April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.
When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh. However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.
“Good morning, [Lattimer].”
“Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”
“Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”
“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”
“No, I probably won’t.”
“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”
“Expensive date, Lattimer.”
“Worth it. Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”
While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.
Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.
And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:
“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22”
Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:
“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.
Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).
Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.
(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)
Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.
So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).