Many great writers put away a bottle or three. Many are known for it. And a few are known to be fueled by it. Men like Kingsley Amis and of course, Ernest Hemingway are forever associated with drinking, and doing it with the same epic skill as they wrote. This week, we lost to cancer one of our day’s greatest writers, one for whom alcohol also loomed large in his legend, Christopher Hitchens.
How good a writer was Hitch? An unabashed lefty and an outspoken atheist, he was admired by, beloved in some cases, by most writers on the Right, even the religious conservatives. His atheism was matter of fact; a simple, calculated, decision. While he often defended his lack of faith the only way he wrote anything, powerfully, he never begrudged others their faith. And throughout his long, horrifying battle with a cancer he knew he would not win, he dealt with it in a manner consistent with how he had lived his life before. He did not turn to God in desperation. Nor did he rail against a deity he professed not to believe in, in order to defend his professed lack of faith. He just was who he was. To the end.
And Hitchens was a larger than life man, not just a larger than life writer. In 2009, he got into a street brawl in Beirut with street thugs in the pay of Syria. While walking down a street with two unfortunate friends, he spied a poster of theirs and took exception to its message. He drew his pen and granted them a sample of his writing, “No, no, fuck you”, I believe….
Eloquence takes many forms, changing with the circumstances. Hatred of eloquence usually takes more uniform shape. In this case it took the shape of six or seven bad guys who showed up, took exception to Hitch’s “contribution” to their Jew-hatred, proceeded to try to beat the holy hell out of him until a cab driver more brave than smart stopped and let him and his friends in. This was at three in the afternoon, and they had been on their way to a bar.
While most of what Hitch wrote was political, he did contribute to the assemblage of written words on drink itself. I’d like to share some quotes from two pieces I found. The first is a bit on staying healthy through drink.
I’ll be 54 in April, and everyone keeps asking how I do it. How do I do what? I’m never completely sure what the questioner means. I *hope* they mean how do I manage to keep producing books, writing essays, making radio and television appearances at all hours, traveling all over the place with no sign of exhaustion, teaching classes, and giving lectures, while still retaining my own hair and teeth and a near-godlike physique which is the envy of many of my juniors. Sometimes, though, I suppose they mean how do I do all this and still drink enough every day to kill or stun the average mule? My doctor confesses himself amazed at my haleness (and I never lie to a medical man), but then, in my time I’ve met more old drunks than old doctors.
A few swift tips here, to show that I am perfectly serious. On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis — and all gin drinks — that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few, and three is one two many. Do try to eat the olives: they can be nutritious. Try to eat something, indeed, at every meal. Take lots of fresh or distilled water. Don’t mix from different bottles of red wine: Dance with the one that brung ya. Avoid most white wine for its appalling acidity and banality. (Few things make me laugh louder than the ostentatious non-drinkers who get plastered when they condescend to imbibe a glass of toxic Chardonnay, and who have been fooling themselves for so long.) Avoid Pernod and absinthe and ouzo. Even if it makes you look like a brand snob, do specify a label when ordering spirits in particular. I once researched this for a solemn article and found that if you just ask for, say, vodka-and-tonic the barman is entitled to give you whatever he has on hand, which is often a two-handled jug labeled “Vodka” under the bar. It can be even worse with scotch, where imitation blends are rife. Pick a decent product and stay with it. Upgrade yourself, for Chrissake. Do you think you are going to live forever?
There is much more there, all of it great.
His memoir Hitch-22, written around the time of his diagnosis, ends up an eloquent goodbye that too few great writers get the chance to make. You can read excerpts of it at Slate, including this one on the grape and the grain. From that excerpt, conservative curmudgeon Smirkdirk excerpted a list of Hitchens’ 11 Rules on Booze.
- Making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic.
- Watching the clock for the start-time is probably also a bad sign.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food.
- Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure.
- Drink when you are in a good mood.
- Cheap booze is a false economy.
- It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.
- Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.)
- Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company.
- Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.
- It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is true but it just is. Don’t ever be responsible for it.
Smirkdirk’s post is entertainingly illustrated (illustrations I won’t steal) and worth visiting.
Like everything Hitchens, there is much there that is true on the face of it. And there is some that I question, but that is presented in a manner that is hard to argue with. In similar fashion, we find his wisdom on a product that is the reason (finally) for this post. As a cocktail writer, among the wages of my sins is a steady parade of email press-releases filled with material that does. not. interest. me. But every so often, there is one that strikes my fancy, such as the one from Perrier Water I received yesterday, leading me to this little article.
…a section of Hitchens’ autobiographical 2010 tome Hitch-22 in which he details his everyday alcohol agenda. ”At about half past midday,” writes Hitchens, “a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice.” He also enjoys “At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal.” Clearly, this was a man who knew how to drink with class.
As I said, eloquent advice that I don’t entirely agree with. I, Scot that I am, put a bit of ice in my whisky. Why? Because I am also an American, and we put ice in everything, dammit.
As for Perrier, I go through a lot of the stuff, especially in the Summer. But never in Scotch. Among the things that distinguish scotches from one another are the unique properties of the water at each distillery, so using Perrier, with all its own distinct character, alters the whisky irrevocably. But Perrier is indispensable for Gin Rickeys. Nothing else is as good, marrying perfectly with good gin. And I mean Perrier specifically, not mineral water in general. Pellegrino, for instance, just does not work at all.
Regardless, raise a glass of whatever you like, with Perrier or without, alongside me to a man whose departure impoverishes us all.