Nina Caplan: It’s not our fault we’re a nation of bad drinkers

Most fizzy drinks are vile, yet some of those still do duty as mixers – the point here being, presumably, to cancel out one horrible taste with another.

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Every now and then, I remember that not all beverages contain alcohol. It doesn’t happen often, and I don’t count water, as even a dedicated dipsomaniac remains aware of the need to stay moderately hydrated, death being the ultimate booze-free regime. On one of these rare occasions, I distracted myself by dividing such drinks into three types: unpleasant, mixer and foreign. (I’m excluding hot beverages on the grounds of injustice to tea.) It would be remarkably self-defeating of me to have anything against tonic water; even soda water and bitter lemon have their uses. But they are not much fun alone.

Most fizzy drinks are vile, yet some of those still do duty as mixers – the point here being, presumably, to cancel out one horrible taste with another. I don’t think most good spirits taste horrible; but then, I don’t mix them with fizzy pop. I did, though, a long time ago: at the occasional nightclub, bent on misspending a portion of my youth, I’d order Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke. I don’t remember any more why heavy drinking seemed such an essential part of the Saturday-night experience.

Partly, I suppose, it is the English way, and teenagers – at any rate, teenagers such as me, convinced that everyone else stood solid on what seemed such slippery social shale – do so want to do things right. The only upside of all that boozing is that I remember so little of the socialising I did in my early youth that nothing since has had to suffer by comparison.

Foreign, though, is something else. Several years ago, I committed to a month without alcohol and decided to compound this unoriginal decision by beginning my suffering on 1 January; that New Year happened to be spent in Singapore. Four delightful days floated by, as I sipped at a variety of delectable fresh fruit cocktails. The combination of great booze-free drinks and a notable lack of decent wine meant that I wasn’t just getting through my alcohol abstinence – I was enjoying it.

Then I returned home. Oh, the misery of pubs shooting flat Pepsi at me from a soda gun; or the bleak putter of sparkling water in restaurants; or the sorry want of savour of a dinner lubricated by fruit juice or tea. I looked great, I lost weight and saved a fortune, but so what? Life lost its flavour. I’m with the late, great M F K Fisher, who declared: “I could and would forgo any other liquid for ever, as long as I might drink one humble wine with my daily bread.” She lived to 83.

I feel a little like Henry Higgins, wondering why the English can’t teach their children how to speak – but, really, why can’t we learn to drink better? I’m sure there’s a connection between the grimness of straight options in the pub and the ludicrous drunkenness that’s supposedly part of our genetic make-up.

I know we aren’t endowed with the wonderful fruits of south-east Asia, but there are beautiful English apples, pears and berries. With all the trendiness of the seasonal and artisanal, why has nobody yet offered me a seasonally appropriate blackberry juice as a healthful alternative to a Gigondas or Australian Shiraz, where the flavours of blackberry and black plum must be weighed against the toll on my liver?

And, while I’m as seasonal and artisanal as the next wine-lover (which is to say, not very, at least not when it comes to my right to drink my way around the globe), I’d willingly swap a few air miles for the chance to sip on a freshly made mango or pineapple juice. What it comes down to is a quid pro quo: I’m all for saving the planet, but I’d quite like it to return the favour and help save me. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article appears in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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