Commuter Belters 2: M&S Vermouth & Tonic

Here we are again for another instalment of COMMUTER BELTERS, my quest to find the booze best matched to the knees-rammed-against-plastic pleasures of southwestern railways.

This time, emboldened mayhap by our liaison with M&S gin-in-a-tin, let’s push the boat out a little further into the treacherous seas of M&S’s canned booze range — to their Vermouth & Tonic.

Now, to be a true commuter belter, a drink must have an affinity for the typical cuisine and ambience of the South Western Railways experience. Much as one might judge a restaurant’s wine list by its wines’ ability to punch at the level of the main dishes, one judges a would-be Belter by its resilience against whatever degradations a typical journey from Waterloo might throw its way.

Today’s degradation of choice? One carton of Pret’s Spicy Egg & Chorizo Omelette. What better foldable tray-mate for my tastefully duotone can of V&T?

In one sense, the omelette is an excellent match: the experience of consuming both it and the drink is purgatorial. One might argue that they thereby cleverly echo — satirise, even — the experience of travelling frequently by South Western Railways. But satire is no excuse for this miserable stuff.

I’ll tell you a little about the food first, shall I, since we’re both here and have relatively little else to do? Well, the egg has the texture of that expanding foam filler stuff they use to repair car bodywork. It is hideously, malignantly overcooked. Most of it is stuck to the bottom and sides of the cardboard container, and I’m certainly not tempted to scrape away at it to get my money’s worth. Pret’s hot snacks, while always touch-and-go, aren’t normally as bad as this. Small pellets of chorizo and enormous moist slugs of red pepper provide relief of a kind from egg-chewing, in the same way that being punched in the face provides relief of a kind from a bout of norovirus. A woeful effort.

As is the drink. You’re warned as much as soon as you pfft the thing open and take a sniff. Friend, it smells like making a terrible mistake.

It’s a mixture of bitter lemon and that horrible fizzy-sweet reek you get from godawful energy drinks. And that’s exactly how it tastes. Ye gods, it’s sweet. Horribly, horribly sweet. The best thing about it is the initial lemon taste (not because that’s what you wanted, but because it’s at least in the proximity of an honest flavour), but almost immediately the bombardment of sugar hits, hollowing out all other flavours but the quinine from the tonic (like the G&T-in-a-can, this does at least feature quinine-heavy tonic).

The most criminal thing about it all is that despite this pitiless assault upon my senses, I can barely taste any goddamn alcohol. I mean, there’s a vague whiff of medicinal grapiness lingering in the background, like the smell of the crap someone took in the stall five minutes ago, but nothing more. The can says it’s 5.5% ABV but the impression is less boozy than most alcohol-free beers. It tastes like the heartless trick you’d play on a gullible child in order to put them off drink for life.

In summary, our Commuter Belter is not to be found here. All change, please.

Commuter Belters 1: G&T-in-a-Can

You’ll have observed, no doubt, my proclivity for starting new ‘series’ on this blog which fail to extend beyond their first post. And I’m sorry if you mistook the expression on my face for that of somebody who gives a shit about THAT. It is with an arrogant, Dominic Cummings-esque defiance bordering on sociopathy, indeed, that I double-down and inaugurate another. This one I shall call ‘Commuter Belters’: chronicling a journey both literal (Waterloo to Petersfield, many many times) and metaphorical (the search for BELTINGLY good alcoholic beverages with which to aneasthetise oneself against the tedium of the aforementioned).

Let’s have at it.

Waterloo. It’s Friday, 6.15. Amongst the thronged congregation on the concourse, eyes raised reverently to the departure boards, waiting for the hallowed platform number to blink into existence; ‘on time’ to flip to ‘boarding’.

And when it happens, the usual weary surge of bodies is a little faster, a little looser. It’s Friday.

If you’re clever (you’re clever), you’ve anticipated your platform number and you’re quick to the gates. The gates that all operate on fractionally different timings, so that the interval between inserting your ticket and the door-flaps clacking open wrong-foots you each time. They’re open. Jerking abruptly forward, you’re through. It’s Friday.

Walk nearly all the way to the far end of the train, and walk fast. Storm past those lumbering middle-managers and dithering execs. Get a good spot, minimising the (sadly still high) probability that some coffee-breathed drone will sit next to you with his fat playmobil laptop crammed onto the crappy little food tray and his elbows poking your side. Mate. It’s Friday.

Settle in for the homeward voyage. But what’s that you’ve got in your bag?

Can of Marks & Spencer Gin & Tonic in a can

That’s what.

***

I can explain. Oh Officer, for god’s sake, I can explain.

I don’t buy ready-booze from M&S. Not since that unfortunate incident with Le Froglet, all those years ago. I learnt my lesson.

But I can’t speak for my friends. Occasionally, a gentleman named Barnaby, of a neighbouring parish, is known to patronise the same railway service. It was for this Barnaby that the offending can was bought. I swear.

But Barnaby had to catch a different train and I, for my innumerable sins, was left with this object in my possession.

There’s only one thing to be done.

M&S Gin and Tonic in a can review

Drinking G&T straight from a can is ODD. There’s no objective reason not to do this, provided the can is extremely bloody cold. But, subjectively, it’s just not very nice, is it? It’s like eating a steak off a paper plate or getting into bed with your clothes still on. ODD AND WRONG.

G&T occupies a hallowed place in my aesthetic schema, whereby I apparently believe it is owed a certain level of reverence. It’s interesting to note that I’d choose a can of basic lager over a can of G&T — even though on a totally objective level I probably like the G&T more. But of the lager, I expect no better.

The gin in a can is, you see, actually not too bad. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a goddamn patch on a Parn-concocted G&T. But it’s not hideous. Which is an accomplishment. That it achieves this is down to the fact that (a) it goes heavy on the quinine, (b) it’s sharp and bracing and (c) it contains no filthy artificial sweeteners.

I’m really surprised. I’d expected oversweetness, but in fact this is far sharper and drier than the G&T you’d get in many bars (or homes). It tastes pretty old-school Schweppesy to me: bite like an alligator, absolutely no sentimentality or concession. The dry hit of quinine is excellent: almost abrasive.

They’ve clearly amped up the citrus in consideration of the average commuter’s inability to lay hands on a nice wedge of lemon, which takes it too far towards bitter lemon in my view, but — again — it’s not offensive (see how high I set the bar?).

Where this concoction falls down, though, is in its ratios. That’s a roundabout way of saying: NOT BOOZY ENOUGH. This is squarely a tonic & gin rather than a gin & tonic. The gin they’ve used is too light and simpering; the tonic too heavy and swaggering. As a result, especially with the amped-up lemon flavouring, I feel like I’m drinking a can of (admittedly pretty nice) fizzy pop.

Bottom line: this isn’t the belter we’re looking for. I’m sticking to my lager, and leaving the gin-in-a-cans to Barnaby’s consummate guzzling.

But no hard feelings, M&S.

It’s Friday.