Thursday 13 June 2013

Birthday Drinking - Moët & Chandon, Pinot Noir, Welsh wine, neat ethanol

So my Father-in-law is celebrating a birthday of great magnitude, and we all go down to his place at the absolute limits of Wales to celebrate 
the event. About the second thing I see when we get there is a bottle of Cwm Deri Estate Reserve Welsh Quality Sparkling Wine.

'Someone gave me that for my birthday,' he says.

'I hope we're going to drink it,' I say, almost too excited by the prospect of Welsh mock-Champagne to get the words out.

'We could,' he says, putting it back on the shelf from which it came with a gesture full of significance.

So we don't drink that, nor the Cwm Deri Cwmbuie Bourbon-Style Liqueur which came with it. I compress my feelings into a pill of disappointment, as instead we neck some Moët & Chandon real Champagne on his swanky deck overlooking an immense body of Welsh water.

Then we all pile into a minibus and go off to a hotel for a slap-up dinner.

There, the wine list comes round and I experience a momentary panic that my Pa-in-Law and Brother-in-Law are going to round on me and say, You write a so-called wine blog, what should we have? In which event my default response is always to choose the second cheapest wine, whatever colour, and let nature take its course.

Fortunately, the Pa-in-Law and the Bro-in-Law have decided views about wines, particularly reds.

'What about this Zinfandel?' my Pa-in-Law asks.
'No, no, we can't have that,' answers the Bro-in-Law.
'What about this Chilean Pinot Noir?' he replies.
'Oh, yes,' says the Bro-in-Law, 'we can have that.'

Since I am not paying for any part of the feast, I have no idea if this is second cheapest or third most expensive, and let out a discernible sigh of relief. A Californian Chardonnay (for the ladies) also makes its way onto the order, and we get stuck in.

Some way into the meal, though, wines of any sort, Welsh or Californian, suddenly vanish into trite inconsequentiality when my Pa-in-Law reveals that he used to make bathtub poteen when he was a boy, growing up in Birmingham.

'Oh yes,' he says, 'everybody did it.'

There is a collective gasp and a clattering of dropped cutlery. My Pa-in-Law looks offended and very slightly defensive, a first for him.

'Well, I used to do it in the basement. We used to put just about anything in the mash, and I used to distill it off. I had a coil condenser. I don't know where I got it from. I just acquired it.'

This was when he was still at school, doing the pre-War equivalent of GCSEs. He later became a high-powered metallurgist, designing tanks for the Army in WWII, but at the time he was in his early teens.

We stare at him, our expressions both appalled and reverential. He looks increasingly hurt.

'I did know the difference between ethanol and methanol. It was just a question of getting the temperature right.'
'But who the hell drank this stuff?' I ask.
'Oh, my mother. She used to drink anything.'

His father was an amateur prize-fighter, and his mother ('A wonderful woman') drank bathtub hooch. I have known my Pa-in-Law for over thirty years, but tonight I look at him with a new respect, a respect that cannot be articulated except by a brief attack of hiccups.

Amazingly, he seems not to want this attention. He is, however, rescued by the hotel we are eating in. We need a fresh bottle of Pinot Noir, but they have run out and there is only the Zinfandel left. We accept this but my Bro-in-Law pronounces it inferior to the Pinot Noir, even though it costs more, and says as much to the deafeningly Welsh lady in charge.

'I'll make it the same price,' she says magnanimously, before wrapping her bosoms round my (seated, and therefore vulnerable) Pa-in-Law and shouting, 'Isn't he lovely, the Birthday Boy?'

The bathtub hooch is forgotten in the confusion, and we make our way, with a sense of growing disorientation, towards the pudding course.

But thinking about it now: an illicit still in your own basement! That is living it large. She survived well into her seventies, my Pa-in-Law's mother. And the master-distiller himself? Just turned ninety.

Happy Birthday, Ray!


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