Potent Potables of the Regency Bon Ton

by Carol Goss

Have you ever wondered why so many scenes in Regency novels involve the imbibing of alcoholic drinks and what those drinks really are? Well, let's see if we can answer those questions.

old water wellThe first question often asked is, "Why don't they drink water?" The answer is, "Water could be and often was deadly." Deadly? Dead Right!

Especially in towns and cities, the water was polluted as the rivers and streams from which the water was drawn were also the city's or town's sewers. London was especially bad in this regard with its huge population only increasing the pollution of the Thames. In the country, animals drank from and defecated in streams, so those waters often were polluted as well. Even my Sicilian grandfather, though he moved to the United States in the late 1800s, wouldn't drink water. He only drank wine. When offered clean city water after arriving in Detroit, he rejected it emphatically, saying in Sicilian, "Water is for washing, not drinking."

tea cup imageIt wasn't until the middle of the Victorian period that sanitation became a public concern and drinkable water became available in developed nations. In fact, many current scientists believe one reason so many children died in earlier times was that whatever they drank was often made with unboiled water.

alcohol imageIf a child did manage to reach adulthood, what did that adult drink? The answer is tea, coffee, occasionally hot chocolate - all made, you realize, with boiled water - and alcoholic libations. What were those libations? That depended on what class of society you inhabited. The working classes drank ale and beer if they could afford it and "blue ruin" if they could not. "Blue ruin" is Regency slang for gin. Gin was cheap to make and thus cheap to buy. Often, to make more profit, the distillers adulterated the gin intended for the poor with dangerous additives so it was even cheaper to make and sell. It got the name "blue ruin" because it ruined so many lives and caused so many deaths - as did its equivalent during 1920's Prohibition, bathtub gin.

As for the bon ton, the upper class of Regency society, their potent potables were many for the gentlemen, fewer for the ladies.

Fortified wines were especially prized because the addition of brandy to the wines made them much easier to ship and gave them a longer cellar life than non-fortified wines.

Ladies would drink wine with meals and occasionally drank sherry, a fortified wine that, after fermentation, has brandy added to it which helps preserve the drink. Sherry was and is still considered a wine and thus suitable for the ladies. Sometimes this drink is referred to as "sack" or "Canary" for the Canary Islands where much of the sherry originated.

brandy imageAs for the alcoholic drinks of Regency gentlemen, they had many choices. The two most used in novels are brandy and port. These also seem to have been the most common daily thirst-quenchers for gentlemen during this period though men also drank wine with meals and on other occasions.

sherry barrel imageWhen a Regency dinner was over, the servants cleared the table. The women then withdrew to the (with)drawing room for tea while the men stayed at the table, drank port and talked. Port starts with wine which, halfway through fermentation, has brandy added. The port is then put into barrels and aged. Because the brandy stops fermentation, port has more sugar left in the wine and thus a higher alcohol content than sherry. This seems to be the reason it was considered a man's drink rather than a lady's.

Brandy is made by distilling wine and storing it in wooden barrels or casks. This was a man's drink and came in various forms depending on what was used to make the original wine and how that was distilled. Cognac is a well-known type of brandy as is Calvados, which is made with apples and Grand Marnier, which is made with oranges. Men of the ton drank brandy as their usual daily drink or while in their offices handling estate affairs as we might drink water or coffee and with their friends or at their clubs the way we might drink cocktails or mixed drinks. Clubs, however, offered many types of alcoholic drinks.

champagne imageOne drink not often mentioned in Regency novels, but definitely popular in Britain, especially after the Napoleonic Wars, was champagne which, by the way, did not originate in France. Champagne was an accident. British wine enthusiasts who could afford it bought barrels of still wine from Champagne, France. However, those expensive barrels could go bad rather quickly. So these rich men added a little brandy and put the wine in bottles. Later, it was discovered that also adding sugar to the bottle would start a second round of fermentation and - Voila - the still wine became a sparkling wine. The process transferred to France after that. Those French winemakers weren't about to lose the profit on a sparkling wine they could make themselves. One of the most famous producers of champagne in the early 1800's was a woman, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, referred to as the Widow Clicquot because she took over the family winery when her husband died. It was Madame Clicquot who worked to get the tiny bubbles we associate with champagne. She hated the large bubbles that had been in the wine before; in fact, she referred to them as "toad's eyes". She also helped design the riddling rack which is used to move sediment to the neck of the bottle where it can be removed, thus giving us that clear wine with the sparkling bubbles we so prize today.

In his recent book, The Widow Clicquot, Tilar Mazzeo described how she managed to get 10,000 bottles of her high-proof 1811 Veuve Cliccquot past the British blockade of France to Konigsberg where it sold for what would be today $100 a bottle. When the British and Prussians celebrated their first defeat of Napoleon in 1814, they toasted each other in Mme. Clicquot's champagne. Even Napoleon said, "In victory, you deserve champagne; in defeat, you need it." After the Napoleonic Wars, British men ordered Mme. Clicquot's champagne at their clubs by asking for "the Widow". In short, champagne became the wine of celebration we are so fond of today.

madeira imageThere were other drinks that were popular in the Regency as well. Claret is a British term for the wine Americans call Bordeaux. Samuel Johnson, the famous Georgian lexicographer, said, "Claret is the liquor of boys, port of men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy." Another favorite was Marsala, a fortified wine from Sicily that is similar to port. Madeira was also popular, especially Malmsey which is the sweetest version of Madeira. This is also a fortified wine and keeps a long time, even in warm climates, which made it popular even later in Victorian times as the song of seduction, "Have some Madeira, m'dear" so clearly illustrates.

You're probably asking yourself "Where is the whiskey?" Well, most whiskey in the Regency was illegally made in Scotland, where it is spelled whisky and Ireland where it is spelled whiskey.

As punishment for the Scots and Irish rebellions against the Crown, exorbitant taxes were imposed on the production of whiskey and on the stills to make it for whiskey is a distilled liquor of high alcoholic content. Also, the English, especially those of the upper classes, tended to view the Scots and Irish as barbaric. As you can imagine, this led to thousands of illegal stills and to the smuggling of whiskey for over a century. Thus whiskey did not become a regular British drink until the Victorian period

The only upper class British who might have regularly imbibed that illegal whisky during the Regency would have been the Marcher Lords whose estates bordered Scotland and who often had ties with the Scots dating far back in history. It wasn't until 1823 that the British government passed an act allowing legal stills for a license fee. This led to whiskey, however spelled, making its way into the homes and clubs of the English ton.

I hope you found this discussion interesting and helpful. Thanks for reading. All comments are welcome.

Sources: Wikipedia; winereviewonline.com; princeofpinot.com; vinography.com; nytimes.com/2008/12/28/books/review/Stern-t.html; The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo, Collins/HarperCollins Publishers.