Why do we Brits make resolutions to dry out in stark January, when the days are grey and short and there isn’t so much as a new leaf to stimulate faith in renewal? Even the Australians, for whom this is midsummer, let the year settle before depriving themselves of alcoholic pleasure through the self-induced misery known as FebFast. Ancient Europeans had much more sense, creating a festival of upended priorities out of the year’s darkest point. The Romans had their Saturnalia, a week-long riot of drinking and festivities in mid-December; before them, the Greeks celebrated the epiphany of Dionysus, deity of madness, misrule and oh yes, wine, on 5-6 January. This later became the more respectable Christian Epiphany, though the notion of the Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason, who inverts the mundane order, survives vestigially in the tradition of Twelfth Night (when misrule ends). Midwinter is a strange, unruly time, hardly conducive to a spell of extraordinary discipline, even without the weather. What January needs is unreason, to remind us why we cleave (in theory) to reason the rest of the year; and fortitude, preferably applied from the outside in. Both of which can usefully be found in gin.
I am not advocating a return to the Saturnalia; we need merriment without chaos, unreason but not insanity. Gin has evolved from the home-made 18th-century rotgut that was the scourge of England’s poor to the tipple of colonial civilisation, and now the many-splendoured glory of hipster watering holes: perhaps consuming it will help us to evolve, too.
To assess which gins might best suit the task, I arranged a mini-epiphany of my own. The Botanist was bracingly citrus, Tanqueray Malacca also lemony, but slightly too sweet. Hendrick’s, a gin I never know quite what to do with, had a cool spiciness that made me resolve to find more use for it. Sacred Gin, which I first tried in the creator Ian Hart’s living room, when he was still powering his distilling apparatus with the motor from his kids’ aquarium, offset the louring skies with aromas of clove and cinnamon: surprisingly exotic for something invented in Highgate. Gin Lane 1751 – named for both the street drawn by Hogarth, as an allegorical warning to the sodden lower classes, and the year of the act of parliament that attempted to make such disgracefulness illegal – had a creaminess that, far from recalling moonshine, demanded scones and jam. Warner Edwards remains my favourite ingredient in Martini, while Brighton Gin, served with tonic and a slice of orange, is as civilised as its home town was once seedy: this drink won the popularity contest.
The discovery of the evening, however, was the food match. Pillowy bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese or chopped liver, salt-beef brisket with mustard, chicken soup. Yes, folks, it turns out that the best way to line your stomach against mother’s ruin is with traditional Jewish nosh.
Which made me think. The Jewish New Year, which usually falls in September, is succeeded nine days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when religious Jews fast and repent of their sins. Rather than pagans’ excesses, or the self-flagellation of their modern equivalent, perhaps we should all try ten days of fressing (an anglicised Yiddish word, meaning to gobble or overeat), sopped up with judicious doses of gin, followed by a day of reflection, repentance and restraint.
This is almost the same as one dry month a year, but somewhat more realistic. If we want to reconcile ourselves to routine and moderation, swinging between excess and purity seems an odd way to go about it. A little reasonable unreason might make the year’s unpalatable truths easier to swallow; they certainly won’t be washed down with water.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie