Here I am, sipping Armagnac and pondering speed. My balloon, with a couple of inches of tawny nectar swirling within, will take me an hour to empty. Each swallow will be a little different, as the spirit opens like a flower to the welcoming air; bouquet and flavour expand and evolve, from butterscotch, to caramel, to orange blossom.
This brandy – a 1979 Castarède, since you ask – first encountered oxygen over 30 years ago, after distillation, while sitting in an oak barrel waiting to mature. The reunion, like any good one, is both bitter-sweet and fruitful and I, the drinker, get to enjoy its rich development without
doing any of the work.
No one in their right mind would down an Armagnac in one. But then, isn’t the point of speed-drinking to escape one’s right mind? Like most people who were ever students (and a fair few who weren’t), I have downed shooters, dropped small glasses into pints and slurped up the overflow, layered spirits over the back of a teaspoon, then lit and necked the results. After my 21st birthday party, my friends and I all walked round for days
with circles on our palms, like members of some sinister secret society, thanks to someone’s grand notion of lighting sambuca slammers, then clapping a hand over them, shaking and . . . well, you get the idea.
Granted, all that was long ago, pretty infrequent even then, and the most potent ingredient in any of these heathen practices was peer pressure. Still, downing shots is just a distillation of a common failing: the tendency to do most things, including drink, too quickly. It’s odd, when you slow down enough to think about it. Most countries call their strongest spirits some variation on “water of life”: eau de vie in France (Armagnac is technically one of these); whisky, from uisge beatha, water of life, in Gaelic.
Life without water, of one kind or another, is impossible. As it is, it often needs sweetening, softening or diluting – but speeding up? Anyone old enough to drink legally knows it goes too fast as it is.
I blame the cowboys. I grew up on the westerns of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks. Many of these films can be read as anxious investigations of modern masculinity: who has the potency to conquer the Wild West? Whose bullet will embed itself in the right place to ensure the future? In all this pseudo-Freudian angsting about whose is the biggest weapon, one element went unquestioned: men drank. They drank whiskey, straight down, out of tiny glasses. Sipping was nearly as womanly a pursuit as sewing. Teetotalism was unacceptable: in The Fastest Gun Alive, Glenn Ford pretends to be a non-drinker so no one will realise he’s a sharpshooter and it works.
Drunkenness wasn’t ideal either among wild men carrying loaded weapons, but if speed is of the essence then it makes a certain kind of sense to swallow your liquor fast; and if drinking at all is a dangerous pursuit in those circumstances, well, that dance along the cliff edge is what shots are really all about. (Perhaps that’s why they’re called shots.) It’s a frontier practice, as surely as savouring an aged drink, in the kind of glass that would have shattered at the first rock on the wagon trail, is a celebration of civilisation.
Oh, I’m not saying we don’t all need a quick hit now and then from something that, like a bullet or a bad man, has only one thing to offer: the sour clang of tequila, the jolt of vodka, the sweet slap of a B52. But in general, when life is no longer short and nasty, drinks need not be, either. The shot should go the way of the Wild West.
Nina Caplan is the New Statesman’s drink critic