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Tips from a professional drinker

The worse hangovers may require the most disgusting cures

Being a sensible person, you probably did not set out to drink too much over the holidays, but these things happen. As the lamented Ronnie Scott would explain on the odd occasions when a star attraction at his jazz club failed to appear: "I regret to have to inform you you that earlier today he was suddenly taken (...respectful pause) drunk."

It was around this time of year that Scott left us for the great gig in the sky, thus proving that not all nightspots are downstairs. I miss his euphemisms. He loved the coy "refreshments" for alcoholic drinks. Scott once told a story about fellow tenorman Ben Webster popping out for "refreshments" between sets. When Webster returned, his demeanour suggested that he was "obviously feeling very refreshed."

In my early 20s, I studied refreshment under Ben Webster. We were both living in Amsterdam, and used to drink at a late-night café owned by an ex-boxer, who obliged us to drink excessive quantities of the city's famously ordinary lager. We enhanced the boring brew by using it to chase down Dutch jenever gin.


This entails venturing into the eternally rainy, gusty, cold streets of Amsterdam and eating two or three salted herrings, piled with chopped onions, from an outdoor stall.


It was during this period that I did some of my most valuable work on hangovers, discovering on behalf of humanity the "herring cure." This entails venturing into the eternally rainy, gusty, cold streets of Amsterdam and eating two or three salted herrings, piled with chopped onions, from an outdoor stall.

Its beauty is that it combines all the elements of a classic hangover cure: a shock to system, to distract the recipient from other discomforts; a remedy so daunting that the malady pales by comparison; fresh air (to clear the head); and food, to replace lost blood sugar. The last is the most important. The sweeter the onions, the better it works. Also the herrings magnify the thirst, and the water thus consumed repairs the dehydration caused by alcohol. This, too, is crucial.

After a few bouts with Dutch salt herrings, Ben Webster fled to Denmark. There, they make sweeter herring dishes, soused in wine - hair of the dog for the akvavit-afflicted. Danish pastries are good in the sugar department, but a request for them might meet with puzzlement. The Danes call them Viennese pastries.

The Germans claim that their additive-free beers cause no hangovers. but this is not my experience. If you drink enough Weihnachtsdoppelbockbier , you can wake up with a head like alphabet soup. The only cure is head-cheese, which makes brawn look like brain. Eat it on pumpernickel.


The life of an itinerant professional drinker is alive with such threats, but one hopes to learn lessons that may usefully be passed to others.


The life of an itinerant professional drinker is alive with such threats, but one hopes to learn lessons that may usefully be passed to others. The old Czechoslovakia, for example, was very hazardous. Seeking to taste the beer of Budweis in the town's most famous bar, I thought I risked no fate worse than a beautiful single woman with high cheekbones and a Slavic melancholy (the bar is called The Meat Market). Instead, I was taken up by some Bohemians who had under the table a jug of home- made Slivovitz. We somehow finished the evening snorting snuff.

They told me that I would feel better next morning if I had the herbal liqueur of Carlsbad with my coffee. The gritty, pungent, coffee of those days worked wonders, though I am not sure about the liqueur. Since the Velvet Revolution, the poor Capitalist victims drink instant.

In Poland, after a night on rye-based vodka, I was offered the bread of the same grain and a bowl of czadnina garnished with prunes and apples. As czadzina goes, it was a fine example. "Good czadzina ! Is this made from beetroot?" I asked, brightly. (Well, bright-ish-ly). "No, duck's blood," growled my host Kowalski. That did the trick.

A Russian spent many long hours trying to persuade me that wheat vodkas were "purer." The damage was bad enough, but the blood-sugar was soon replaced by jam-filled (blini>/i>) pancakes. Just as well - that was all the hotel had for breakfast. For that matter, toast and jam or honey would have been just as effective.


For the hangover, I know of no cure, though 100-year-old eggs might be worth a try.


The Chinese put lizards into bottles of alcohol. The result smells, to use a wine term, fecal. It also tastes as one imagines that sort of thing might. For the hangover, I know of no cure, though 100-year-old eggs might be worth a try.

You will notice that I take care not to mix my drinks. The theory is that the fermentation and maturation of different materials create more than one variety of alcohol. They also leave different acids, oils traces and substances of dubious benefit. Better to let the body fight the impact of a known enemy than to be attacked on several fronts.

I thought I was taking this approach when I spent a whole evening drinking the Japanese spirit shochu, in Tokyo. My host was a photographer, whom I shall call Kawasaki. He took me to a Hogarthian array of shochu stalls under some railway arches. "This one was distilled from rice," explained Kawasaki. "Here is a version from buckwheat. This type is made from sweet potatoes." Did we drink one made from the nocturnal secretions of the sea-cucumber? I have a feeling we did. I thought thunder had hit my brain, but it was just the bullet-train overhead.

Despite having stuck to shochu all night, I had my worst hangover yet. Next morning, we had to leave Tokyo too early for breakfast, on an assignment in the mountains. "It's too hilly for animals here. They get their protein from insects," Kawsaki told me when we arrived.

For breakfast, we bought a jar of baby bees, which looked like swollen rice seeds and tasted sweet but bland. I think they were the bee equivalent to lamb, rather than mutton. Then there grasshoppers - visibly so - which were crunchy and date-like. Finally came worms. They tasted - well, earthy - with a hint of juniper, like an old-fashioned gin. Already I felt better. The worst hangover had succumbed to the most disgusting cure.

Should you try this at home? If you do, and you die, don't come whingeing to me. Problems such as those we may face in the year to come require desperate measures.


Published Online: AUG 20, 1999
Published in Print: JAN 2, 1999
In: The Independent

Editorial - Historical

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