Lunchtime at home amid Covid-19 and I have a few options: Rice cakes with hummus? Healthy but dull. Cheese toastie? Indulgent and likely to induce afternoon torpor. Sushi? Deliveroo waiting list means I won’t receive it until next week. 

How about a nourishing glass of 38% proof digestif liquor from the Czech Republic? I’ve never been more tempted. 

Because, as it turns out, when you can’t leave your house and your travel plans are in tatters, the best way to explore the smells, sensations and memories of trips past is to rummage through your drinks cabinet.

I’ve spent half a lifetime bringing back bottles of obscure and often regrettable grog from all over the world, and reaching into the sticky depths of my lower kitchen cupboard has been a revelation these last few days. Without realising it I’ve been fermenting a global olfactory incubator which, once opened, has been giving me almost Proustian levels of nostalgia for foreign lands and filling me with brio and ardour for the time when free movement returns. 

It’s also been getting me quite drunk.

That bottle of Hungarian dessert wine takes me back to a racous weekend I had with a Kiwi comedian back in 2005 where we swam in the Danube and got thrown out of a jazz club for laughing at a saxophone solo. 

“I’ve spent half a lifetime bringing back bottles of obscure and often regrettable grog from all over the world”


The bottle of murky gin from Benin takes me back to my day with a witch doctor who poured the first quarter of the bottle over a chicken, which promptly died, before handing it over to me for ‘good luck’. 

The (almost empty) bottle of Woodford Reserve from Kentucky has a smell redolent of tobacco and hot asphalt, recalling a road trip I took around the state where a hitchhiker we picked up took us back to his home where his mother prepared us collard greens, fried okra and grits on a creaking veranda overlooking an abandoned plantation. 

A bottle of bourbon took me back to a US road trip


And, best of all, there’s the bottle of Jura whiskey, perhaps the most peaty single malt ever made; purchased directly from the distillery on the Hebredian island where George Orwell wrote 1984. I met his son Richard who took me on a tour of the farmhouse where the novel was written. 

It all makes me wonder why on earth people bother bringing back anything else from their travels. A fridge magnet, a wood carving, a T-shirt or a bookmark; all these things feel so sterile in comparison. 

We all know the inward groan we feel when a relative or a friend brings us back a pasta drying rack from Lombardy or a Hello Kitty pencil case from Tokyo. We’re simply being asked to participate in an experience vicariously. 

Gifts like these are totems of someone else’s good, average or dull experience. Frankly, the chest of drawers in my spare room can’t take much more of these offerings.

Jura, Scotland


But a bottle of local grog to share is something else entirely. Whether it be advocate, amarula or absinthe, the joy of sitting around a kitchen table sipping something of mind bending strength not only makes hearing tales of somebody else’s holidays far more tolerable. It also gives us a genuine taste of somewhere exotic and beguiling.

Come round to mine (stay at a safe social distance mind you) and I’ll tell you more about it. Hang on, I’m sure there’s some Slovenian cherry brandy here somewhere…

What obscure spirits from overseas are lurking in your drinks cabinet? How are you coping with the coronavirus lockdown. Leave your comments below.

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