“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin

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11 February 2009

THE PERFECT GIN AND TONIC



Ten Easy Steps To Paradise
First Select A Mighty Knife

Beware Of Giant Tropical Lice
by PHILIP WHITE

This piece was written about twenty years ago, when Bombay gin wore a white label and resided in a squat bottle. It was a more viscous, rounded style of gin than the Sapphire which suddenly and brutally replaced it. The old model had less overt juniper, and was probably closer in style to some of the truly traditional gins of yore, like the lovely Plymouth gin still made in that sailors’ town. I preferred the old white label to the Sapphire, which seems to have been designed to suit the American martini market.

The story was published in The Advertiser and The Sydney Review.

Over twenty years of studious application has finally seen your correspondent on things moist discover the recipe for the perfect gin and tonic. In ten easy steps, here lies the key to total gustatory and spiritual satisfaction and perhaps even to eternal life. It will take more time for me to prove the latter.

1. Find Max’s Island

Somewhere off the Northern territory coast, lapped by the impish Timor Sea, lies Max’s Island. Here among the palms, the mangroves, and the giant man-eating lizards, live Max, Marie, Little Max and Croc Baumber, sans footwear. During the past 26 years, this family has created the ideal environment for the building of the perfect gin and tonic. You will need first to get there, by hardy sea craft or air, then spend three or four days preparing your thirst.

2. Sharpen The Knife

On the morning of the fourth day, you will be ready to slip into the routine. First, sharpen your knife. I have a monster blade recommended by the great Adelaide chef, Cheong Liew, which is most suitable for a place like this.

Whatever your choice, hone it fine and deadly, for once you have sliced your lime, you will need the weapon for bashing big fish on the head to discourage them from biting your feet on the boat, later for slitting their guts agape, and later still for more baroque forms of self-defence.

I recommend a pocket diamond sharpener, fine grade. In the rough tropical conditions, it will hold together better than a stone, which may give you a more showy edge, but that’s not required on Max’s
Island. A diamond sharpener will not let you down.

3. Walk To The Lime Tree

Taking care to avoid the nest of giant tropical tiger lice, head toward the lime tree. You will need to circumnavigate Max’s shed, easily recognised by life-saving rings hanging upon its southern wall, as if it were a ship. Having noticed these, do not fall prey to the usual puzzlement over just how high the tide rises here – that is a waste of concentration. Instead, be aware that within this building resides one of the grandest collections of gadgets, tools and trophies any connoisseur could hope to acquire, and that many of these hard, irregular objects have begun their escape from the shed, and have indeed established a significant beach-head out here in the world at large. Collision can be fatal. Avoid too treading in swarf – it takes ages to retrieve from the feet and leads quickly to tropical ulcers.

I recommend the smaller, harder, greener limes. Because this year’s dry has been particularly so, Max’s limes are of the finest, lowest-yielding quality. The smallest ones offer the most concentrated flavour.

4. Walk To The Ice Box

Having pocketed your lime, move carefully to the ice box. This is still in the south-eastern wing of Max’s shed. Smash off a few larger lumps, about golf ball size, with the handle of your knife. Do not waste any ice – it costs fuel money to feed the generators, and you have the choice of either making ice or freezing fish, because the gennies can only produce as much power as they can produce. Remember to shut the ice box tight.

5. Walk To The Wash House

It’s an easy stroll from the ice box to the wash house. You steer past the dead tree with the kitchen sink bolted to it, on past the beer fridge (from which you select a tin of tonic), past the new washing-machine (yet to be installed, but working perfectly well out here in the open), and make a left into the wash house. Here is where the gin lies, almost frozen, in the food freezer. It’s in here, with the chops and bread and snags, because it is neither ice nor fish. It is sort of special.

I’ve been using Bombay, because not only is it one of the last gins made with full respect paid to the true Spirit of the Empire, even bearing a lovely likeness of Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, but it also incorporates only the finest ingredients, such as Moroccan coriander seeds, Indo-Chinese licorice root, Spanish lemon peel, angelica root from Saxony, and orris root and juniper berries from Italy.

Most gins today use cheap essences, added after the base spirit distillation. Bombay incorporates these real ingredients in the distillation – in the traditional, expensive, most thorough, but gentle way. Between the still and the condenser the gin’s vapour passes through these herbs on racks.

Remember to shut the freezer tight.

6. Slicing The Lime
 

If, like mine, your lime is about the size of a tom-bowler, you will be able to take three neat slices from its centre, keeping the ends to squeeze into your potage during assemblage. You will find a convenient bench for this operation bolted to the back of the same dead tree which bears the sink.

7. Preparing Your Container

 

Take a stubby cooler, the wetsuit rubber sponge type, wet it thoroughly, and select a tumbler which fits it quite snugly. The tumblers will be upside-down, on the sink. The evaporation of the water from the stubby holder will keep your ice frozen for much longer, and your drink colder and fresher overall.

8. Assemblage
 

Put your tumbler in your stubby holder, and your ice in the tumbler. Add a nip and a half of Bombay. It will be oily, because it is nearly frozen. If it has frozen, you know somebody has been adding water to it, in which case you’ll need your knife. Fill your tumbler to the brim with Schweppes Indian Tonic Water (a bit sweet, but still the best), and add your three slices of lime. Squeeze the juice from the ends of your lime Into the tumbler, too.

Now you are ready for the intense, calming, and eventually soporific bit.

9. Select A Chair With A View

You may choose here to eye the mangroves, scanning their strange dank greenness for other eyes, looking back. They’re always in there, waiting.

You may prefer to gaze into the blue across the beach on the other side, and the deadly tidal flats, off into the wildness of the Arafura, a water chock-a-block with giant turtles, rays, sharks, stinging devices of all kinds, and millions of disco-hued fish. Hungry, vivacious, desperate fish.

You may look across the hammock through the coconut palms to the crocodile graveyard, to where the troops are digging in for their big war games with Singapore and the Yanks. You may contemplate them, but you mustn’t be seen noticing them.

Or the vertical view of the tropical canopy, taken from the hammock, may be your favourite, especially when the resident Brahminy kite sits there on the warm breeze, jealously eyeing your gin and tonic.

10. Drink The Bastard


After the first delicate sip, you will need no further instruction.

You may find it difficult to adopt a mildly temperate attitude, but such attitudes are best kept to temperate zones, and Max’s Island is not one of those. Max’s Island is tropical, especially cut out by Max and Marie and their boys, Little Max and Croc, and God, and possibly the Devil, for the consumption of the world’s best, The Perfect Gin And Tonic.

Three or four days of this, and a person begins to understand why The Empire was built, why it collapsed, and why mad dogs and Englishmen are absolutely content to gather their news from seven-week-old copies of The Times.




THE AUTHOR IN REPOSE, MAX'S ISLAND, NORTHERN TERRITORY, AUSTRALIA

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