Holy Waters – searching for the sacred in a glass

Author Tom Morton describes a journey into faith and alcohol

There was a sideboard in our house, mahogany-veneered laminate, and one side was full of forbidden treasures. These were the bottles of spirits my dad, a dentist, was given each Christmas by grateful patients. He had a reputation, dad did, for being the gentlest of dental surgeons, someone who hated to hurt. And the rewards came annually in the form of  Bell’s, Whyte and Mackay, Teacher’s and sometimes Glenfiddich.

But they were never opened, these dark bottles, as our family was Plymouth Brethren, fundamentalist Christian and avowedly teetotal. At least until much later in life, when continental holidays exposed us to a world of putting into practice St Paul’s advice to Timothy, that he should “take a little wine for his stomach’s sake.”

Nevertheless, those unpopped childhood corks leached, eventually, their magical fumes and the cupboard would become a secret refuge of inhalation for me. That heavy sweetness, somehow playful and heady. I sniffed and wondered.

The other place I smelt the fumes of ethanol-laden drink was, peculiarly enough, in the weekly Sunday communion service we children were forced to attend. A common silver cup, at the front of the Gospel Hall, contained what my pals and I (having raided the bins) discovered was something called Old Tawny British wine. A fiercely fortified syrup of mood-alteration, normally drunk on street corners or before and after football matches. Somehow, religious prohibition did not extend to communion wine.

Holy Waters, my book about the links between religion and alcohol, starts in that sideboard and that little Scottish gospel hall. It detours to Ireland and Iona with St Columba, heads for India for some alcoholic Hindu offerings, then travels via Japan, Scandinavia, France and Germany to Mexico and Haiti. There are pirates, voudou priests, monks galore and a memorable appearance by an incontinent Odin. Each chapter comes with suggested accompanying drinks and tasting notes.

It’s personal, funny (I hope) well- travelled, convivial and informative. And I think it goes down a treat.