Thursday, April 2, 2020

Booze and Books - A Mortmain Hall post

I'm officially blogging about Martin Edwards latest book, 'Mortmain Hall' tomorrow, but with time on my hands to chase details I thought I'd talk about the drinks in it today.

One of the many things I like about Edwards' Rachel Savernake series (Gallows Court is the other one) is that they're exceptionally well crafted homages to golden age crime, not pastiches, and as such there's no shortage of references for the reader to decode if they feel moved to.

Drinks being my particular area of interest I can't help but notice them when they're mentioned (something I get a kick out of in older fiction generally is the opportunities it presents to trace drinking fashions).

About a third of the way through 'Mortmain Hall' I remembered to jot down the drinks that seemed particularly interesting, starting with the Chivas Regal that Rachel offers the journalist, Jacob Flint. I like this detail, in 1930 (when the book is set) blends were what people drank because their brand names were a sign of quality. Chivas Regal isn't just a premium blend, it's one of the oldest, and got in early as a royal supplier. It's a choice that sets a tone of tradition and quality that seems right at home in a townhouse library.

There are two types of sherry that get a particular mention - Oloroso and Bristol Cream. The oloroso is consumed in the Bookman's Club where Jacob is interviewing publisher Charles Bonnell. The atmosphere is redolent of  leather upholstery and tobacco which seems an altogether fitting background for my preferred style of sherry. There's a lot I could say about Oloroso but basically it's a dryish sherry characterised by a nutty flavour. It's fortified early so you don't get the yeasty character of something like a fino, and it can be aged in the barrel for a very long time. It gets darker with age, and slightly oxidized which gives its own particular character.

Charles Bonnell seems like a man who likes the best, so I'm imagining a particularly well aged sherry with an oxidized character suggestive of elegant decay and just maybe a slightly self conscious display of sophistication to awe Jacob with.

Later on Bristol Cream is served at Mortmain Hall. The Bristol Cream of the 1930's would have been a little bit different to the blue bottles everybody buys at Christmas. It's a mix of oloroso and much sweeter Pedro Ximenez. Sweetened Oloroso had been popular since the late 18th century. Quality is generally agreed to have declined since the 1950's when the method of production changed somewhat. In a 1930 context it seems like the perfect blend of old fashioned, old money taste, with a sweet edge that's a nice match for the gothic atmosphere of Mortmain Hall.

Gin and Tonics get plenty of mentions, as do Scotch and Soda's, but I was pleased to see a Gin Ricky in the mix too (gin, the juice and shell of half a lime, plenty of ice, top with sparkling water. It's a good low calorie alternative to sugary tonic water in these housebound times, and also my preference for summer drinking). Krug is mentioned in relation to the clandestine club, with the reflection that it's well priced there. As Krug is a super premium champagne this is a relative statement but is one of the hints that the club operates as a honey trap (I don't think that's a spoiler given it's name).

My favourite drink mention is a Boulevardier, also drunk at the Clandestine club. This is a mix of whisky, red vermouth, and Campari - a whisky version of a Negroni if you like, but rounder and more mellow. As far as I can find it originated in Paris around about 1930, but wasn't popular enough in England to make it into the Savoy cocktail book (neither does the Negroni). Again the suggestion of something Parisian and perhaps a little louche, as well as the flavour combination of bitter and sweet is very evocative of character.

And finally, a wine mystery. One character enjoys a bottle of full bodied Grenache with some venison. I asked Martin Edwards about this and he told me that he lifted it from a contemporary menu. I'd love to know what the wine was. French and Spanish wines tend not to use grape varietals in the name, and even Australian (Empire) wines of the day would borrow the manes of their old world counterparts.

I really hit the books to try and solve this riddle yesterday but got nowhere. Just such a Grenache would be an excellent wine to drink with venison. Something from the Cotes du Rhone is most likely, possibly from further south, maybe just maybe a Spanish wine? I might not have got an answer, but I had a lovely, somewhat dusty, time reading wine history and remembering how interesting I find it - for which a proper thank you is due to Mr Edwards for providing so much entertainment in these trying times.


  1. I do so enjoy your drinks posts. You catch the flavour of each book and its period, revealing so much about character or setting - and also about drinks I want to try! I love lime juice and soda as a summer drink, but had never thought of adding gin...

  2. I might start planning another books and booze series, they're fun to do in the right mood, I guess it depends on what's easily available to by at the moment in the way of mixers.