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In defence of my drink

A couple of pints of beer after a gruelling day at work; the aroma of vanilla wafting from a peg of Old Monk at your favourite bar; vodka and cranberry at that crazy college party; bright lights, a dance floor and absinthe...

brunch Updated: Aug 18, 2012 16:32 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times

A couple of pints of beer after a gruelling day at work; the aroma of vanilla wafting from a peg of Old Monk at your favourite bar; vodka and cranberry at that crazy college party; bright lights, a dance floor and absinthe; scotch-induced stories about the Kargil war from a retired army officer; Saturday night, your light o’ love, candles, blues and red wine. Alcohol is romantic, electric and so liberating, all at the same time.

Today, the Indian market is one of the fastest growing alcohol markets in the world, and notwithstanding advocates of prohibition and hockey stick wielding cops, we are drinking like never before. The alcohol sector in India mushroomed by 12 per cent between 2004 and 2009, says a KPMG report. the last year (2011-12), Delhi consumed 105.54 lakh cases of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) – a big jump from the 70.85 lakh cases in 2007-08. More than 90 liquor licences have been issued to restaurants (excluding those in five-star hotels) in the city since April 2011. Mumbai leaped from 228 lakh litres of IMFL in 2004-05 to 347 lakh litres in 2010-11.

The big change isn’t that people are drinking more, but that they’re doing it in the open. Sommelier Magandeep Singh says, “Earlier, drinking was a shameful activity, it was more, ‘behind the shaadi ka tent.’” Today, however, everyone’s under the tent, raising a glass to the bride and groom (there was even a well-stocked bar at my niece’s sixth birthday party in Jaipur!).

A history of desi tipplers Now, liquor isn’t exactly an alien concept to us. Sura, the ancient Indian alcohol drink, was supposedly one of Indra’s favourites. In the International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture edited by anthropologist Dwight B Heath, Davinder Mohan and HK Sharma write that the Kshatriyas drank it, as did Dravidians in the toddy-tapping south India. Wine was a part of the culture at the Mughal court. Jehangir was excessively fond of his drink.

But mostly, social drinking is a western concept. In the early 1800s, the British set up a brewery within the country – to cut down import costs. The opening of the Indian Civil Services to Indians (in 1861), write Mohan and Sharma, got some of them acquainted with alcohol. By the end of World War II, added to this small group of social drinkers were the military men who could buy subsidised alcohol from the armed forces’ canteens. After Independence in 1947, perhaps influenced by the nationalists, ‘under the influence’ came to have a sober connotation with the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution directing the State to "endeavour to bring about Prohibition."

That sentiment was forgotten by the ’60s but even so, for many, sharaab was shameful. In cinema, it was for the villain or the broken-hearted. Off screen, it was for Punjabis, Parsis, Christians, the army men, Leftists and the foreign-educated.

As recent as two decades ago, watering holes were few and far between in Delhi. “You had to go to the Gymkhana club or the Press Club, or that one place in Connaught Place to drink,” recalls sommelier Singh.

But Mumbai, even before Independence, was different. Rafique Baghdadi, Mumbai-based journalist and local historian, says, “It was a hub of cinema, military, advertising. People were very rich, they adopted the culture of the British. The Parsis, for instance, were doing business with them and had to be agreeable with English society.” Even during the Prohibition days (from 1950 to 1963 courtesy then Home Minister Morarji Desai), Mumbai guzzled away to glory much like the ‘dry-as-a-bone’ Gujarat of today. “There was Pascal in Santa Cruz. Everybody in cinema would say, ‘chalo, Pascal mein daaru peena hain’. The city was full of hooch joints run by ladies during Prohibition. They made country liquor but nobody knows with what… they used battery or whatever to get people high. Some people would die also, still we’d go,” remembers Baghdadi.

Over the next few decades, even as Delhi’s liquor aficionados waited in long queues outside overcrowded thekas, Mumbai’s taprooms multiplied. “Delhi opened up faster but Mumbai opened up first,” says mixologist Shatbhi Basu. By the late ’80s and ’90s, there were many places to drink: Leopold Café, Cafe Mondegar and Gokul in Colaba and Janata in Bandra. “Hotels were accessible to everybody. Unlike Delhi, there were many bars, like Tavern (inside Colaba’s Fariyas Hotel), Toto’s Garage (in Bandra), which suited everybody. The music was good, the alcohol not-too-expensive. They were clean and no-nonsense. Girls also started feeling comfortable there,” says Basu.

The Americans had fallen in love with vodka by the ’70s. James Bond loved his vodka martini "shaken, not stirred." The fiery, smooth drink took the world by storm in the decades that followed. By the 2000s, the vodka revolution was complete. It was glamorous and fun. It became a ladies’ favourite. It’s what was in a Cosmopolitan. "You started getting vodka in different colours and yummy flavours… there’s candy alcohol which doesn’t feel like alcohol. You didn’t get these things 15 years ago," says author Anuja Chauhan, who worked in advertising (a career overflowing with booze) for more than a decade.

Whose drink is it anyway? For many people, alcohol is just not about inebriation, it is another marker for liberal aspiration. “A lot of people drink champagne not because they are connoisseurs, but because they’re being seen. It reinstates their social status,” says Magandeep Singh.

Gaurav Bhatia, marketing director, Moët Hennessy India, a premium champagne brand, adds, “It’s so natural in India, to be doing things the right way.” Interestingly, Moët & Chandon shipped its first bottles of champagne to India (to Calcutta) as far back in 1839. Today, he says, “India is one of the leading champagne markets in the world. It has a wonderful-sized population. The consumers in the metros are increasing.”

Aisha Bhasin (name changed), a 23-year old B-school student, began drinking six years ago. “My dad’s generation usually drinks at each other’s house – which, come to think of it, makes more sense. We just have more freedom and money,” she says. She can’t recall the last time she met a friend over a cup of coffee. It’s always over drinks. “Alcohol extends the time spent together. If you’re meeting people for dinner, it is just a one-hour affair. You can stretch it to three-four hours over drinks, but you can’t keep eating for four hours!”

Stop! Or we’ll shoot
Oddly enough, along with the rise of social drinking, the parallel forces of moral conservatism have also gotten stronger. Ironically, Mumbai is where the fight is now. The moral police and the real police (ACP Vasant Dhoble and Co) have taken the task of weeding out the big bad booze from our beverages. In the summer of 2011, Maharashtra upped the drinking age from 21 to 25. Two months back, Dhoble began raiding bars all over the city for archaic laws – playing music, overcrowding. You need a licence to drink in Mumbai: Rs 5 to drink foreign liquor for a day, Rs 100 for a month and Rs 1000 for life.

But isn’t Maximum City used to music, drinks and parties? Mumbai-based journalist, Editor of IBN Lokmat Nikhil Wagle, most popularly known for his criticism of the Shiv Sena, disagrees. “If you ever played music after 10pm at a private party in Mumbai, somebody would complain to the police. People want to go to bed at 10.30pm,” he says. In fact, he adds, “A few months ago, people in Bandra West came outside a nightclub, protesting against miscreants, holding up traffic.” Bandra-Khar residents even passed a resolution supporting him. “Bars are a nuisance to the neighbourhood,” explains Wagle.

The media slammed police action and social networking websites were abuzz with anti-Dhoble fury. But the conservative streak is as strong as the liberal one. Some publications, mainstream ones too, raged about how terrible alcohol is, and how very drunk young India is. Earlier this month, actor Aamir Khan, too, as part of a tearful teetotaller tirade in Satyamev Jayate, counted the many sins of alcohol. Mixologist Basu, who had been there for the shooting of the episode, clarifies, “At that point of time, all those stories of alcoholism felt very sad, Aamir got emotionally involved. He started out fine. Some parts of the show did talk about the fact that alcohol is not completely bad. Something probably went wrong while editing.”

Where’s the line?
Alcohol is now a part of a larger global culture. And undeniably, when society changes, not everybody moves forward. There are always detractors who resist it. “People have always been making a noise. They have the women’s point of view, children’s point of view,” says Baghdadi. “Gandhi thought drinking was bad, Nehru liked his glass of sherry. Devdas wasn’t because of love, but because of drinking. Drinking is a metaphor. But it has nothing to do with being conservative. In Ghatkopar, there are vegetarian restaurants that serve alcohol,” he says, adding in the spirit of the city that he has never known to sleep, “In a society like Bombay, nobody really minds it.”

Alcohol helps people unwind and socialise. So, how does society tread the fine line between debauchery and drink? New laws, structured around today’s lifestyles, could be the answer, says Basu. "Nobody opposed drunken driving laws – we were all happy," she argues. "You’ve got to encourage people to drink less, drink better alcohol. The ethical onus should be on everybody – alcohol companies, bars and people," she adds. Cheers!

And that’s the way you drink it
when the days are long in the summer, drink anything chilled, aromatic and fizzy. Try wine spritzers (1/2 wine, 1/2 soda); whisky with green tea and sugar; and tall cocktails with lots of ice and juice.

Winter in the pub
When it gets colder, make your drinks heavy and spicy.
* Red wines, spiced mojitos, White Russians, ales, ciders or the good ol’ toddy.
* Experiment with nutmeg, cinnamon, spiced rum instead of white rum, eggnog and coconut cream

Notes on the nightcap
* Wine has caffeine (in form of tannins). It will make you stay up. But if the alcohol content is high, it will make you sleepy. Port wine is better than red at night.
* Don’t mix your alcohol with tea or coffee if you plan to sleep. So, no Black Russians or Espresso Martinis at night!

Bloody Mary
Morning: hangovers can GO TO HELL
* Drink expensive booze. Cheap liquor has acetaldehyde (also found in fertilisers). It’s what causes the worst kind of hangover.
* White spirits cause less hangover than dark spirits.
* Drink your favourite tipple. Go by personal preference. If vodka makes you want to dance on tables but other spirits don’t, drink something else. If rum makes you throw up, stay far, far away. Drink what suits your body.

From HT Brunch, August 19

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First Published: Aug 17, 2012 16:25 IST