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Drinking with the forces

Zubin D’souza

A friend who I grew up with joined the armed forces rather early in his life.

We had been close as kids but eventually drifted apart when career trajectories and the pursuit of individual goals stood in the way.

We reunited over social media and decided to meet up one day to see how age and circumstances had treated us.

We met up in the services bar after I had obtained all the necessary clearances.

I hated my friend the minute I saw him. He hadn’t aged and the military life had kept him as fit as a fiddle.

Unfortunately I was as slovenly and rotund as one could expect from a chef.

We ordered our drinks and tried to catch up on the twenty-year gap in as many minutes.

The peace and bonhomie was not to last for too long!

A group of inebriated youngsters on the next table started picking on us; the alcoholic vapours making their fuzzy brains oblivious to the senior ranking of my friend.

They mocked my teetotal choice of a drink and made slanderous remarks insinuating that my actions showed that I lacked masculinity.

I was pretty cool about the entire episode but my friend wanted to teach his subordinates a lesson.

A cryptic whisper to the bartender and cocktails were handed over to the young men courtesy my friend.

Within minutes of consuming the drink, the young pups first grew boisterous and chatty, then turned silent, sat down in a stupor and finally drifted off to sleep.

My friend was laughing through the entire episode.

He was to later tell me that the drink that was served was called a ‘Brahmastra’ which was named after a legendary weapon of mass destruction. It was a concoction of several alcohols including locally brewed arrack and moonshine.

It had helped many a service person forget albeit temporarily the horrors that they had seen in the field.

Special regimental cocktails adorn the initiation list of many a regiment across the world.

The Spanish Foreign Legion which is the elite military unit of Spain created a drink called Panther’s Milk or leche de pantera sometime around 1920.

This drink currently consists of basically iced down condensed milk which is spiked with gin, brandy and a liberal dusting of cinnamon powder.

In its earliest avatar however, the drink was fortified with medical alcohol by soldiers whose movements were restricted to the hospitals that they were interned in.

Soldiers from fields in Europe had a slightly different version called The Big Boy’s Milkshake. This consisted of Kahlua and Sambuca in a long glass topped up with milk.

The British Army in the 1890s developed Gunfire, which is a rum and black tea concoction. It was served to soldiers under the ruse of it being regular tea to give them the courage before a particularly dangerous battle or difficult assault.

Towards the end of the Korean War, British soldiers served Gunfire to American MPs who quaffed the drinks and proceeded to use army sanctioned vehicles to wreck mayhem all over the place.

In central Europe, a similar mixture called Jagertee is made and served warm. This is often enhanced by the addition of aromatic spices and has now become a rather fashionable drink at ski resorts.

Gin became the tipple of choice across the British Empire from the early 1700s. It made alcohol accessible to all and spread quite rapidly alongside the expansion of the Empire.

However, it was only after the British Army encountered mosquitoes in India that they came up with the most enduring cocktail.

Gin on its own offers scant protection or improvement in a case of malaria. However quinine which is derived from the cinchona bark was touted as the only effective cure against malaria. In 1858 Erasmus Bond developed tonic water which contained quinine. Cases of the new cure were shipped to regiments all across the far flung reaches of the empire and the gin and tonic was born.

During WW1 a French pilot by the name of Raoul Lufbery scoffed at champagne which had traditionally been the tipple of choice for all pilots. He decided to spike his drink up a couple of notches and ended up topping it with cognac. The resultant concoction left him feeling like he was hit with a 75 mm shell and so he called his drink the French 75.

The Sidecar also originated around a similar time in a similar place. An American army captain was constantly chaperoned to his favourite pub in the sidecar of a motorcycle. Once while trying to help him get rid of a nasty cold that had got him under the weather, the bartender whipped up a mixture of brandy, orange liqueur and lemon juice.

History doesn’t mention whether the drink helped the cold but the young officer took a fancy to the beverage and immortalised it after his customary seat on the bike.

Although alcoholism within the forces is rarely tolerated, drinking is a major part of the culture.

It started off as a means to add courage and resolve to fraying nerves and trembling fingers.

The focus then shifted to a boisterous attempt by a bunch of boys to flaunt their masculinity and capacity.

However, as a parting shot, my friend grudgingly admitted that the armed forces now consider being teetotal and in control as a higher form of evolution than being sprawled on the floor after a bout of binge drinking.

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