Our usual panel of guests assembled for this year’s Christmas tasting within yards of the Law Courts on Fleet Street, a fitting and slightly ironic location, we thought: urbane, cosmopolitan, and convenient for litigation. It was a bitterly cold afternoon, but everyone was well wrapped up, at least to begin with; the more relaxed and convivial the company became, both conversation and clothing loosened up.
First up was a 1996 Sarvodaya. On most occasions, several of our panel would instinctively turn up their noses at anything purporting to come from India, but the enthusiasm of our younger and more adventurous members induced them to overcome this particular prejudice, albeit for just the afternoon. A near-translucent, vaguely oily liquid, with hints of amber when turned to the sun, the Sarvodaya had an underlying sweetness that was easy to miss but still too much for one or two even jaded palates. Peregrine thought that he detected a hint of peach and perhaps raspberry or printer’s ink, but this could have been his mind playing tricks on him, because few of the other tasters could discern those particular scents in the bouquet. “Are you sure you washed your hands before coming here?” asked Sebastian playfully.
The consensus was that the Sarvodaya constituted a solid start but was nothing to write home about. Six stars.
Sarvodaya Liquid Paraffin 1996 (£3.99 500 ml)
Next up was the 1997 Klenasol White Spirit, an offering that drew further sneers from one or two of the panel members averse to anything that has New World about it. “You might as well give us industrial cleaning fluid,” Auberon said, although this did not stop him from consuming more than his fair share of this delicate little number. “Reputations can be deceptive,” he conceded afterwards. “I didn’t think this would have the complexity of some of the older, more established, European spirits, but they’ve clearly done their homework and learned from our mistakes.” Hints of cherries on the nose and a hit at the rear of the palate redolent of lighter fluid made this a popular selection with the panel. Eight stars.
Klenasol White Spirit 1997 (£1.99 250 ml)
In retrospect, it may have been too early in the tasting to have at this point introduced the Old Spice. I had decanted it beforehand in order to conceal its identity and to allow it to breathe, but all the panel members over 70 recognized it immediately, and the younger members barely got a look in, causing a rift in the proceedings and souring the atmosphere in what was meant, after all, to be a festive occasion. “Reminds me of my rugby playing days,” said Jeffrey, snatching the bottle from my grip before anyone else could get near it and taking a hearty swig that brought gasps of dismay from one or two members distraught at this breach of etiquette. They were mollified only by the intervention of the panel chairman, who tried to ensure a more equitable distribution of the beverage.
Old Spice remains an enigma. An overpowering bouquet soon gives way in the mouth to a not unpleasant heat reminiscent of Fisherman’s Friends or Victory Vs. Opinion was nonetheless divided on this drink. Older members appreciated the selection, possibly out of sentiment, whereas younger members thought it a little vulgar. Five stars.
Old Spice After Shave 1994 (£4.99 250 ml)
Events took a slight turn for the worse with the next selection, a 1996 Liberon Beeswax Liquid Antique Pine Polish. The Liberon is marketed as “rich in beeswax and turpentine,” which I anticipated would make it a guaranteed winner with our panel, but some of the animosity from the argument over the previous sample could only be dissipated, it seemed, by rounding on me, even though I couldn’t help but notice that they finished off, or I should say, polished off, this drink much quicker than any of the others. “You’re a cunt of the first order,” said Jeffrey as he coaxed the dregs of the Liberon from the flask. “I bet he’s a fucking Jew,” said Richard. “Now, now,” said Boris. “You can’t be seen to be anti-Semitic in this day and age.” Richard’s head drooped. “Fuck off, blondie,” he said under his breath.
Although the breezy ethanol opening promises a vibrant, youthful drink, the Liberon was slow and mushy on the tongue, indicating perhaps that too much beeswax had been used in its manufacture and not enough turpentine. It was still regarded as “quite filling,” and a couple of the younger panel members at this point noticed that they could no longer feel their arms. Five Stars.
Liberon Beeswax Liquid Antique Pine Polish 1996 (£10.12 500 ml)
A brown, opaque liquid with low notes of ammonia, horseshit, and chrysanthemum, Reckitt’s Silvo All-Purpose Metal Polish doesn’t jump to mind as an intoxicant of choice among the swinish multitudes. Among those of some discernment and imagination, however, it proffers an opportunity to get completely out of it on very little outlay while simultaneously lending itself to mockery of the usual pretentious shite that the nouveaux riches and wretchedly obnoxious social climbers spout whenever they congregate for tastings such as this. “Definite suggestion of new-mown grass with apples. Do you get that?” asked Sebastian, both sarcastically and loudly enough to be heard from the other side of the street, with the consequence that we were moved on by the constabulary, even though most of us were by now contentedly slumped in the doorway of the Cock Tavern. “You’re a cunt, officer,” said Jeffrey. “Ask him if he’s a fucking Jew,” said Richard. “My apologies, officer, “ said Boris. “They haven’t been well.”
The Silvo was declared by all to be “fucking splendid,” and although my companions wanted me to disport myself to an ironmongery in order to purchase further supplies while they repaired to a nearby hostelry, I insisted that we finish the tasting first. At this point, Sebastian vomited copiously over his own and Boris’s laps. Ten stars.
Reckitt Silvo All Purpose Metal Polish 1999 (£1.89 150 ml)
Next up was an adventurous choice, a 1992 Polycell Heavy Duty Brush Cleaner. I say “adventurous” because at 10 pounds a litre, you really expect this one to be something special. The panel was not disappointed. “Sweet, sweet paint thinners,” said Auberon accurately, crawling across the pavement in my direction and flailing his hand at where he imagined the bottle to be before falling soundly asleep, his feet hanging over the kerb. I judged that it was probably as well that he slept. There was blood at the corner of his mouth, and one of the well-known side-effects of paint thinners is renal failure and death. On the bright side, it works as an anticonvulsant for canine epilepsy.
Sebastian had perked up after vomiting and was keen to try this little number. Still able to raise his little finger as he lifted the bottle to his lips, he gazed into the distance and gently swirled the rasping liquid around his gums. Rather than spit or swallow, he elected to do both, his head lolling to one side with his mouth open so that half the drink went down his throat, the other half over his lips and onto his shoulder. “Enchanting,” he animadverted, before passing out.
Other panel members concurred. “You know what this would be good for?” said Toby. “Performing operations. For the surgeon, I mean. Instead of performing operations.” I took his lack of lucidity to be an endorsement of this selection. Nine stars.
Polycell Heavy Duty Brush Cleaner 1992 (£10.12 1l)
The tasting was drawing to a close as rush hour advanced and panel members declined further refreshment. Next on the agenda was a 1998 Cutex Quick & Gentle Nourishing nail polish remover. I had deliberately placed the more potent beverages toward the end of the day’s list, aware that, even though not all the panel members’ palates are as discerning as they once were, early exposure to such overpowering intoxicants could have reduced the afternoon to a raucous free-for-all and a waste of time for everyone concerned. As it transpired, I had gauged things well: Only two of the panel members remained unconscious as I poured the Cutex into their mouths, and one of those bestirred himself enough to try to stand and punch me. The other merely lay comatose across the pavement, surreptitiously shitting himself, we later learned.
Cutex hasn’t produced a beverage this complex and intriguing since 1993. That, of course, was a very good year for nail polish remover because of the withdrawal on restrictions in the amount of acetone used in its manufacture. Peregrine thought it gave off “hints of airplanes.” “There. Look,” he said, pointing at a zebra crossing. “Airplanes. Can’t you hear them? Tiny slimy bastards. Watch out!!!” at which point he shielded his eyes from the pedestrians passing by and curled up into a trembling ball before leaping up and barking at me.
Personally, I detected plums and blackcurrant, albeit very faintly, scents that disappear on the tongue to be replaced by cabbage leaves, saffron, and cotton. This was by far my favourite selection of the afternoon, but I was unable to coax agreement from my fellow panel members, only one of whom was at that point capable of coherent English, namely Boris. Nine and a half stars.
Cutex Quick & Gentle Nourishing nail polish 1998 (£2.75 25 ml)
As a digestif, I offered the panel a wee dram of 1997 Kiwi Instant Wax Shoe Polish, opting for the white, an unusual choice, I know you’ll agree, but the black can be so messy at the end of a meal, and the white, in my experience, comes off the skin and clothing more easily. None of my fellow panel members was able to get the top off their individually crafted bottles, each of which I had had monogrammed for the occasion, so it was down to me to act as the Admirable Crichton and take care of them. Happily, assistance was not long in coming, in the form of a white van with the word “Police” on the side. The gentlemen passengers within were most understanding and my panel members almost universally compliant, except for Richard, naturally, and Sebastian, who I understand died in police custody. Never mind. It’s what he would have wanted. Five stars.
Kiwi Instant Wax Shoe Polish (White) 1997
Account by an unknown author of the 2009 Spectator/Oldie Christmas party.