Wine articles

An impecunious amateur in the East

Victor Crabbe, World of Booze‘s man in Singapore, looks at what to drink in the former colony:

When I was young, I had a LEGO catalogue that described a perfect town, with just one of everything: one sandwich shop, one police station, one motorway maintenance vehicle, one railway station, one space rocket launch pad, and so on. On the face of it, Singapore has the same refreshing approach. There is one media provider, one airport, one coffee chain, one telephone company, one political party – and one beer, Tiger.

Tiger is everywhere in Singapore, all over buses, umbrellas, sporting events, television and of course bars. It’s something Singapore is very proud of, an international lager brand with more exotic chic than any equivalent mass-produced European brand. It’s a huge success, and like the other huge global lagers it tastes of dilute robot tears and marsh gas. A friend of mine says he feels as though he’s licked too many stamps after drinking a glass. We all drink it, but after a couple of months most people stop enjoying it. The brewery once offered Anthony Burgess free beer while he was in Singapore, after he used their slogan “Time for a Tiger” as the title of a novel, but he had tired of it and become “wholly a gin man”.

Lager came to Asia with the European empires and their hot and thirsty employees. A British man started brewing Kingfisher in India in 1857, the Spanish crown granted permission to brew San Miguel in the Phillipines in 1890, German colonists created Tsingtao inChinain 1857, and Seibei Nakagawa, trained by more Germans, started makingSapporoin the Kaitakushi Brewery in 1876. Tiger was a relatively late entrant, launched in 1932 by Malayan Breweries, a Heineken-backed venture. Lager, like port and gin, has been part of globalisation and international trade for a very long time, and I suppose in many ways this heritage of international commerce is older and more respectable than the supposed rural localism of the sorts of booze I prefer to drink. Many regional styles are distinctive and interesting, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing: the honeyed embrace of Thailand’s Chang beer or the crisp salute of Beer Lao are each of them memorable and evocative. So not every local lager is as faceless as Tiger, though it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate national drink for a place created through mercantilism and unfettered consumerism.

In the last few years a second wave of colonisation and empire has crashed against Singapore’s shore from the New World, bringing its own ideas about drinking in the shape of the “microbrewery”, which here as elsewhere presents a standardised and reliable set of choices while pretending to treat its customers as connoisseurs who appreciate beer “crafted” by “artisans”. They are pleasant and expensive, and this is really the crux of the difficulty facing any impecunious amateur inSingapore. Alcohol is very expensive, partly because it’s taxed heavily, and partly because certain drinks appeal to the sort of aspirational drinkers who think that being seen in the company of European booze makes them look sophisticated. As a result, even mediocre booze is unpleasantly dear. A bottle of wine for which I would be happy to pay around seven English pounds might retail at about S$30, which today is about £15. I recently had a 2008 Yarra Ridge pinot noir, which turned out to be a well-structured wine with a cherry-cola appearance and tannins that suggested a sieve of tart summer fruit left over a plate of hot ribs, giving it a kind of barbecued strawberry aura that was less unpleasant than it sounds. It was nice enough for under a tenner, but the $S32 I paid for it left me keen to exaggerate its virtues and pass over the formulaic Australian focus on varietal character. An empty wallet and mid-range tastes are distorting my palate, and I suppose while I’m here I shall have to get used to it. The only hope lies with Carrefour, the French megamarket: they carry a wide range of French wine and make no effort to promote them, thinking, I suppose, that anyone who doesn’t already know where Vosne-Romaneé is can’t be worth selling wine to. I do, and I am, and I intend to set about their shelves with abandon.

Editor’s note: I think it is time for an Anthony Burgess revival. ‘The Malayan Trilogy’, of which ‘Time for a Tiger’ is the first novel, is one the great empire novels. It captures the dislocating effects of colonialism: there is a French priest who longs for China, a British sergeant more comfortable speaking Urdu then English and an Moslem Indian soldier who wishes his sergeant would be a bit more British. There’s also a lot of drinking.

Wine articles

The negroni – cocktail of the gods

Like a properly-fitted suit, a well-made negroni should grab you by the shoulders, make you stand up straight and give you a general feeling of importance. Nothing hits the spot quite like it but be warned they are powerful and dangerously drinkable. Luckily, unlike most cocktails, with the negroni there is no rush; they have a very wide timescale of deliciousness being good strong but also excellent diluted as the ice melts. Diluted or not, the flavour is so powerful that you won’t be able to taste much afterwards so don’t open the good burgundy. The best thing after a negroni is another negroni but then you must move onto food or trouble will ensue. Serve the food with a neutralish Italian white wine and plenty of water.


1 shot of red vermouth – Martini Rosso is fine. Thankfully the people at this blog have tasted all the most common brands so that I didn’t have to. Thank heavens for the internet

1 shot of Campari

1 shot of gin – I’m currently using Boodles gin which seems to work well. Don’t go for anything too fancy as you won’t be able to taste its complexities through the Campari and vermouth. The gin brings alcohol and juniper and not much else.

1 slice of orange – you can do that burning thing if you like but I’m happy just with a bit of orange.



Fill a glass full of ice cubes. I use a whisky tumbler that used to belong to my grandmother but anything similar will do.

Add a shot of each of the components.

Add the orange slice

Stir thoroughly

Drink slowly

Feel that medicinal goodness fill your body.

Books Interviews

Michael Hodges – a great London boozer

Look beyond the expected guides to city life and you will be pleasantly surprised to find that Time Out has some rather good writers. One in particular stands out, Michael Hodges. For years Michael Hodges has chronicled London life through his weekly column, ‘Slice of Life’. Like many great Londoners, Michael is not from London. He’s from Scarborough and has a Northerner’s scepticism and bloody mindedness but also a poetic streak and an eye for the absurd. An eye for the surreal would be more accurate because he seems to attract strange people and bizarre happenings. Many if not most of Hodges’ columns are related from inside or just outside the pub and he has very kindly agreed to share some of his thoughts on boozing with us:

Can you remember what your first drink was?

If inside, then Piesporter with ham and egg salad, bread and butter at home. I was nine-years-old and discovering that the genius of these isles is our appreciation of the cheaper Mosels. If outside, a few summers later – a small glass of bitter shandy on the grass in front of the Joiners Arms, High Newton, Northumberland .

Did you enjoy it?

Immensely – have you never been to the Joiners Arms?

What was your drink of choice when you were 18?

William Younger’s Scotch or 80 Shillings. Bell’s whisky directly afterwards. Occasionally vodka.

Where’s your favourite place to drink and why?

I enjoy few places now because of the noise but if I’m slightly flush and gagging for gin and nuts then the upstairs bar at the Charing Cross Hotel.

What do you normally drink there?


What do you avoid in a pub?


If you had to drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I suppose a red, something inky and deep

What do you think the ultimate breakfast drink is?

Depends on the length and location of the breakfast. I actually prefer my early drink as a substitute for breakfast as don’t like all this stodgy full English business – as if there was such a thing as Englishness anyway – and Bloody Mary and blinis would make me vomit. A French plumber I once watched in a bar had it about right: one small coffee, several large cognacs.

And the ultimate bedtime drink?

Weak tea with large dark rum in (though this makes a pretty good breakfast as well).

Can you recommend a book about booze?

Brideshead Revisited is pretty much all drinking, though Waugh is open about the consequences. So that or, if feeling more proletarian, the opening scenes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Going back to my earlier point, if there is such a thing as Englishness then it could well be Arthur Seaton on the piss.

Buy Time Out and you get to read Michael Hodges every week and also learn where London’s best car boot sales are. In addition he appears occasionally in the Financial Times, New Statesman and wrote a rather good book a few years back on the AK-47.

Wine articles

What should we call English ‘champagne’?

This year a Cornish wine – Camel Valley Brut Rosé  – won the best sparkling wine trophy at the International Wine Challenge beating wines from around the world including champagne. Consequently there has been much talk in wine circles about a generic name for English Sparkling Wine like the Spanish have cava. This debate has even reached the comment pages of the Daily Telegraph. Malcolm Gluck, he of Superplonk fame, has suggested calling it a ‘Pippa’ after Pippa Middleton. I don’t think we need to dwell on what a terrible idea this is. Another suggestion was Britagne – an amalgamation of Britain and Champagne. This simultaneously recalls those confected 80s wines drunk by Northern women with grotesquely fat arms like Lambrini and the ill-feted rebranding of the Post Office as Consignia. The final option was to call it a ‘Merret’ after Christopher Merret, a member of the Royal Society, who is often feted as the inventor of the champagne process. This has its merits (pun intended) but from reading his paper to the Royal Society on 17th December 1662 it appears that he did not invent the process; he was merely describing something that was being done at the time. Some of the brightest minds in Restoration London were experimenting with putting bubbles into wine and cider and no one has yet found out who was the first to do it.

I would argue that the real godfather of champagne was a man called Sir Kenelm Digby. Sir Kenelm invented the modern wine bottle. Previously wine bottles were used much like modern-day decanters, for serving wine. They were much too delicate for storage purposes and bubbles would make them explode (the pressure in a modern champagne bottle is 80 psi or about the tyre pressure of a London bus) so no sparkling champagne. Sir Kenelm invented a process to fire glass at a much higher temperature by using charcoal for his furnaces rather than wood thus making it stronger. Furthermore he was a pioneer in corking wine to hold in all those bubbles – a process that had been lost since Roman times.

His portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London by Van Dyke (see above.) He looks a louche sort of fellow; the kind of pleasure-seeking individual who could have provoked a puritan revolt with a raised eyebrow. Opposite him is his wife, also painted by Van Dyke, Lady Venetia Anastasia Stanley who in the great tradition of 17th century beauties seems rather plain to modern eyes. Sir Kenelm’s life reads like a picaresque novel. His father was implicated in the gunpowder plot of 1605 and had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Sir Kenelm himself had a varied career as a privateer, soldier and academic. In his unreliable memoirs he claimed to have been propositioned by Marie de Medici widow of Henry IV of France. She was 47, he was just 18. He was even accused, in 1633, of murdering his Lady Venetia – Van Dyke was on hand to paint her death portrait. A founder member of the Royal Society as well as an alchemist, he was best known in his own time for inventing a substance called the ‘Powder of Sympathy’ that was said to have magical healing properties. If he is remembered at all these days it is as the author of the first cookery book in English, the snappily-titled The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened.

Without Sir Kenelm Digby,  a man who really deserves a new biography of his own, there would be no strong glass and therefore no champagne. In fact it would have been impossible to age wines in bottles so no estate-bottled bordeaux, no vintage port and no modern  fine wine market. Therefore I propose that English Sparkling Wine be called a ‘Digby’. It’s got a good ring to it, has it not? ‘Send us another bottle of that excellent Digby, my good man’ I can hear the more high-spirited members of Boodles shouting after a lavish lunch. It’s easy to pronounce, jolly and solidly English; no ersatz Latinate words here. My wife had an even better idea: bottles should be renamed Kenelms so people could order a ‘Kenelm of Digby’. What better way to remember a great British eccentric?

Majestic wine have set up a poll on their Facebook page where you can vote for your favourite name. Vote Digby!