Wednesday, April 22, 2015

17th-century Spirits

If you’re a fuddle-cup or swill-belly, you just might SEE spirits!

Join me in welcoming author Margaret Porter to William-and-Mary-Dyer-World. From time to time, I run articles on the 17th-century English culture that was so familiar to the Dyers and their associates, Anne Hutchinson, John Winthrop, Henry Vane, Roger Williams, John Clarke, and so many others. Margaret Porter has recently released a book that begins in 1684, the last of the reign of King Charles II, and the beginning of the reign of James II, the former Duke of York. To put this time in perspective with the Dyers, this was the adulthood of their children. Their son William Dyer was mayor of New York and a customs official, and is mentioned in the “Diary of Samuel Pepys” as assisting James, Duke of York, in investigating a scam on Long Island.

© 2015 Margaret Evans Porter

An English public house much like the
Dyers would have known.
For centuries, Britain’s main beverages were ale and beer—at all times of day—brewed at home or locally, in households and in the monasteries. For ale, the necessary ingredients were water, ground malt, and yeast, mixed together and left to ferment. From the fifteenth century, influenced by Continental methods, hops were added to create beer. Small ale or small beer, watered versions of the fully-brewed sort, were consumed with breakfast and given to children. There were other variations: buttered beer, derived by brewing eggs and butter, and the unpalatable-sounding cock-ale. If interested in making the latter, here are instructions:

Take eight gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of raisins…two or three nutmegs…three or four flakes of mace…half a pound of dates…beat these all up in a mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and after a month you may drink it.

Sack was a wine obtained from Spain or the Canary islands. Sherry, its fortified cousin, is the Anglicized term for Jerez (in Andalusia) where it originated, and at the start of the 17th century it became popular in England. French wines—from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and other regions—were traded by Dutch merchants, although in wartime such goods might be obtained via smugglers. This was equally true of brandy, sometimes referred to as Nantz or Nantes, the area where it was produced.  
Bristol-made vessels
The Gaelic peoples of Ireland and Scotland had long been distilling their “water of life” (uisce beatha) from malt, which by the 17th century was Anglicized to usquebaugh and eventually to whisk(e)y. At that time there was no aging process, and the liquor was extremely potent and unrefined.

During the 17th century, rum began to be produced in Barbados and other sugarcane islands of the Caribbean, where molasses was fermented, distilled, and exported to England. The first rum distillery in the American Colonies started in New York in the 1660s, and rum-making soon became New England’s most notable industry. The British Royal Navy had initially provided French brandy as part of a sailor’s ration, but in the mid-17th century rum replaced it.

As well as delivering French wine and spirits to Britain, the Netherlands’ most significant contribution was gin—genever, or Hollands—made from juniper berries (often with turpentine as an additive), originating in the 16th century. Military men drank it when serving in the Low Countries, and Prince William of Orange’s accession to his deposed father-in-law’s throne resulted in its wider availability in Britain. Unlike ale, beer, and wine, it was unlicensed and not taxed, and therefore was the cheapest of spirits—prior to the Gin Act of 1736. Gin consumption was blamed for widespread public drunkenness, crime, and degradation of the populace.

Whether in city or countryside, taverns and alehouses were hubs of social activity, a place to meet, eat, smoke tobacco, sing, dance, converse, debate, fight, and receive messages. Female publicans—married or widowed—were not uncommon; they also managed breweries.
A rich man's spirits flask

Women were also skilled in making wines and spirits and cordials for medicinal or household use, from readily available plants. They distilled wine from cowslips, dandelions, parsnips, birch, and elder-blossom. Using berries plucked from hedgerow blackthorn bushes, they made sloe gin. Cider from apples and perry from pears were widely available in regions where orchards prevailed, especially Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire.

Wine and spirits were ingredients in many other drinks. Arrack or rack punch was composed of a specific sort of East Indian brandy, double-distilled in Goa, combined with  sugar syrup, citrus, cinnamon and other spices, and boiling water. Syllabubs were whipped using wine or cider, fresh cream, and spices. Possets often included sack, with or without milk or cream, ale, eggs and spices. Wassail was a combination of dark sugar, hot beer, sherry, cold beer, and toasted bread, often with a roasted apple added at the last. The beverage known as Bishop involved piercing an orange with cloves and roasting it, then adding it to a saucepan of heated port wine. The steaming liquid was then poured over lemon rind to steep, served warm with grated nutmeg.

Alcoholic beverages were transported and stored in wooden hogsheads and casks of various sizes, and decanted to ceramic jars or bottles, the latter mostly manufactured in Bristol. Drinking vessels could be tankards of leather or wood or pewter, silver goblets or blown glass stemware which might be etched with a coat of arms or a device indicating political loyalties.

One of the best-known drinking songs is probably “John Barleycorn,” hundreds of years old:

Then they put him in the mashing-tub,
Thinking to scald his tale,
And the next thing they called Barleycorn,
They called him home-brewed ale.

Here’s the verse of another 17th century drinking song:

Be merry, good hearts, and call for your quarts,
and let not  the liquor be lacking,
We have gold in store, we purpose to roar,
until we can set care a-packing.
Mine Hostess make haste, and let no time waste,
every man shall have his due,
To save shoes and your trouble, bring the pots double
for he that made one, makes two.

Seventeenth Century Drinking Vocabulary

Bawdy-house bottle—very small in size
Blackjack—leathern drinking jug
The Drunkard's Cloak.
Related article:
Alcoholism and the Drunkard’s Cloak
in this Dyer blog.
Bowsy (Boozy)—Drunk
Bristol milk—sherry
Bumper—full glass
Cut—drunk; deep cut—very drunk
Half-seas over—almost drunk
Hot pot—ale and brandy boiled together
Maul’d—swingingly drunk
Maudlin—weepingly drunk
Mellow—almost drunk
Muddled—half drunk
Nazy-nabs—drunken coxcombs
Nipperkin—half a pint of wine, half a quarter of brandy
Noggin—quarter pint of brandy
Romer—a drinking glass
Rot-gut—small or thin beer
Stingo—strong liquor
Stitch—very strong ale
Swill-belly—a great drinker
Tall boy—a pottle or 2-quart pot of wine
Tears of the tankard—drops of the liquor that fall beside
Tipsy—almost drunk
Tope—to drink; old toper—staunch drunkard
Vent—bung-hole in a vessel

 MARGARET PORTER is an award-winning, bestselling novelist whose lifelong study of British history inspires her fiction and her travels. A PLEDGE OF BETTER TIMES, set in England’s late 17th century royal court, is her 12th novel. A former stage actress, she has also worked in film, television, and radio. Author website:

Margaret’s book, A Pledge of Better Times, is reviewed on another of Christy’s blogs HERE