No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
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 imbibing.
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.
By 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.
Porter―later 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 alcoholic 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 wine―or coke for that matter―isn'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.
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.
But he might also have turned to some new favorites the English had found among the wines of Spain, Portugal and the mid-Atlantic islands―the 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.
I 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 drinks 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 grains, 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. Ah. 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
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.
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.
When 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.
What about you? When you settle down to talk to your friends, what drink do you like to sip, and why?
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