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18 July 2023

A brief history of “woke drinks”

In declaring a negroni the signature drink of the woke, GB News has forgotten about craft beers and natural wine.

By Felicity Cloake

There was bad news last week for aperitivo-loving bigots, as the self-styled “people’s news channel” GB News declared the negroni the signature drink of the “woke… establishment media” – something that would probably surprise the 19th-century Corsican count and decorated cavalry officer credited with its creation. But I doubt this ruby-red cocktail, apparently a favourite of David and Samantha Cameron, is only popular with the socially aware: these days everyone is drinking them… apart from, it seems, the handful of people watching GB News.

And that’s fine – one should only drink what one enjoys, and for a long time the British did not share the Italian enthusiasm for bitter tipples. Indeed I suspect that this was part of the negroni’s appeal; hipsters of any political persuasion love to embrace the underdog, to show off their superior taste by leaning into flavours others find difficult: in this case, the uncompromisingly herbal hit of Campari. Barely a decade ago, Victoria Moore could write that “negroni drinkers are like a secret Masonic sect, so proud of their affiliation that when they mention it by name, a certain knowing look, recognised only by other negroni drinkers, darts across their faces”. By 2021 you could buy negroni-branded T-shirts from M&S, a clear sign that fashion had already moved on, even if no one had bothered to tell the folks on channel 236.

‘Twas ever thus. Before the negroni came the craft beer revolution, largely spearheaded by men with the facial hair a luxuriantly bearded Count Negroni would have envied, championing wild, funky brews with crazy labels in defiance of the bland, easy-drinking lagers that had taken over the British market. Why relax with a refreshing pint when you could get a tasting flight of stuff that really challenged your palate? “If you know, you know,” in the words of one small-batch fruit sour from Greenville, South Carolina. 

Before that, it was rosé. The great gourmand Raymond Postgate dismissed it in the 1965 edition of his Plain Man’s Guide to Wine, when Mateus rosé fever was at its height, as a “sweetish, silly wine for careless drinking at a tennis-party or such”. Almost half a century later, as a young sub-editor I was still writing defensive headlines like “Real men drink pink” – then Brad Pitt and David Ginola got in on the act. And nowadays, even professional bloke Jeremy Clarkson is happy to boast about his rosé habit in the pages of the Sun.

There were the elegant cosmopolitans that defined Noughties mixology culture after the laddy, lager-sodden Nineties – whose laid-back grunge aesthetic was itself in stark contrast to the gleefully over-the-top creations of the Eighties (unashamedly the decade that taste forgot). And when yuppies weren’t chinking piña coladas at Tramp, they were re-hydrating with imported water – this was a time when Beverley Hill’s Rodeo Drive boasted its own mineral-water bar, and Princess Di was extolling her love of “alkaline-balancing” Aqua Libra in the Mail on Sunday. Despite initial scepticism about paying for something that came free from the tap, by the end of the decade a Gallup poll of what’s in and what’s out declared water “extremely street cred”, with over three quarters of those surveyed giving it the thumbs up.

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Perhaps no drink went from nul points to cool points as fast as vodka. Once regarded with suspicion in the West, due to rumours of its deadly effects, an aggressive postwar marketing campaign by Smirnoff led to vodka’s rehabilitation as “the fashionable drink with all VIPs both at home and on the Continent. Gives a new taste thrill that leaves you breathless,” as one 1954 ad put it. James Bond himself, on her Her Majesty’s Secret Service against the red menace, loses no time in establishing himself as a fan when he orders a vesper martini in his very first outing, Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale – though on-screen 007 reverts to a simpler “medium-dry vodka martini, shaken not stirred”. Vodka sales promptly soared, tripling between 1951 and 1957 and continuing to climb by 100,000 gallons a year for the next decade.

No doubt some starch-collared old whisky buff had something sniffy to say about that too. But I’m afraid, just like them, GB News is sadly out of touch: Suella Braverman’s Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati have long moved on to natty, or natural wine, which has all the requisite qualifications for hipness, being feral of flavour, unprepossessing in appearance, and more expensive than you’d expect for something that smells like a farmyard.

It’s also delicious. In fact, I recommend they give it a try – it might even cheer them up a bit.

[See also: The ultra-processed food swindle]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special