This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“Sherry? sherry? sherry.” The dialogue between the scheming Withnail, the ingenuous Marwood and the lubricious Uncle Monty is beautifully balanced, not a syllable out of place and laced with venom. Indeed, the screenplay of Bruce Robinson’s 1987 masterpiece, Withnail & I, with its triangle of central figures borne along by a motley collection of supporting characters, maintains a torque and tension worthy of a Rolls-Royce engine.
This Andalusian bodega has been bottling beautiful sherries since 1835 and its history and experience is sealed into every barrel
Yet this particular engine is not powered by petroleum, but in the words of its eponymous hero by “the finest wines available to humanity”. For more than 30 years the film has enjoyed cult status among generations of undergraduates, each striving bravely to play “the Withnail Game” — to drink all that the trio drink, quote every other line along with the cast, and avoid total inebriation before the credits roll. I still remember vividly my own introduction to Withnail in 1991 with my university friends Ed Bannerman and Leo Griffin at Leo’s nicely-appointed flat in Porchester Square. Our host had carefully assembled all the necessary ingredients for the evening — the industrial measures of alcohol consumed in the screenplay for us to play the game. There was Margaux (though not 1953), gin, whisky, cider, pale ale and, of course, “rhesus-negative Bloody Mary”.
Leo, a considerate fellow, wisely eschewed lighter fuel which the script also calls for, though purists insist upon vinegar which was the actual liquid in the Ronsonol tin. He did, however, lay on quantities of sherry, a drink I had since early youth associated only with treacly sweetness, family gatherings, great aunts and Yardley soap. Leo’s sherry by contrast was chill and dry and very drinkable and, for the first time, I enjoyed sampling the stuff. And I have enjoyed it ever since.
Chief among these pleasures is the Delicado Fino by Gonzalez Byass, a dry sherry of rare aromatic quality produced by the thick layer of yeast or “flor” which forms as a layer over the liquid, protecting it from air contact during fermentation. This Andalusian bodega has been bottling beautiful sherries since 1835 and its history and experience is sealed into every barrel. A good Fino should be served very cold and in a copita whose tulip contours allow the wine’s fine aroma to swell with each sip. The thin stem and clear crystal bell complement the drink’s delicacy.
Withnail & I, in essence, is about journey’s end. Two unemployed theatre graduates at the end of the 1960s and at the end of their friendship spend a weekend in the country to rejuvenate. Instead, they spend the entire time drinking and arguing. They mislead and humiliate Monty who flees, then return to their squalid flat to find it is about to be repossessed and in all probability demolished. Marwood auditions, wins the lead role and departs leaving Withnail to his claret and his soliloquy. Strip out the drink and it is a dark, melancholy comedy, the rain in the final scene a metaphor for tears. Yet its cult following find something in it. I did too. An appreciation that sherry is more, much more, than aunts and Christmas and Croft’s Original. From Oloroso to Manzanilla and on to Moscatel, there are many fine sherry wines available to humanity, and interest in them should be encouraged. As Withnail demands of Miss Blennerhassit in the Penrith Tea rooms: “We want them here and we want them now!”
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