A Flask of Regency Liquor

A la bonne bouteilleNo, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
Samuel Johnson

Joanna here, talking about Regency tipples.  The hard-drinking Regency or Georgian gentleman is such a stock figure in Romance, it's worth stopping a minute to wonder what sort of liquor he was likely to be imbBeer brewingibing. 

There was ale and beer, of course, and their cousin, porter.  Ale and beer weren't precisely a gentleman's drink, but it's likely your hero lifted a mug of ale before the hunt and he may well have drunk beer with his breakfast, especially if he lived in the deep country. 

Beer and ale were drinks native to England, universal, and cheap.  The drink of the people, as it were.  Even small children drank a low-alcohol sort of beer called 'small beer' made from the second or third re-fermentation of the mash during brewing and containing just enough alcohol to preserve the drink.

Singleton_Ale-House_Door_1790By the Regency, the distinction between ale and beer lay not so much in the ingredients that made them up, as in the proportions.

Ale differs from beer in having fewer hops, which, giving less bitterness, leaves more of the soft smooth sweetness of the malt. It is usual, too, to brew it with pale malt, so that it is not so brown as beer. 
Scenes of British Wealth, Isaac Taylor, 1825.

Porterlater this was also called 'stout'was a style of strong, dark, well-aged beer dating back to the Eighteenth Century, much favored by the working class of London.  Thus 'porter', because porters drank it.  Not a stylish beverage.  If you're wondering what it was like; Guinness is stout.

Why so much beer drinking?  I read, here and there, the thought that folks drank beer or ale instead of water because the water was contaminated.  Beer is boiled during the fermentation process and afterwards the alcWomen drinking beer manetoholic content kills off pathogens.  In a land of contaminated water, beer is a lot safer to drink.  The argument is that historical people somehow sensed this. 

This has always struck me as applying twenty-first century attitudes back into historical times.  The modern popularity of beer or wineor coke for that matterisn't an indication folks don't trust the water. 

I think folks in Regency times made beer as a way of handily preserving grain; they drank beer because they liked the taste; and probably, like modern folks, they enjoyed getting a little tipsy.

. . .  sober maids are wooed in wine.
Samuel Johnson

Wine, not beer, was the gentlemanly table drink, being imported and expensive and therefore fancier.  Agricultural experimentation, starting in Roman times, had demonstrated the sad truth that England is not a wine-producing country.   I wonder if some of the ancient conflict between England and France boils down to a certain jealousy that France can make wine and England can't. 

It was to France the English had traditionally turned to fill up their glass.  The two decades of war between England and France made the enjoyment of French wines more problematic.  Our Regency gentleman, who would once have poured out Bordeaux, (which they were likely to call claret,) burgundy, hermitage, (from the Rhône region south of Lyon,) or a sparkling champagne, now maybe substituted Tokay, an old favorite from Hungary, or hock, which was a catchall term for German wines. 

Amontillado wikiBut he might also have turned to some new favorites the English had found among the wines of Spain, Portugal and the mid-Atlantic islandsthe wines called Madeira, Malaga, port, or sherry.  Sherry, which, just to liven things up, was also called sack or Canary. 

Next time you see a character in a book with sherry-colored eyes, that over on the left is probably what the author means.  That's a mid-range sherry.  Sherry runs all the way from clear to dark brown.   

These new favorites were fortified wines, most of them heavy and sweet.  They were made by mixing traditional varieties of light, generally sweet wines and then adding brandy at some specific point in the fermentation process.  This fixed the flavor and sugar content and brought the alcohol level up to 15% or 20%.  The high alcohol prevented spoilage during shipment.  These fortified wines were less temperamental in the keg and the robust alcohol level was a nice compromise between ordinary wine and harder liquors.

A fortified wine like port was likely to be passed around the table after a fine dinner when the ladies had withdrawn and the gentlemen could start telling dirty jokes.  Meanwhile the ladies, in the salon, were helping themselves to a ladylike glass of 30-proof sherry and engaging in their own risqué conversations. 

Zwiebelflasche Sherry bottleI don't want to zip right past wine without saying that the size of the ordinary historical wine bottle may have been determined by the amount of air in a glassblower's lungs.  Georgian and earlier wine bottles had a long-necked, onion-bodied shape, which made them a bit less likely to get knocked over.  Wine bottles assumed the bullet shape we're so familiar with today when transportation improved in the Eighteenth century.

Early wine was shipped in kegs.  The householder or tavern owner tapped the keg and poured it into the nearest pitcher or bottle.  In the Eighteenth Century, better roads led individual wine growers to bottle their own wine.  The long, cylindrical bottle with a tight cork could be stacked and stored on its side and shipped economically.

When our Regency gentleman wasn't drinking wine, what were the other choices?  There was a formidable array of distilled liquors for him; brandy, arrack, whiskey, gin, cognac, rum, and cordials of every sort.  Exotic drinksAbsinthe-ducros-fils-110kb could be brought back from odd corners of the Continent; kirshwasser, distilled from cherries in Switzerland and Germany; vermouth, from Italy; maybe a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur brought out of France and hoarded from before the Revolution. Absinthe, the green liqueur containing wormwood, was being made in France, preparing for a long career as the decadent man's drink of choice. 

Considering a few of these 

Geneva was the period name for what we'd call gin.  It was probably not passed around the table after dinner by your average Regency gentleman, gin being notoriously the beverage of the depraved lower class.  The nickname, 'blue ruin', seems applicable.

The poet, also, is disguised, and seems, if we may use his own mixed phraseology, to have "drunk deep" of blue ruin, instead of the "Pierian spring."
Monthly Review, Ralph Griffiths

 
Arrack.  This was strong liquor imported from India and the East Indies, made from any of a number of 220px-Cocos_nucifera_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-187grains, such as rice, along with sugar and the juice of the coconut tree.  It was regularly imported into England from the Eighteenth Century onward.  It seems to have been drunk, in England, mainly as an ingredient in punch.

Not to keep thee longer in suspense ; last night, it seems, the infamous woman got so heartily intoxicated with her beloved liquor, arrack punch, at the expense of Colonel Salter, that, mistaking her way, she fell down a pair of stairs, and broke her leg:
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

Was arrack punch a wee bit vulgar?  Our sporting gentlemen probably preferred a rum punch when he met friends at the inn after a long day's ride.

Brandy.  Gessa y ariasAh.  Now here is the quintessential liquor for our Regency gentleman.  This is what lurks in the decanter he hands round the table after dinner.  This is the tot served to male guests in the library.  When in doubt, the hero pours brandy.

Brandy is distilled from wine.  Eau-de-vie is most properly the distilled liquor made from other fruits or grains, but in this period they were often called brandies as well.   

So you could have a 'brandy' made by fermenting peaches.  Or you could have a brandy made from grape wine that was later infused with the flavor of peaches.  These fruit-infused brandies were made by soaking crushed fruits like cherries, apricots or blackcurrents in brandy.  There are numerous recipes for this.

To make Cherry Brandy. Take six pounds of cherries, half red and half black.  Mash or squeeze them to pieces with your hands, and put to them three gallons of brandy, letting them stand steeping twenty-four hours; then put the mashed cherries and liquor, a little at a time, into a canvass bag, and press it as long as any juice will run; sweeten it to your taste; put it into a vessel fit for it; let it stand a month, and bottle it out. Put a lump of loaf sugar into every bottle.
The Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter, 1800

  
Our gentleman will almost certainly serve French brandy, though it seems a bit vulgar to mention the origin.  A gentleman will take that for granted.  His brandy may, in fact, come from Cognac, a region so famous for brandy that the liquor is simply called Cognac. 

He has delivered himself over to strong libations of pure cognac, and is daily plunged in intoxication and stupor
Patrick Kennedy

Gilray punch_cures
Rum.  Our fashionable gentleman, unless he's spent his youth at sea, is unlikely to drink rum straight up, but if he's a sporting gentleman, he will most probably drink rum punch.

It is made with rum, brandy, lemon, hot water, and sugar.  . . .  Put in as much sugar as the water will dissolve. If you brew, say, a quart of punch, let it contain the juice and the rind of one lemon. The juice, I say; not the pulp. The rind also; not all the peel; none of the white pith: only the yellow outside pared off thin . . .  Mix your hot water, sugar, and lemon. Let the water be boiling hot—fresh from the kettle on the fire.  . . .  put a wrapper consisting of a folded napkin over the mouth of your jug, and lay a thick octavo or some other equivalent body, over the mouth of that vessel, and let it stand for five minutes. Then add the liquors.
Punch

Whiskey.  Gaelic usquebaugh, from the Latin 'aqua vitae' or 'water of life', became 'whiskey' in English.  It's a distilled malted grain liquor.  Scotch whisky shares with French brandy the distinction of being an illegally smuggled import in England during the Regency.  Would our gentleman have served it? 

Well … if he were Scots or had spent time in Scotland, very possibly.  Or our gentleman might simply like to add the fillip of illegality to his after dinner relaxation.

Meissenier louvre C19 cropWhen I think of my historical gentleman, at ease, talking with a friend at the table, I think of him with a glass of good simple wine set at his elbow. Black Hawk

What about you?  When you settle down to talk to your friends, what drink do you like to sip, and why?

 

One lucky commenter will win a copy of Black Hawk.

 

Smuggling

Dbtrade My book The Dragon's Bride has just been reissued in trade paperback and e-book, and it's about smuggling.

I'm not fond of heroes and heroines who are thieves. Even if they steal from the rich to give to the poor I still reckon 1) they're taking what doesn't belong to them (and usually at least getting their board and lodging out of it, even if they do pass much of it on, and b) distressing fellow human beings, even if their victims are rich. If the victims are spectacularly unpleasant, it does help.

Smugglers don't thrill me much either, but mostly because as organized criminal gangs they were and still are likely to be very nasty to ordinary citizens who get in their way. The crime itself, however, well, it's the tax system, so I'm not so sensitive. In the Regency period, taxes had risen ridiculously, so there was some justification for smuggling and a fair proportion of the law abiding citizens of Britain thought nothing of getting tax free tea, is particular, because the tax was seen as iniquitous. Dbcov

(The original cover, with modern wedding dress, complete with zipper!)

Which is how I came to write a smuggling story. However, the hero, Con, is not a smuggler. He's an ex-military officer who's sternly set against the trade and sympathetic to the Preventive Officer, also an ex military man. The only reason he gives the local smuggling band a break is because his ex-love Susan Kearslake is involved, and her brother is probably the local smuggling master.

I traveled along the Dorset-Devon coast looking for a good location and settled on the interesting small fishing village of Beer, right on the border between the two counties. Old cottages and inns, looming headland, caves…. Ideal. The caves, BTW, exist because excellent stone was mined at Beer from the middle ages and Beer stone was used for much of Exeter Cathedral.

Alas, with all those attributes, smugglers had been there before my fictional ones, and when I researched I found that one of the most famous, Jack Rattenbury, had been operating there around the time of my story. So I changed the name, but kept most of the details the same.

  Rattenbury Jack Rattenbury was famous because he left his memoirs, and you can read them on line here. The picture is from Smugglers' Britain, below.

 He starts his story this way.

"I Was born at Beer, in the county of Devon, in the year 1778. My father was by trade a shoemaker, but he went on board a man-of-war before I was born, and my mother never heard of him afterwards; she was, however, frugal and industrious, and by selling fish for our support, contrived to procure a livelihood without receiving the least assistance from the parish or any of her friends. Beer, where we resided, lying open to the sea, I was continually by the water-side; and as almost all I saw or heard was connected with that element, I early acquired a partiality for it, and determined, almost from my infancy, when I grew up, to be a sailor. When I was about nine years of age I asked my uncle to let me go fishing with him, to which he consented; and as there was another lad about the same age who went with us, we were continually trying to outvie each other in feats of skill and dexterity. I mention this circumstance, as I conceive it had a considerable effect in deciding the cast of my character, and probably influenced many of the subsequent events of my life." Beer

Life of ordinary people, especially men, was often a lot more adventurous and varied than we think. That's Beer village today. You can imagine Crag Wyvern, the home of the made Earl of Wyvern up on that headland.

 You can read more about Rattenbury and smuggling in general here.

 What about the vicious thugs? They definitely existed, but the smart smugglers realized that they needed the local people on side, both to help with handling the goods and with deceiving and deflecting the poor Preventive men. Rattenbury was part of the community and ended up owning a tavern there. I based my heroine's father, the smuggling master Melchisadeck Clyst, on Jack Rattenbury, except that Mel was caught and transported to Australia. I feel sure that he did well over there, however, as Rattenbury would have done.

The Dragon's Bride was a RITA finalist, and you can read the beginning of it here.

It's part of a trilogy called Three Heroes, and the first story, a novella called The Demon's Mistress, is available as an e-book special.

What's your attitude to criminals as heroes or heroines? Which illegal occupations can you tolerate, or even find romantic, and which could you never accept?

There's a copy of The Dragon's Bride to a random pick of the most interesting comments.

Jo, looking out at rain and wondering where summer is. How's your weather?

If you're in the UK, you can buy a copy here.