Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Hooch, Booze, Sid And Eth

Author John White Cropped version of :Image:Gr...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This genteel post over at super-smashing expat blog The Displaced Nation started a chat on Twitter today about the demon drink, particularly as relates to its consumption in the country Americans, for some reason, like to call 'Sordi'.

My first exposure to expat drinking habits in the Krazy Kingdom came in 1986, just after Her Majesty had intervened in the case of a number of 'nuns and strippers' who had been lifted by the gendarmes after a party in Jeddah had been busted in an action that ran contrary to accepted norms. Usually, the police knock on the compound gates, the watchman tells them to hold on a minute and rings around to tell everyone to jettison their stash. Result: squeaky-clean compound and a lot of very happy fish.

This time around, they dispensed with the niceties and (if memory serves me right) about fifty expats were facing eighty lashes each for consuming alcohol. I don't remember if there was any additional punishment for dressing as a nun or a stripper, but I have always had a fond image of the chase across the desert sands in my mind's eye. After Brenda got involved, they were merely deported - and deportation, rather than the traditional punishment meted out to Muslims, became the norm in such cases.

So it was, just after this had all blown over, I found myself in-Kingdom. A chap called Graham was my first introduction to expat weekends in Saudi. Based in Khobar, he was having a party that weekend, would I like to come along? It was a raucous affair and Graham's villa had a bar upstairs, complete with dartboard and a variety of 'lifted' bar accessories such as ashtrays and beer mats.

There were four drinks on offer: 'white' or 'brown', Dr John's blackberry wine or 'beer'.

Now 'white' was 'siddiqi', Arabic for 'friend'. 'Sid' or 'Sin' to some was basically ethanol, whether produced in a bathtub or by a laboratory for medicinal use (a friend was a physics teacher in Kuwait and used to have to keep the ethanol under lock and key. 'Eth' is a popular libation in that place). Ethyl alcohol, cut 5:1 with water, is a potent drink but doesn't induce a hangover as there are none of the impurities you'll find in less direct forms of inebriative condiment. You can lam some juniper berries into it if you fancy 'sin and tonic'. On the other hand, 'brown' was sid with oak chips added. This made it look like whisky, even though it tasted like methylated spirits that had been dripped through rabbit bedding.

An important life tip. You always test a new bottle of sid or eth (or even their close relative, the wonderful Irish libation poitin). Always. Burn some on a spoon, if it burns with a clear, smokeless flame, you're good. If it has any colour to the flame or gives off black smoke, one sip will have potentially lethal consequences. Please don't try this at home.

Dr John's wine was actually delicious, although very strong and sweet. Unlike the sid, its consumption carried  appalling consequences the next morning. And the beer, as all home made beer in desert kingdoms is, was just appalling stuff. You skip down to the supermarket and buy trays of 'malt beverage' (for a short, halcyon, time, authorities were unaware of what tins of brewer's wort looked like, but they copped on pretty fast. Thousands of expats suddenly presenting themselves at the airports carrying huge tins with 'beenz' scrawled on them in magic marker might have had something to do with it), sugar and baker's yeast. Now you put it all in a dustbin and then place on the roof of the villa for a couple of weeks. Bottle the resulting noxious brew and consume at leisure, ideally chilled to the point where you can't taste it.

The following morning saw me awake and staggering out into the blazing sunshine where my kind hosts were barbecuing T-bone steaks for breakfast and downing kiloton-spiced bloody marys. The strongly emetic consequences of Dr John's wine combined with a hammering in my head and a powerful dehydration that made me feel as if I had been steeped in lime overnight. I couldn't take it. More to the point, my liver couldn't take it. Lightweight that I am, I fled for my hotel.

In the intervening two and a half decades or so, I have frequently found myself in the company of chaps enjoying the illicit pleasures of the grape in a number of places and situations, sometimes in highly imaginative ways. But that first encounter with the expatriated liver remains a clear and formative memory.
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