The Amateur Drinker: Will gin be my perfect tonic?

After a lifetime of abstinence, Paul Burke has decided to hit the bottle. This week, gin and tonic

It was one of those surreal experiences. At a funeral at St Patrick’s in Soho Square, the following people were all seated at the same pew: Me, my mate Griff, Richard Ingrams – former editor of Private Eye, Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits and a girl whom I used to know very well indeed but hadn’t seen for 25 years. We were there to mourn Mario Forte, proprietor of the Star Café and the man who’d fed Soho since about 1958. Griff and I were regulars at the Star. So too, I assume, were Mark Knopfler and Richard Ingrams. This particular girl’s attendance was a bit of a shock but it turned out that her family and Mario’s were old neighbours.

Outside the church, I smiled and asked how she was, even though I already knew the answer: content but condemned because she’s one of ‘The Saved’. The Saved are those cool, charismatic women who fall for a dependable dullard whom they regard as their rock, their ‘saviour’. And because they were courted at their lowest ebb, they end up marrying said saviour. My former acquaintance is now serving a life sentence in a distant suburb, looking after three children while her smug, dreary husband is either playing golf or working late at the office. But maybe she’s happy. Trust me, she isn’t. The Saved never are. Her spouse isn’t a bad man, as long as you can forgive – and I’m not sure I can – his use of phrases like ‘Methinks’, ‘Pardon my French’ and ‘My little wifey’.

Back outside the church, I asked Julia, Mario’s daughter, whether she was planning to keep the Star going. Yes, she replied, but as a gin bar and I promised faithfully to visit. However, because gin wasn’t quite as alluring as Mario’s Full English Breakfast, I never did. But last night, I finally went along to the place now known as the London Gin Club. I was delighted to see that it was the still the Star Café, in that its vintage interior remains unchanged. Julia mixed me what’s widely regarded as the best gin & tonic anywhere and listed its vital components. A chilled copa glass with big chunks of ice to keep the drink cold, the gin undiluted and the tonic sparkling. Then good quality gin – obviously – and finally, since a G&T contains far more T than G, the very best tonic.

I took a sip. My God, it was good – clean refreshing but strong. Though as Julia explained, if you can’t taste the alcohol, you won’t respect the drink. Taking a second sip, I then noticed the three sassy women at the next table, downing exotic gin cocktails with a sense of joy, relief and release. When I heard the words ‘Golf’ ‘Boring’ and ‘Away on business’, I knew that I was surrounded by The Saved. And I knew that their real saviour was gin.

The London Gin Club, 22 Great Chapel Street, London, W1F 8FR


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