James Leavey's Corner
Passé The Port
Not long ago, I shared an after-dinner drink with a man who said he was the cream of society. And I believed him for who would argue with someone who lives at the top of a bottle?
That said, the world of after-dinner drinks has moved on from passing the port. For port, in the UK at least, is now passé. As is ye old traditional balloon glass of brandy, warmed by the hand or, if you really want to look poncy, over the flame from a fine Havana.
While a lot of experimenting with branded gins and flavoured vodkas has been going on at the 'aperitif' stage in the UK's, especially London's, restaurants and clubs in recent years, many diners now prefer to clean their palate and sooth their digestion with a fine single malt. Some even follow the French example and start and end their meal with a slug of great whisky. I recently attended a Burns' Night supper in St James's Street, London, during which each course was washed down by a different malt.. And it worked well, especially if you weren't hungry and hated haggis.
The fact is that the UK's diners have become more interested in tastes and flavours, to the extent that some traditional after-dinner drinks have been switched to pre-dinner aperitifs, and vice versa. Gone, it seems are rum and coke or rum-based cocktails, as an aperitif.
And very much 'in' are the sipping varieties of the finest rum, tots of which were once given to British naval officers to splice the mainbrace. In those far off days, the ship's 'rum baron' used his hoard of the stuff to wield power over those members of the crew, a.k.a. rum rats, who would do anything for an extra tot of the hard stuff. But more on rum later.
As for all those cloying liqueurs such as Benedictine, Amaretto di Saronna, green and yellow Chartreuse, Kahlua, Izarra, Galliano, Cacao mit Nuss, De Kuyper's Creme de Noyau, Tia Maria, Creme de Menthe, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Maraschino, cherry brandy and Strega that are gathering dust in drinks cabinets throughout the land, the sad truth is that, for the UK's gourmets, anyway, they have had their day.
“The after-dinner use of liqueurs has certainly decreased,” agreed Neil Mathieson, whose London-based company, Eaux de Vie Ltd, is one of the UK's leading importers off fine spirits from around the world for wholesalers and retailers, including some of the UK's finest restaurants.
“But, actually, the volume of liqueur sales doesn't seem to have been affected as much,” he continued, “because more care and attention is now spent on using premium spirits for a better, richer flavoured pre-dinner cocktail. Meanwhile, the range of after-dinner drinks has been extended to small-batch bourbons such as the top end of the Jim Beam and Jack Daniels range. There is also growing demand for Armagnac, especially the aged varieties, which have taken the place of cognac, to some extent.”
That may be due to the fact that some cognacs tend to give anyone who overindulges in them a bit of a heavy head the morning after. “A hangover is far less of a problem with single malts, which are less acidic, and easier on the system,” said Ranald Macdonald, whose famous Belgravia restaurant, Boisdale, includes a well-stocked whisky bar. “Also, the great thing is that there is a huge range of fine whiskies to choose from, and almost certainly one that will match most people's taste.”
Failing that, you might care to try some vintage calvados, especially anything over four years old - that is, VSOP/Vieux Reserve - as by then, it will have mellowed with age and lost that initial, aggressively sharp, apple flavour.
The good news is that there is no sign of UK diners getting caught up in the Americans' wave of enthusiasm for tequila. Thank God. I still have nightmares of my introduction to tequila at an international food and drink exhibition in Earls' Court, about 20 years ago.
What I do remember, through the haze, was a very attractive young woman in a white Stetson, who was also wearing a bandolier containing shot glasses instead of bullets. Each shot of tequila was delivered to the glass from a gun-like bottle, which she whipped out of her holster. She then put placed her hand over the glass – which she slammed on the bar – and urged you, with a wry grin, to quaff it all down in one go. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Belting back tequila is something some of us occasionally consider, when the meal has not been up to standard, and we want to forget it in a hurry. And if you don't want to get blotto on tequila, there's always schnapps. Sake, grappa, ouzo, raki, absinthe, kummel, kirsch or pisco, some of which is actually not totally unpleasant.
In recent years, many British drinkers have switched their after-dinner allegiance to rum, an underrated spirit that had been languishing on the back bar for years. A complex, versatile drink, there are at least two dozen rums now available in the UK. The best of these include Doorly's XO (from Barbados), Bally 1982 (Martinique), Appleton Estate Extra V/X (Jamaica), Mount Gay's 15 and 17-year-old, 15-year-old El Dorado, New Orleans (reminiscent of Jack Daniels, mainly because it is kept in JD casks for four years), and the French-style Clement, which are all worth sampling.
They are not at all like those old dark rums, whose bouquet was usually better than the actual taste. Also, there was always a class thing about coloured or dark rum, for it was widely believed that only sailors (or peasants in the West Country, or coastal parts of the UK) who actually drank it.
While we're on the subject of rum, Appleton was once known as 'Bend Down'. It all stems from the days when it was illegal to sell high-proof rum in ordinary bars and shops, and Appleton was not displayed but kept under the counter. As it was unwise to ask loudly for Appleton rum in the bar, a thirsty customer would whisper that he wanted a glass of 'Bend Down'.
Whether your host or the bar staff will bend over backwards to quench your thirst with your favourite spirit, or not, the after-dinner drink will always be a matter of taste. And if the British ban on smoking comes into place in a couple of years and you still insist of going out to drink, you'll need to get pissed to put up with the discomfort of not being able to enjoy a smoke with your favourite tipple.
If you fancy rounding off a meal with a heady concoction that resembles something stirred up by a witch on Halloween, or a smoking bucket of Irish poteen, it is entirely up to you. As for me, I prefer to keep it simple and stick to the Malts; but then my idea of frozen food is Scotch on the rocks.
Which reminds me of the dinner guest who asked my wife, “What's in that old bottle of booze I saw in the kitchen?” Without looking up from her plate, my wife immediately replied, “Ten to one it's my husband, James.”