In Praise Of ...The Hip Flask

Helpul, discreet (sort of) and contains your ultimate favourite spirit. Ned Beauman on why the hip flask is his number one accessory.

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My first advice to promising young writers is always “Do not allow yourself to be seduced by the words ‘awards ceremony’.” The first time I was up for an award, I honestly thought it was going to be like the Oscars, the Turner Prize, and the Coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor rolled into one; for the rest of the guests, it was just another publishing do on a damp Tuesday, held in a museum entrance foyer that seemed to have been chilled to the temperature of an industrial meat locker, so everyone kept their coats on all night.

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Upon arrival, I went straight to the bar, hoping to find that perhaps they’d themed a special cocktail around me and my amazing book. But there were no cocktails. There was only wine and Pimm’s, because, of course, there’s nothing that comes to mind faster than Pimm’s and lemonade when you’re wearing mittens indoors.

“No spirits at all?” I said. There was some consultation behind the bar. Well, they said at last, you can have neat Pimm’s if you want. They might as well have offered me a snifter of Angostura bitters. I had some anyway, because this was my first awards ceremony and I wasn’t going to leave without getting at least one free drink. But what then?

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Before long, the winner was going to be announced, and my ungraciousness in victory is exceeded only by my ungraciousness in defeat. At the decisive moment, a glass of bad white wine was not going to cut it. Thank God for the hip flask.

Of all the predicaments in which a hip flask is helpful, the cheerless awards ceremony (I lost, by the way) may be the apogee, but the list is without limit, especially when a recession entails that you can no longer rely on a table groaning with bellinis every time you turn up to a guest-list event.

Perhaps the bar is closed; or they’re only serving swill; or there’s one barman and a mob 12-deep; or they’re charging prices that you could perfectly well pay but you refuse to on principled grounds because you’re not going to surrender to bibulous piracy. Or perhaps you find yourself in a place where there is not, and has never been, a bar: you’re at your nephew’s school play; you’re camping out on the moors; or your kidnapper is marching you at gunpoint towards a derelict bowling alley. You need a drink.

For me, earplugs and a hip flask are the great yin-yang of the writer’s life. Ever since picking up the habit from an old girlfriend, I wear ear plugs for thousands of hours a year: when I’m sleeping; when I’m working; at the library; on a plane or train; and when, because of circumstances beyond my control, I am within a hundred feet of a baby. If I’m ever called upon to take my earplugs out, then I’m probably in a situation where I want my hip flask instead.

To be honest, it’s hard for me even to imagine the sort of freak contingency where neither a hip flask nor earplugs would be appropriate. I gather that both are discouraged while driving, but that’s why I’ve never learned to drive. Not long ago, I visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara, where I was delighted to see not only a pair of the beaten gold ear plugs – with which the Hittites sometimes used to stopper their dead – but also a ceremonial vessel, which looked to me not unlike a hip flask.

I certainly hope to be buried with – that is, if my own hip flask doesn’t end up filed away with my papers in a distant archive, like F Scott Fitzgerald’s. His had the inscription: “To 1st Lt F Scott Fitzgerald, 65th Infantry, Camp Sheridan, Forget-me-not, Zelda, 9-13-18, Montgomery, Ala”. Today, this relic of the true cross on which our saviour perished is in the care of the University of South Carolina.

When you pull out your hip flask too readily, you will encounter a certain amount of quiet disapproval, but really it’s only if you find yourself buying one accoutred with some sort of sports cap and neoprene armband that you have to worry you’re getting too dependent on it. And with a hip flask, you never have to drink anything less than your absolute favourite spirit.

I carry bourbon, usually a Kentucky brand called Benchmark, but any decent whiskey will do. Some people carry brandy, although I’m not sure how well a spirit that is traditionally served in the most dome-like possible glassware can really adapt to trickling out through a 12mm teat. Some people carry vodka, which seems austere, and anyway you can’t keep it cold enough. And some people carry rum, which is all right for Notting Hill Carnival and nowhere else. Then again, one of the advantages of a hip flask is that you don’t have to be judged on what you’re drinking.

Recently in Toronto, I sampled a Canadian maple rye whiskey. Although I have to admit it was delicious, the reason I didn’t buy a bottle is that whisky is just not supposed to taste like something that would go nicely with banana pancakes. But if you wanted, you could fill a flask with it and no one would have to know you weren’t drinking the fieriest, peatiest, classiest single malt on the shelves.

The final great virtue of a hip flask emerges only in certain, very specific situations. Sometimes, despite your most generous intentions, it’s not that easy to persuade someone to share a drink with you. No thanks, they don’t need you to buy them another gin and tonic. No thanks, they don’t want to help you raid the minibar in your hotel room. No thanks, they are not interested in trying your famous Inverted Negroni. But in all the time I’ve been carrying one, I have never, ever known anyone to turn down a sip from a hip flask on a cold night somewhere you’re not really supposed to be drinking.

Ned Beauman is an award-winning novelist and author. Taken from Esquire's Big Black Book: the style manual for successful men, on newsstands now.