for example). In Amis’s days, people drank because they enjoyed it. It showed a magnanimity of spirit, a generosity of soul and a sense of a life well lived. (Amis disparages any host who opens a bottle of wine and keeps the cork handy; it’s a sign of a “mean sod.”)
As interesting as pondering the larger cultural issues was for me in reading the book, I also delighted in Amis’s advice to wine drinkers. He himself was not one, preferring whisky above all else. However, he marshals advice from a friend with knowledge and gives some guidelines that very much stand the test of time.
“Get yourself a wine merchant,” he says. “What you want is a learned, experienced, energetic man who himself drinks not only good wine but a lot of wine, in other words, a first-rate wine merchant.” He then adds, “Having found your man, trust him.”
Reading this quote made me blush with immoderate pride being that I feel that the company I work for, and the man who founded it, is the very epitome of all of those qualities that Amis propounds. In all reality, however, these are good words of advice for buying anything that you don’t yourself know well. Still, Amis’s words are good and true (if reluctant, he really seems not to “get” wine), as are the other pieces of advice he hands out, which include the following: join a wine club, test out your waiter in restaurants; and follow the advice of wine merchants, wine clubs, wine waiters “and even wine journalists.” I particularly enjoyed this piece of wisdom from Amis: “Drink any wine you like with any dish.”
Though Amis doesn’t enjoy wine much, and though his experience of it is largely limited to French wine, his writing on wine—and indeed all drink-related areas—is shockingly encyclopedic. This is, as Christopher Hitchens points out in the forward, a man who knows that the word “fiasco” stems from the Italian for the straw-covered bottle of wine (usually Chianti). There’s a lot of spirit literature out there, but little of it seems to really evoke the spirit of drinking. This is one book that does, written by a man who understood, contemplated and, above all, enjoyed drinking, a timeless and, in Kingsley Amis’s eyes, a worthy pursuit.