At Christmas parties, the choice is usually between red or white wine. You might get champagne if you’re very lucky, prosecco if you’re not. It makes me think back to the spread my parents used to put on. My father would line up bottles of gin, whisky, brandy and vermouth on the kitchen counter. He’d even get the Drambuie out, though I don’t remember there being any takers. Everyone had their drink: my aunt would have a Martini and tonic, my grandfather a brandy and soda, and we, the boys, would have beer. One extravagant year, my father made champagne cocktails. But each Christmas there were fewer takers for the drinks smorgasbord. The last whisky and soda drinker, my grandmother, died in 2011.
The old drinks were pushed out by what Kingsley Amis calls the ‘tyranny of wine’. Once the preserve of the upper classes, it became the norm in the 1980s and 1990s as the first cheap drinkable plonk became available. The revolution was spearheaded by Germany, but it was when Australian, Chilean, and New Zealand wine arrived that Britain, at last, became a wine-drinking nation. Wine was aspirational and modern, whereas traditional British drinks were seen as a bit lower-class.
Of course, we got it slightly wrong. You wouldn’t catch the southern Europeans drinking wine without food. The Italians have Campari, Aperol, and all those marvellous bitter drinks; the French, being a little crazy, like to drink port or sauternes (both of not terribly good quality) before a meal. Older Spaniards drink sherry, younger ones vermouth, beer or impeccably made gin and tonics. All are big Scotch drinkers.
These continental johnnies are on to something. Drinking wine on its own is often not a terribly pleasant experience. Amis used to complain that wines ‘irritate the large intestine’ and I suffer from acid indigestion. Drinking lots of wine, even the good stuff, on an empty stomach will have you reaching for the Gaviscon.
Wine may have improved dramatically since Amis’s day, but it’s still far from straightforward. Your wine might be corked, it might be too young, or too old. Even if there’s nothing actually wrong with it, wine at Christmas parties can be a dispiriting experience, jammy reds and thin acidic whites both served too warm.
Last year, at one such event thrown by a newspaper (not The Spectator, I hasten to add), I was telling someone that I write about wine for a living. She glanced down and said, ‘Ah, and I see you’re drinking beer,’ and laughed. The more you get into wine, unfortunately, the less time you have for the confected, the sour, or the just plain dull. And wine is much too expensive, what with duty, VAT and current exchange rates. You have to search harder to find a good bottle at a reasonable price.
You don’t have to try very hard with whisky. Whereas branded wines are, on the whole, boring, big-name spirits such as Beefeater gin, Johnnie Walker whisky and Havana Club rum, are excellent and reliable. When was the last time you had a disappointing bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label? I’ll tell you when: never. And as spirits last pretty much forever, you can offer a generous selection, including a dusty bottle of Drambuie.
Some people, like the Queen and Prince Charles, both keen gin drinkers, have never lost faith in British spirits, but I detect that what Amis called ‘pro-wine pressure’ is finally easing. Wine sales are declining, whereas gin and whisky are booming. People are rediscovering classic cocktails. Friends might offer gins and whiskies, and a bottle of Campari is once again de rigueur.
This doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on wine, but I only drink it when I’m eating. Like my grandmother, my aperitif of choice is the whisky and soda. She liked it so much that when she went deaf, I’d ask her how she was, and she’d reply: ‘Whisky.’ It’s the most versatile of drinks: you can use almost any whisky, though a blend with smoke works best; you can jazz it up with orange peel and a dash of bitters, or just have it plain; you can make it strong, or as weak as a kitten; and it sits well on an empty stomach so your Gaviscon bills will plummet.
Another happy side-effect of swapping wine for whisky is I’m drinking less. I’m not tempted to finish the bottle as I do with wine (well, maybe a little, but that way madness lies). Furthermore, I’ve lost weight. I now plan to make my fortune penning a bestselling book called The Whisky and Soda Diet, which is likely to supersede the 5:2 as the diet of choice for the chattering classes.
More than health, though, offering a range of drinks is fun, especially if you have a drinks trolley or a bar like my grandfather had so you can play the home barman — mixing drinks, and dispensing bon mots. So much more fun than chatting about house prices or Brexit. The tyranny of wine is finally over. It’s time to party.