Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Guest Blogger Carol Goss on Potent Potables of the Regency Bon Ton

Please join me in welcoming Carol Goss to History Undressed! Today she'll be discussing the very exciting and interesting topic of drinks--aka Potent Potables--in Regency England.

Take it away Carol!

Hello Everyone. I'm Carol Goss, and I hope you'll find this topic as useful in your reading and your writing as I have.

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.

The 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."

It 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.

If 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.

As 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.

When 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.

One 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.

There 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.
Carol's Bio:

Carol Jo Kachmar, who writes as Carol Goss, comes by her knowledge through a voracious love of reading. By age ten, she'd discovered Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre. Those feisty heroines sparked her lifelong love of romance, the Regency, and, of course, England. These passions led to years of teaching English literature and history, both in England itself and in America.

This recent finalist in Beau Monde's Royal Ascot contest now writes while overlooking her own creek and pond in Michigan and being cheered on by her loving, supportive husband and cheered up by three lively but spoiled cats.


Keri Ford said...

Thanks, Carol!I don't know my drinks well, so is very useful to me.

Jannine said...

Hi Carol:
What a fascinating article. I am amazed at how many drinks were made by adding brandy, lol.

The one thing that really caught my eye was your Sicilian grandfather. Mine also drank wine instead of water. When he came to America, he'd make his own wine in the cellar. That is what he'd drink, along with espresso.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic Carol! I'm taking notes to use later. Cheryl

By the way, I love History Undressed. I read as many post as I can!

Robbie Terman said...

Fascinating article, Carol. I especially enjoyed learning about the accidental creation of champagne. I now have some interesting facts to impress people with at parties!

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

Very helpful information, Carol, and clearly explained! Thanks for sharing.

Helen Hardt said...

I find everything about this era fascinating. Thanks for posting this!


Gwynlyn said...

Great information, Carol. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara Monajem said...

Wow! I'd been wondering about many of these beverages and doing a little research, but it's a huge help to have them all explained so clearly in one place. Thank you!!

Carol said...

Hi Keri: Glad the information helps out. That was my goal.

Carol said...

Glad you enjoyed the article, Jannine. I know what you mean about brandy. It is amazing, isn't it?
So you had a Sicilain grandfather as well who made wine. I hope he was more careful than mine. Mine never cleaned his barrels well enough so a lot of the wine he made went sour. But yes, he made his in the cellar every year also.

Carol said...

Hi Cheryl: Glad you found the article interesting. Feel free to copy it for your notes if you wish, and the book on Mme. Clicquot and her champagne is most interesting. Check it out if you get the chance.

George said...

Carol Jo -- this was fasinating! I never really thought about it before. Now, when I read regency, I'll have all this info in the back of my head!

Personally, I don't care for any of the alcohol mentioned... I'm a rum drinker myself (Captain Morgan anyone?) Hmmmm. Must be the pirate in me!

Lovely, and very informative blog!


Carol said...

Glad you enjoyed the article, Robbie. In a way, it's sad the earlier story of the discovery of champagne by Dom Perignon isn't true, especially the part where he is supposed to have cried out to his fellow monks, "Come quickly! I am drinking the starts!" That is so romantic a statement.

Yet I love the fact that women were actually the ones who made champagne what it is today.

Carol said...

Glad you found it helpful, Cindy.

Carol said...

I also find it a fascinating era, Helen. It's such fun to write about, isn't it.

Carol said...

Gwynlyn, so glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the compliment.

Carol said...

Barbara, I'm so glad you found the article helpful. You might want to check out some of the footnotes for yourself, especially the book on Mme. Clicquot for more details.

Carol said...

Dawn, so it's rum for you, is it? I probably should have included rum in this blog as it was introduced into the British Navy at some time in the past, but no one seems to know exactly when. However, in 1740, a drink of rum and water called grog became the standard drink of the Royal Navy while at sea. I've never found much reference to it being a drink of the upper classes, but I would guess it could have been obtained if wanted as it was produced in the Caribbean colonies that Britain controlled and was part of the infamous triangle of the slave trade as far back as the 1600's.

Anonymous said...


Great article! I have a question though, and I hope it's not just that I missed something. Throughout the article you refer to fortified wines and I just want to make sure that I'm understanding it all correctly. When you refer to a fortified wine, you're referring to a wine that has brandy added to it? Or is my dictionary right in saying that a fortified wine has more alcohol in it than most other wines?

Good info on gin, too. I seem to recall a teacher having said that the aristocracy helped ensure the poor had plenty of cheap gin, which kept them soused and under control.

Would love to see some more posts from you!

Pamela MacNish said...

Hi Carol:

That was a great blog. I really enjoyed reading it. When I was reading I was taken back to 1971 and could hear your voice coming from the front of the classroom. Here we are 38 years and you are still teaching me! That was a beautiful picture of you. How do you stay looking so young? I hope to see you soon.

Pamela MacNish

Stephani Hecht said...

Wow! This post was both informative and fascinating. I loved the saying, "Water if for washing, not drinking." That just speaks volumes as to how bad the quality of water used to be,

Kit Donner said...

Hi Carol Jo,
I'm saving all this great information for reference. Great job and best of luck with your writing!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you for visiting Carol!!! Fabulous post and so informative!

Jodi Redford said...

What a fabulous blog post, Carol. Definitely one I'll be bookmarking for future reference.

Carol said...

Hi Anonymous 2: Your dictionary is right. Fortified wines do have a greater alcohol content. Why? Because brandy is added and that is a distilled product. All distilled products, aka liquors, have high alcohol content because distilling removes the water from the mixture. Since brandy is distilled wine, it is a liqour with that high alcohol content just like other liquors such as whiskey or even corn liquor (aka moonshine). So both I and your dictionary are correct.

Thanks for the compliment also. I hope to do more blogs in the future, and hope you'll check them out as well.

Carol said...

Stephani, thanks for the compliment. As for my grandfather's remark, how true - and that was at the end of the
19th and half of the 20th century. It was even worse before that. It's a wonder anyone survived childhood, isn't it?

Carol said...

Hi Pam: Yep, once a teacher, always a teacher, I fear. But hearing my voice? OOOH, that's spooky.

As for the picture, its mainly genetics but with the added skill of a great photographer.

Carol said...

Hi Kim. Thanks for the good wishes; I will need them. I'm so glad the information will be helpful to you.

Carol said...

Hi Jodi. I'm glad you found the information good enough to bookmark. That is a compliment I appreciate as well as your written one. Thanks.

Evangeline Collins said...

Fantastic post, Carol!

Carol said...

Hi Eliza. Thanks so much for letting me blog on History Undressed. I had a wonderful time and received so many great compliments, including your's, that I'm bouncing off the walls.

I'll keep an eye out for any more questions in the next few days as well.

Again, thanks for having me on History Undressed. It's one of my favorite places to visit for information, and I'm honored to have been presented here.

jCarol said...

Thanks, Evangeline. By the way, I read the book whose cover you posted, Her Ladyship's Companion. Folks, I loved this book with its unusual relationship. If you like a highly sensual romance, I can recommend it.

Now what I need to do is read the other books whose covers some of you have posted. That should be great fun. I'm looking forward to the day mine is published.

Anonymous said...

Can I add a last word here? I've also read some of the books in Stephani Hecht Archangel series. If you love paranormals and angels, you'll love this series.

Carol said...

That previous comment wasn't anonymous; it was me, Carol. Sorry about that.

SabrinaDarby said...

Wonderful post!

Love that brandy is heroic.

Anonymous said...

Very informative and entertaining. Thanks so much for sharing.

Margo Hoornstra

Margo Hoornstra said...


What a wonderful article I enjoyed reading very much.


Margo Hoornstra

Carol said...

Hi Sabrina,
Glad you enjoyed the post and that you also loved the quote from Sam Johnson about heroic brandy. I love it so, it's in my work in progress.

Anonymous said...

i very much enjoyed your article and wonder how different life would be if we each drank a glass of wine for every glass of water normally consumed...

Carol said...

Hi Adamantixx: Thanks for checking out the article. No question - Life would be very different if we did that, especially with the "experts" telling us to drink 8 glasses a day of water since 8 glasses is two bottles of wine. WHOO BOY!

Patricia Barraclough said...

Just discovered this site (link from Emily Bryan) and love it. I love history . I've scrolled down and will be coming back frequently. Very interesting topic. I've often wondered about some of the drinks mentioned in books. Great overview. Thanks.

Dawn said...

Hi Aunt Carol

What an excellent post! I never thought much about alcohol's role in history until now. Quite interesting how champagne came to be the drink of choice for celebrations. Veuve Cliccquot is my absolute favorite. I completely understand why Napoleon so enjoyed it.

I am very much looking forward to your novel.