Thursday 13 March 2014

Disorientation: Graham's 1948 Vintage Port

So what did I find when we got to India? Only that once you go south of Goa and head for the Malabar Coast, booze is unobtainable, or as good as. In one place I managed to get a bottle of Kingfisher beer, but it had to be brought to my table swathed in old newspaper before being hidden behind a curtain so as not to start a riot. The last time anything like that happened to me I was in Utah. Out of three weeks in the sub-continent, I must have spent at least nine days teetotal. No beer, no wine - although I swear I saw someone else drinking Sula red - no whisky.

The nearest we got to that was in marginally hedonistic Mysore, where there were places in which men sat in almost total darkness, consoling themselves with liquor. We stopped outside one of these dives to examine the drinks on display outside: should we get a half-bottle of Royal Stag Indian whisky, or go for a full one of Peter Scot? A man lurched out from the (packed) counter and started telling us the prices. Other men shouted encouragement through an open window. We said we'd think about it. A day later and it was back to water. I haven't felt so disorientated for years.

I tell a lie: weeks. The previous time I felt so disorientated was just before I left for India, when I met the fiendishly talented writer/photographer/cultural contrarian who runs The London Column, for a drink at the Royal Festival Hall.

'You'll like this,' he said, producing a small glass jar with a lid. Inside the jar was an amber fluid. 'Graham's 1948 Vintage Port. We've been keeping it for years. We drank most of it the other night.'
'What's the container?'
'It's an old pâté jar from Lidl.'
'The safety button's popped up.'
'I washed it out. Don't worry.'

We tipped the contents into a couple of plastic cups (see serving suggestion, above). It's possible to pay over £500 for a bottle of Graham's 1948, although perhaps less for this one, given its slightly kooky provenance: British Transport Hotels Ltd. St. Pancras Chambers N.W.1. it read on the label.

'They must have flogged it off. Perhaps it was Dr. Beeching.' He showed me pictures of the formal bottle-opening, complete with candlelight and crystal decanters. 'It was pretty good.'

Up to this point, we'd been drinking the RFH's own Les Amourettes basement red, which tasted of coal dust and paraffin and was the cheapest thing on the list. The Graham's, in comparison, was like, I don't know, a 78 rpm recording of Galli-Curci, something desperately ancient and classy, almost on the point of extinction. There were Madeira-ish overtones, raisins, cinnamon, a long finish with a nice suggestion of old carpet. Nothing like the bespoke expectorant I normally associate with mainstream port, but instead a patrician, largely geriatric, intimation of what port could be if only it made an effort.

Of course it was over in a flash on account of there only being a tiny quantity to start with - about £60 worth - and us drinking it too quickly. We looked at the now-empty pâté jar as it baked under the RFH's savage shopping mall lights.

'Well, that was nice,' I said, inhaling the fumes from my cup.

And then, a few days later, I was 10º north of the Equator, quite unable to get a drink of any sort.

For a while, I toyed with the idea that destiny had taken it upon itself to cut off my booze supply altogether, using the Graham's Port in a pâté jar as a metaphor for the direction in which my life was headed. Back at home, of course, I now appear to be surrounded by grog, as ever, and can drink as much as I want. But is that really true? I thought the whole world was liquid, once. Seems I may have over-estimated.


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