In praise of fortified wines

He [Dr Johnson] rang the bell violently and, when the landlord was fetched, entered upon a learned disquisition on wines, with the well-thumbed cellar-book of the inn as his text. “Claret we shall not drink, though our host recommends his binns and it is the favourite drink of gentlemen in your country, sir. In winter weather it is too thin, and, even when well warmed, too cold. Nay, at its best it is but a liquor for boys.”

“And for men?” Alastair asked.

“For men port, and for heroes brandy.”

“Then brandy be it.”

“Nay, sir,” he said solemnly. “Brandy on the unheroic, such as I confess myself to be, produces too soon and certainly the effect of drunkenness. Drunkenness I love not, for I am a man accustomed to self-examination, and I am conscious when I am drunk, and that consciousness is painful. Others know not when they are drunk or sober. I know a man, a very worthy bookseller, who is so habitually and equally drunk that even his intimates cannot perceive that he is more sober at one time than another. Besides, my dear lady may summon us to a hand at cartes or to drink tea with her.”

Eventually he ordered a bottle of port, one of old madeira and one of brown sherry, that he might try all three before deciding by which he should abide. Presently Edom was summoned, and on his heels came dinner. It proved to be an excellent meal to which Mr Johnson applied himself with a serious resolution. There was thick hare soup, with all the woods and pastures in its fragrance, and a big dressed pike, caught that morning in the inn stew-pond. This the two Scots did not touch, but Mr Johnson ate of it largely, using his fingers, because, as he said, he was short-sighted and afraid of bones. Then came roast hill mutton, which he highly commended. “Yesterday,” he declared, “we also dined upon mutton – mutton ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept and ill-dressed. This is as nutty as venison.” But he reserved his highest commendations for a veal pie, made with plums, which he averred was his favourite delicacy. With the cheese and wheaten cakes which followed he sampled the three bottles and decided for the port. Alastair and Edom were by comparison spare eaters, and had watched with admiration the gallant trencher-work of their companion. For liquor they drank a light rum punch of Alastair’s compounding, while Mr Johnson consumed, in addition to divers glasses of sherry and Madeira, two bottles of rich dark port, dropping a lump of sugar into each glass and stirring it with the butt of a fork.

And all the while he talked, wisely, shrewdly, truculently, and with a gusto comparable to that which he displayed in the business of eating.

From “Midwinter” by John Buchan