There comes a time in most years, as spring turns into summer, when you resolve to tidy up your drinks cupboard or cabinet. If, like your wine correspondent "Lovat Stephen", you have had a lifetime of travel abroad - in the army, as a journalist, or even only as a holiday visitor, you need to approach this in the same way that a doctor or pharmacist might urge you to look into your medicine store and dispose or return out-of-date prescriptions.
If also, like "Lovat Stephen" you have friends and relatives spread across the world who bring you sample bottles of exotic spirits which they hope to persuade you to write about, it could be a huge problem. For these bottles accumulate - some unopened, others tried and tested, all being primary resources for further research.
Most of the unopened bottles of spirit will probably last for years. Are they in the category of being "too good to drink" and awaiting that special occasion to surrender, or are they dreggins still within a safe range of 'Best Before'? Whatever the category, they do represent strata in a wine-writers' life which he would do well to examine and record before he too passes his own 'Sell-by date'.
Among the still complete offerings your own correspondent found this year was a bottle of cellophaned Arak from Jordan, complete with its own tasting-glass. It was arak al bustani from the Zoumot distilleries there and is labelled as at 50% by vol (Proof 100). This lay alongside an equally untouched Vieux Loos a Genievre, a pur grains eau-de-vie from the Flanders and d'Artois provinces of France. This is described as being pure grain spirit matured for over three years and at 76% proof.
But his most precious souvenir is a bottle of Monte Alban - 100% agave cactus tequila from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Trapped within it is a specimen of a "gusano" (a worm or caterpillar) to remind him of his favourite novel "Under the Volcano" by Malcolm Lowry. Readers will recall that this book tells of an English ex-consul in Oaxaca whose love of tequila (and mescal) is based on Lowry's own life and experiences in Mexico and later British Columbia, where he wrote his book and died.
Teguilas have a habit of dropping out of cocktail fashion over the years, but in this liquor cabinet they are represented by a fat little bottle from the Cava of Don Agustin, also a 100% agave.
In this column "Lovat Stephen" has chosen not to deal with his own speciality - the Malt Whiskies of his native Scotland. Except however that carefully tucked away here are a 50ml phial of a special 1951 anniversary bottling of Macallan together with a box which held a companion phial (now empty) of the 1961 version, retained for sentimental reasons.
An adjoining space has gone to an almost equally small bottling of a Brazilian Aguardente de CanaCorisco Paraty sugar-cane brandy.
Kept with the Tequila clan and other sugar-cane survivors are samples of holiday purchases made then by "Lovat Stephen" (and his friends and relations) in Europe. These bring back old memories of various grappas studied closely at Barolo de Grappa. The cupboard here also produces better-known liqueurs such as the Zambuca of Francisco Drioli of Venezia and the Amaro Siciliano from Fratelli Averna based on a family recipe dating from 1868.
Other European liqueurs of note here include a Creme de Cacao - that essential ingredient in the Brandy Alexanders of his student days at Harvard - and a Regnier Creme de Qassis produced by Cointreau in Angers, a black-currant flavour cordial of 20% vol. This therefore goes with an English bottled flavouring by Phillips of Bristol of Old English Grenadine at 3.5% vol and from Scotland an Elderberry Borealis from the Orkney Islands at a more powerful 17.5% vol. It is left to Denmark to provide a Gammel Dansk from Roskilde, Copenhagen at 38% vol. Vodka's deserve a fuller attention elsewhere, beyond noting a wifely comment that a home-produced Damson Vodka was virtually undrinkable, and no competitor whatsoever to Sloe Gin.
The cupboard contents reflect the Far Eastern travels of son of "Lovat Stephen" who had some successes in Thailand and those parts of the former French empire that his father never reached. From Thailand there is a surviving bottle of Sang Som Rum at 80% proof; but by far the best Thai came in an ex-Coca Cola bottle certified as a true local 'brandy' but of unknown strength.
The one bottle that is wholly documented but has been funked by "Lovat Stephen" is a bottle of Golden Muscle Wine. Described as
"the most famous nation wine in Cambodia", it is apparently made from
"deer's antlers and many Chinese herbs, with good taste." The label goes on to say:
"It help to build up a strong physique, contribute to good appetite so as raise mental health, sleep well, physical activities, and alleviate rheumatism."
Matured and bottled by the Lao Hang Heng Wine Co.Ltd. in the Kingdom of Cambodia, its 175 ml bottle is 35% vol and should best be kept for use by British teams in the 2012 London Olympics.