In the late 1990s I worked for a wine merchant. We were paid very little, but given a thorough education in wine. After a long evening tasting, a favourite topic of discussion was which country’s booze we could not do without. It was during one of these high-spirited arguments that I mentioned that without Britain, none of our favourite wines would exist. What chauvinistic nonsense, my colleagues said. And then we started naming drinks and trying to find the British connection. Champagne? The technology for making sparkling came from England and the taste for a bone-dry wine also came from these shores: without Britain, champagne would have been flat and sweet. Port? Well, the names on the bottles are a clue: Taylor’s, Churchill’s, Smith Woodhouse. We went on to other drinks: rum? Beer? Whisky? All British, I insisted.
How did this small archipelago exert such influence on drinks? Like most cold countries, we have a fondness for alcohol. The Russians have vodka, the Swedes have schnapps and the Mongolians have fermented mare’s milk. The British, however, have a whole smorgasbord of drinks to compensate for the cold, damp climate. This sheer ingenuity in creating alcoholic drinks is peculiar to Britain. Papers were read at the Royal Society in the 17th century concerning how to make wine sparkling. Adventurous entrepreneurs sailed around Southern Europe looking for drinks to ship back home to make their fortune. Later colonists would attempt to ape the classic European wines in parts of the Empire with grape-growing climates.
Without alcohol, the pre-20th century global economy could not function. The thirst of Britain’s burgeoning overseas empire needed slaking, so strong drinks such as rum and India Pale Ale that could stand long hot journeys were developed. Whisky, an indigenous British drink, became the drink of choice for weary empire builders far from home. Is it any wonder that one of the world’s bestselling whiskies, Cutty Sark, is named after that 19 th century symbol of globalisation, the clipper ship? As the dominant power at this time, it was Britain that created the first global drinks. Through the medium of drink, we can chart the rise of British power from a small corner of Europe to global pre-eminence. British culture, literature, science, philosophy and religion also have reflections in the bottom of the glass.
Empire of Booze will be a loose history of Britain told through booze. Each chapter will focus on a drink and a period, but it will also look at how these classic drinks are faring today and will include recommendations so you can drink your way through the book. Britain’s legacy has been much argued over. The lasting gifts to the world of the English language, railways and organised sports are much noted, but I would argue that our greatest gifts to the world are our alcoholic drinks. Every time you order a drink in a bar or visit a wine merchant, you are raising a glass to the Empire of Booze.
Sir Kenelm Digby, Glass, and Bubbles
There is a picture that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London by Van Dyke. It is of a balding moustached man in an ornate suit of armour. He looks a louche sort of fellow; the kind of pleasure-seeking individual who could have provoked a puritan revolt with a raised eyebrow. Opposite him is his wife, also painted by Van Dyke, Lady Venetia Anastasia Stanley, who in the great tradition of 17th century beauties seems rather plain to modern eyes. Sir Kenelm’s life reads like a picaresque novel. His father was implicated in the gunpowder plot of 1605 and had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Sir Kenelm himself had a varied career as a privateer, soldier and academic. In his unreliable memoirs he claimed to have been propositioned by Marie de Medici, widow of Henry IV of France (she was 47, he was just 18). He was even accused, in 1633, of murdering his Lady Venetia – Van Dyke was on hand to paint her death portrait. He dabbled in alchemy and was best known in his own time for inventing a substance called ‘Powder of Sympathy’, which was said to have magical healing properties. Though an obscure figure today, he was considered to be one of the great minds of his time and counted Newton, Galileo and Descartes amongst his admirers.
But it was a more prosaic invention that seals his place in history, because Sir Kenelm Digby was the inventor of the modern wine bottle. When I mentioned this fact to a friend, he was incredulous that such a colourful figure created something so everyday. He said it was as if Francis Drake invented the tin can or Orde Wingate invented the Hoover. But without Sir Kenelm’s invention there would be no bubbles and no champagne; in fact all wine today would be very different. Previously wine bottles were used much like modern day decanters, for serving wine. They were much too delicate for storing wine and bubbles would make them explode, so no sparkling champagne. Champagne seems such a quintessentially French drink, but the technology to produce it was developed in 17th century England. Even stranger still, modern champagne, the drink of Grand Prix winners and Russian oligarchs, shares a common ancestor with a drink more commonly drunk by smelly old men in bus shelters: cider.Read more...
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2 tickets to the launch party, a signed copy of the first edition hardback, ebook, access to the author’s shed & your name in the back
1 place on a pub crawl around the City of London visiting haunts of well-known London boozers such as Samuel Pepys, Dr Johnson and Sir Kenelm Digby, a signed copy of the first edition hardback, ebook, access to the author’s shed & your name in the back
Everything in the launch party level plus dinner with a London wine merchant, including some spectacularly rare wines