Spirit level: thought to have addictive and hallucinogenic effects, absinthe was banned in France in 1914
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Absinthe friends: It’s time to fall in love with the green fairy

The Drink Column. 

The Sazerac may have been the world’s first cocktail but it wasn’t mine. Two decades in to my fitful but focused programme of spirit-based research, the barman at the Cat and Mutton on Broadway Market rinsed a glass with absinthe, poured in cognac, rye and two kinds of bitters and handed it to me like he was doing me a favour.

I didn’t have a problem with what was in the glass but I did with what had just left it. I’m afraid of absinthe. It’s one of the drawbacks of a degree in French literature; a lesser one, perhaps, than unfitness for gainful employment but an issue nonetheless. You can’t spend years reading the hallucinogenic poetry of Baudelaire or the delicately vicious stories of Maupassant and learning about their love of absinthe and their early, raving deaths without conflating the two. Absinthe is known as “the green fairy” but she’s the newborn-cursing (rather than wish-granting) kind. It’s no good pointing out that both writers died of syphilis. I’m a literature graduate, unhindered by scientific imperatives. For all I know, you catch syphilis from drinking absinthe, too.

A fearsome, raving death notwithstanding, the drink looked interesting and had a pretty name; and I’m quite brave when there’s alcohol in the offing. Reader, I drank it, and it was delicious – complex, pungent, with a liquorice bite. Legend has it that the pharmacist Antoine Peychaud invented the cocktail in 1830s New Orleans as a toddy for sick friends by mixing Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac and his home-made bitters and, if the legend is right, no wonder it caught on. The brandy was swapped with rye whiskey when the phylloxera louse destroyed France’s vineyards; later, when the Cognac region was once again able to distil grapes, some bright spark started to include both spirits.

I’m not sure when the green fairy waved her wand over the concoction but her malign influence is apparent in that whisper of liquorice, to say nothing of my fierce hankering for another delicious, pernicious sip. I should have paid more attention to those 19th-century Frenchmen of letters. Here’s Gustave Flaubert on absinthe in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Ultra-violent poison; one glass and you’re dead. Journalists drink it while writing their articles. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouins.” You have to admire a liquor that brings out the humorist in the author of Madame Bovary.

So I wound up in Spuntino, a bar in Soho – surely the patch of London that has the most affinity with convulsion-inducing liquors, to say nothing of syphilis – being shown how to make a Sazerac by the bartender Benny Locke. I may be preoccupied with absinthe; he’s obsessed with bourbon. Odd, really: no one ever banned bourbon specifically, as the French did absinthe, claiming it makes one crazy and criminal and provokes everything from epilepsy to tuberculosis.

Still, bourbon – corn liquor aged in charred oak casks – is delightful, sweeter than the spicy rye whiskey, and Benny drinks and creatively adulterates it, steeping fresh buttered popcorn in it and removing the fat with a strainer. His preoccupation has filled Spuntino with unusual takes on what was once moonshine for Southern farm boys, from high-end incarnations such as Van Winkle (which can go for over £350 a bottle) to Kings County, made in New York.

Benny holds bourbon cocktail-making classes at which you, gentle reader, can discover the allure of the Sazerac, so great that in 1919, F Scott Fitzgerald took a pitcher of it more than 250 miles from New Orleans to Montgomery to celebrate an important occasion. He doesn’t name the occasion; perhaps he couldn’t remember. The Sazerac, which now comes rinsed in a poison beloved of diseased intellectuals, was invented to heal the sick. Its creator did not specify of what. 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism