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Imbibing with Bill

by Charles R. Kesler

Red and white and much else too

Bill Buckley introduced me to a lot of things over the years, including drink. Alcoholic beverages, I mean — what the late senator John Tower, in the hearings on his abortive nomination to be defense secretary, referred to as “beverage alcohol,” as distinct, one supposes, from rubbing alcohol.

Drink was a faithful part of our long friendship. Ours was what Aristotle would have called a friendship between unequals: When we met I was a teenager and WFB, in 1973, was at the meridian of his fame. After he had delivered a speech and endured a quick interview for my high-school newspaper (the ostensible reason for our meeting), I accompanied the great man to his plane. He had a gin and tonic, two actually, and I a Coke, in the Charleston, W. Va., airport bar.

So far as I remember, I had never seen anyone drink a gin and tonic, except perhaps on television. My mother’s family hardly drank, and though my father kept a few bottles of bourbon and a pint of moonshine in the china cabinet, they rarely left their cloister. Without quite realizing it, I had stumbled onto a new world.

The next year I was a freshman in college. Bill called one September evening to announce he was at the Boston airport and would like to drop by, and where could we meet for a drink? A drink! I had no idea where a bar was. Rummaging desperately through the Yellow Pages, I found one, where we met up and he had a few more gin and tonics. I was still hitting the carbonated syrup.

As we left he recalled, fondly, spending the night as an undergraduate in the Cambridge jail. He and his pals had been arrested for disorderly behavior after a friend’s bachelor party. The charges, I think he said, were dropped the next day, when everyone sobered up.

A slow beginner, I resolved to get the hang of this drinking thing.

At Bill’s invitation, I developed the habit of taking the train from Boston to Stamford once or twice a semester to spend the weekend with the Buckleys. It’s difficult to convey what uproarious fun that was. As Tom Wolfe put it, visiting Pat and Bill was like dropping into one of the Thin Man movies. The repartee was lightning-fast, the company high-spirited in every sense of the word. The schedule might appear hedonistic, but actually the days passed in a kind of noble elation: breakfast whenever one called for it, a swim or an adventure of some sort, drinks leading to lunch, some other diversion after lunch (tennis, a walk along the coastal rocks; Bill would often work for a few hours), cocktails, dinner, followed by a movie on the home screen and, for hardy males, a nocturnal swim or hot tub in the basement mancave (as WFB would not have called it).

It turned out that Bill was a more eclectic drinker than that run of G&Ts suggested. He enjoyed Scotch and vodka, too — whether in highballs or cocktails: both the long and the short of it — as well as aquavit, port, Cognac, and other forms of beverage alcohol.

The Buckleys liked to prepare the drinks themselves, sometimes offering a house cocktail, e.g., Pat’s Bloody Mary, one of the world’s best. The Bullshot (essentially a Bloody Mary made with beef bouillon rather than tomato juice) was another house specialty. I can still remember Bill bounding down the lawn one sunny afternoon, exclaiming, “Bullshot, anyone?” At Pat’s memorial service at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum, they served Bullshots and Bloody Marys by the pitcherful.

Bill’s favorite nightcap was the Greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice). Mine, too. It puts a splendid finishing touch, both refreshing and soothing, on an evening. The Buckleys’ bartending did not extend beyond the classics, and never more than three or four ingredients at most. They would have mocked “mixology.” They drank for the civilized pleasure of it, not as a science experiment.

At the Buckleys’ table the greatest civilized pleasure was the conversation, followed closely by the wine. Grateful as I am for the incomparable introduction to spirits he afforded me, I appreciate even more how he awakened my taste for wine. When later I encountered Auberon Waugh’s quip that the three most frightening words in the English language are “red or white,” I knew exactly what he meant. Bill served white and red at lunch and dinner, and he didn’t repeat the wines, so every day was a tasting party.

Before lunch on a hot day I recall staring in wonderment at a glistening bottle, emblazoned with crossed keys or some such heraldry, from which poured “liquid gold,” I said at the time, the most delicious wine I had ever tasted. Bill merely smiled. It was a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a kind I love still and never drink without thinking of that moment.

On Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, Bill would descend into the cellar to select the weekend’s wines. He’d order me to accompany him. The cellar as I recall was dimly lit, with homemade shelves of plywood; nothing fancy. He liked to buy in quantity, 20 cases or more at a time. This penchant, together with a Yankee thriftiness that became more pronounced in his later years, led to a gradual decline in the quality of his holdings, but in the 1970s they were top-notch, certainly to my palate. On a quiet weekend he’d sometimes ask me to select a wine, steering me towards one of the older bottles, which he would send home with me on the train.

In his autobiographical Miles Gone By, WFB wrote of the pleasures of drinking from his father’s excellent cellar year after year, for over 20 years after his father’s death. “It is a wonderful way to remember one’s benefactors, isn’t it?” he asked. “To drink wine in their memory?”

Here’s to you, Bill.

– Mr. Kesler is the editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.

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