The Intrepid Global Search for a Decent Gin & Tonic
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss)
During my drinking days (daze?), my home bar was a little sports bar called Gamble’s. It only sold beer and wine, but several times during a long Friday or Saturday night, five or six of us would walk down the strip mall to a full liquor oyster bar named Dirty Moe’s, and we’d throw back a couple shots of Rumplemintze or Monte Alban’s Mezcal. Thus fortified, we’d be back off to Gamble’s to drink beer. I knew the people, the whole disparate cast of fellow nightly drinkers. We were an odd sort of family, although we rarely did anything together outside Gamble’s, and certainly nothing that didn’t involve drinking.
Lawrence Osborne’s new book “The Wet and the Dry” is primarily an alcoholic travelogue of bars across the world. Equally compelling are the chapters wherein he delves into his history with alcohol, from being a teenager, drinking vodka pilfered from his parents’ liquor cabinet and playing drunk and dangerous games with his friends, to descriptions of his favorite bar when he lived in Brooklyn. He remembers, too, relatives who died early from alcohol abuse.
Most of “The Wet and the Dry” is devoted to Osborne trying to find a decent drink in far-flung parts of our planet. Mostly, his travels are to Muslim lands. In Beirut, drinking is acceptable for non-Muslims. In other countries, bars are secret and rare places, hidden deep in the bowels of hotel basements.
In the chapter “My Sweet Islamabad”—an award-winning essay originally published in Playboy—he describes not only that desolate basement pub, but a trip to rural Pakistan to visit the large brewery and distillery there. There is definitely an odd disconnect here—a thriving brewery and distillery in an officially dry country. Osborne is surprised to find that their best whiskey holds its own with any other, and that their dubious-sounding new strawberry gin packs a tasty wallop.
His other discovery is that, not surprisingly, the ban on alcohol does not extend to the wealthy. He attends a party with Islamabad’s elite, and there is a room where drinks flow freely.
Osborne visits an Egyptian vineyard, whose owners predict they’ll be out of business within five years due to the increasingly conservative religious culture.
Osborne travels to Thailand, and plenty of other exotic locales. Each chapter in “The Wet and the Dry” details a separate adventure. Sometimes he finds numerous bars full of fellow drinkers; other times it’s impossible to get a drink anywhere.
There is a certain sameness in many of his chapters. He goes to a Muslim country. It’s hard to find a drink. He finally finds a drink, etc. I was hoping for more of a global perspective, I guess, perhaps comparing a dry country like Pakistan to a country known for its fervent drinking. Australia, maybe. This is a minor complaint, but a bit more variety would have enhanced the reading experience.
What struck me most was the tenacity and patience it must take to be a travel writer. Except for “New Years in Muscat,” where his girlfriend joins him on a nerve-wracking attempt to find a decent bottle of champagne, Osborne is on his own. He gets to a new city, has to generate contacts, conduct searches, hire cars or motorbikes to investigate tips, and occasionally, his life could be at risk.
At no point in “The Wet and the Dry” is Osborne sitting in a Hawaiian tiki bar, a Seattle metal bar, or even a hole-in-the-wall St. Petersburg, Florida, sports pub—this is not a journey of safe places. It is, however, a fascinating journey, one travel fans—or fellow libation aficionados—will enjoy.
After all his travels and adventures, somebody needs to buy Lawrence Osborne a drink. The man’s earned it.