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From mixing drinks to ordering wines: All you need to know about social drinking

In The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Drinking in India, sommelier Magandeep Singh looks at the history of alcohol in India. In this excerpt, he writes about drinking etiquette and debunks some myths.

books Updated: Oct 18, 2017 08:50 IST
The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Alcohol in India,Magandeep Singh,Drinking etiquette
Unlike fine dining, there are no set norms that govern what one should drink. (Getty Images)

When I first started out with one of my wine columns, a topic that came up often concerned the social rules of drinking. Unlike fine dining, there are no set norms that govern what one should drink. No strict code to conform to and yet so much stiffness seems to govern it. From the minute you order a drink, someone is silently judging you. They want to know not only what you ordered but how you asked for it and how you work your way through it. Thankfully, by the time we are on the nth round of drinks the judging stops. Here ‘n’ is an integer greater than, say, five, which comes at a point in the evening when nobody’s capable of judging anyone, or remembering anything the next day.

To make matters more complicated, I have chosen to approach this topic by dividing it in no particular manner. There is no order to the way these groupings have been employed or placed. So read through and try and make sense of it, of some parts more than others

Ordering drinks

There are many places where one can find themselves in a situation which requires them to take charge and take the menu by its ears. Then they are expected to order something from it. Men have been more confident going down on one knee even when they knew the lass was way out of their league than when faced with such onerous tasks. Here are a few pointers for various types of situations.

Publisher: Penguin Random House, pages: 304, price: Rs 599.

The round system

This is when you are out with friends and everyone decides to buy a round. This is a very risky form of fraternizing. Here are the things to watch out for.

Always start with a headcount. If there are nine people, you are in for nine drinks. So, order carefully. You want to walk out with an air of surprising calm and at no point should your candour give you away to be a weak social link. Do not commit to a round if you don’t think you will make it to the end without feeling the need to hurl midways. They might consider you a weak one but it’s better that than to slow them down.

Pace yourself; unlike with a group relay where you are only as fast as the slowest member on the team, in these rounds, the system progresses as fast as the fastest drinker. The minute they have finished their drink they start cajoling and coaxing the others for the next round. Sometimes these are the first people to pass out but in a seasoned circle, these people will outdrink everyone. So pace yourself and never fall too behind.

Always order smart; no point starting off with a double whisky and switching to lemonade three rounds in. Also, see what the others are ordering and try and stay in the price zone. You don’t want to be seen as the posh tosspot who doesn’t get invited the next time on account of your rare malts fixation.

The pay-as-you-go system

This is the equivalent of a prepaid top-up plan. You get your own drinks at the bar and handle your own tab. Or better yet, you settle as you go; that way, you don’t need to pore over the bill later, when senses are slightly soft and the sight fuzzy, trying to figure out whether you did in fact have all those shots and chasers. Trouble with this system is that if the outlet doesn’t have a service charge you end up paying more in tips each time you get a drink, unless of course you don’t mind being hated by the bar staff. A trick is to tip big on your first drink and then once before you leave.

This is not considered very social; so if you are doing this, make sure you are drinking either something special or else extremely slow — both are grounds for not being part of the round system.

See what the others are ordering and try and stay in the price zone. You don’t want to be seen as the posh tosspot who doesn’t get invited the next time on account of your rare malts fixation.

Ordering wine from a menu

Be it in a familial or a formal setting, nothing is more disconcerting than being faced with a tome of a list. Usually in a wine menu, there are more listings than toppings in a frozen yogurt parlour (that latter one is my nemesis, really). Always ascertain the price that you are comfortable paying, or one that the group won’t cringe splitting. Then gently nudge the sommelier verbally towards that general price range. Their ilk has a habit of jumping above and beyond any barriers set, so use a cattle prod to keep them grounded in reality. Never order a wine that you feel suspicious about. When they retrieve the wine, often many a server will ask you to check the temperature; don’t do it. That’s their job. The chef doesn’t ask you to check the done-ness of the chicken so why should service be your concern. If you do have to check the temperature, subtract proportionately from the tip.

Remember that a bottle of wine serves about five proper glasses. Average person will drink at least two glasses with their meal. Usually, most of our friends punch well beyond their drinking prowess. Clearly more important than knowing your wines is to know your friends. Order accordingly.

Mixing grape and grain

A lot of people worry about mixing wine and whisky, or beer and wine, or beer and whisky . . . basically any illogical combination they can think up of, fearing that the combined effect could be worse than Rohypnol (aka Roofies), rendering them near-unconscious with little recall as to what happened. That is not true. If that were the case, I should feel extremely and unduly taken advantage of all my life.

Always order smart; no point starting off with a double whisky and switching to lemonade three rounds in. (Shutterstock)

There is no scientific evidence to support the theory that mixing alcohols leads to a faster or longer-lasting high. Taking in a lot of drinks will get you plastered irrespective of whether it was whisky or vodka or a mix thereof. The whole ‘Don’t mix grape and grain alcohol’ adage is more urban myth than science. Any formal sit-down dinner that I attend would see me starting with a generous pour of a malt before I switch to some bubbly as the quintessential palate cleanser. Then we’d all sit down for a meal of a few courses, each generously soaked in wines of all shades and styles. Finally, we’d rise and make our way to where the cigars are kept, ready for engaging.

This is where Churchill and I part ways: my idea of a good time is quite inspired by his save for one big difference — I don’t smoke cigars. (Also, I have never been summoned by the Queen to appoint the Cabinet.) But that small niggle, the cigar bit, actually also the never-been-prime-minister bit, has never stopped me from enjoying cognac (or armagnac, or grappa) before I am for the bed. In the course of an evening I shift from grain to grape and from spirits to wines, and then back to spirits and yet the next morning I can wake up bright and early for a run. If that makes me an alcoholic then I’m a particularly fit one. All this is made possible simply with the aid of good ol’ H2 0. Have enough water and you don’t wake up with a nasty hangover.

There is no scientific evidence to support the theory that mixing alcohols leads to a faster or longer-lasting high. Taking in a lot of drinks will get you plastered irrespective of whether it was whisky or vodka or a mix thereof.

As for why we suffer an unprecedented high is because we don’t space our drinks. Having water in between glasses and courses provides some much-needed useful breaks in our drinking session. It prevents us from ingesting more alcohol than our body is capable of processing. Mind you, just because I am walking straight doesn’t mean I am not under the influence of alcohol; I certainly wouldn’t get behind the steering wheel of a car in that state no matter how sober I think or feel I am.

Water is the original source of life, the real elixir. Unlike wine and spirits, it is best when fresh. Keep the water content strong during and after the drinking bout, and you will never wake up with a hangover. If you time it right, you won’t even get too high. So imagine a night out with no embarrassing impromptu public dancing or singing performances to go viral in your social circle, no apologizing to ex-girlfriends (or boyfriends) for drunk-texting well past midnight, no wondering with mild paranoia where you left your wallet . . . all this and more is possible and you’ll only have water to thank for it. There is, however, a trade off: you will have to contend with waking up an innumerable number of times in the middle of the night to wee.

So, the next time you are offered a whisky when you have been drinking beer earlier, just insert some glasses of water as spacers and continue normally. You will thank me for it the next day when you wake up bright and early and with a surprisingly clear head.

Excerpted with permission from The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Drinking in India, Magandeep Singh, Penguin Random House.

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First Published: Oct 18, 2017 08:44 IST