1x10 | Drinking with Dickens

Today, in celebration of the long-awaited arrival of 2021, I’ll be talking about the kind of alcohol the Victorians drank and the changes to their drinking culture that happened throughout the era.

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne.

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Let’s start with the origins of the classic gin and tonic. In the early part of the 19th century, British soldiers stationed in India had to consume quinine, a malaria medicine, mixed with tonic water. Modern tonic water still has quinine, but it’s now there to create a specific taste, not to treat any illnesses. To improve the medicinal tonic water’s taste, water, sugar, lime, and gin were added, thus creating the gin and tonic.

The military’s use of gin was not limited to that drink, and was especially common in the officer corps. Some soldiers even considered learning how to mix drinks to be part of an officer’s training. One drink, originally called the thirty-second regiment, was made with rum and sugar. It was probably first made by - you guessed it - the thirty second regiment, who were fighting rebellions in Canada. When Queen Victoria came to the throne, they renamed the drink Victoria Punch.

There are records of all kinds of punch being made throughout the Victorian era, one of the most common being a gin punch consumed at servants’ holiday parties in the week after Christmas each year. Charles Dickens was known to have enjoyed a good cider punch, but one of his favorite drinks was called the Smoking Bishop, made with two bottles of wine, a bottle of port, sugar, and the juice of five oranges and a grapefruit. It’s unclear how the drink got its name. Some say it’s because it was originally served in bowls shaped like bishops’ hats, but others say it’s because the color of the drink is similar to the purple worn by bishops. Variations of the drink were given similarly religious names. The Smoking Archbishop was made with claret, the Smoking Beadle with ginger wine and raisins, the Smoking Cardinal with Champagne or Rhine wine, and the Smoking Pope with Burgundy.

At the same time Dickens was enjoying his Smoking Bishop, Scotch Whiskey was gaining popularity and became one of Scotland’s most lucrative exports thanks in large part to the new railways being constructed. It became easier to move large amounts of barley to distilleries and to move large amounts of the finished product to be sold. Originally, the whiskey was all single malt, but railways allowed more barrels to be transported to blending plants, creating better-tasting malt blends. Another way railways contributed to Scotch whiskey’s success is by making tourism easier. More people could take trips to the Scottish highlands, where they tried the whiskey for the first time.

Along with whiskey, more Victorians were developing a taste for champagne. For years, the bubbly drink was only accessible to the rich, but as it became easier to produce at a lower cost, it became an aspirational drink for the middle and lower classes. Those who still couldn’t afford to buy champagne regularly would save up money to buy a bottle for a special occasion. From around the middle of the nineteenth century, champagne became a key part of New Years’ celebrations.

Another drink for a special occasion was called Lamb’s Wool, made with apples, spices, and milk. It originated in Ireland and during the Victorian era it was popular on religious holidays and in the fall when apples were in season. The drink is topped with milk froth resembling lamb’s wool, hence the name.

Mixed drinks really took hold in the United States, where the late nineteenth century is sometimes called "the golden age of cocktails". Bartenders invented the now-classic Martini and Manhattan, along with plenty of drinks which did not stand the test of time. In 1842, Dickens made his first trip to America and wrote about the bars and the cocktails he consumed, specifically mentioning the Gin-sling, Sangaree, Mint Julep, Sherry-cobbler, Timber Doodle, and one simply named Cocktail. Later in the century, Jennings Cox invented the daiquiri and Jerry Thomas invented the Blue Blazer, a drink which was set on fire. Thomas was also the author of the first Bartender’s Guide and is credited with making drink mixing into a spectacle. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, wealthy Mexican families introduced tequila to the United States. That fair is also when Pabst Beer gained its blue ribbon, still part of its advertising today.

In December, egg nog was considered to be the national drink of the US, and from the recipes that have survived we know it was much stronger than modern egg nog. That drink also had seasonal significance in England, particularly on New Years’ Day. On that day, women and boys up to the age of 10 stayed home, hosting "open houses" for the town’s bachelors. Egg nog was commonly served, along with other alcoholic drinks. Unfortunately for the young ladies seeking husbands, their gentlemen callers had made the day into a competition to see who could visit the most houses and drink the most egg nog. This bad behavior led to a shift from open houses to invitation-only occasions. Still, the most eligible men would receive a slew of invitations and were only able to stay for about 15 minutes at each house. As a result, this New Years’ courting tradition has been compared to modern-day speed dating.

Some of those same gentlemen going from house to house on New Years’ Day belonged to gentlemen’s clubs where they socialized and drank heavily, away from the public eye. Of course, their drinking was considered more acceptable than the drinking of the lower classes because they only consumed the very best wine and spirits. The clubs had wine committees who sampled drinks before deciding which of them met the club’s highest of standards and thus could be served to the other club members. Their discerning taste was a point of pride for the elite, because it showed they were cultured, educated, and of a high enough status to perceive the subtle differences between the products. The drinking culture was conspicuous and everyone knew they must consume the "right" kind of drink in the "right" kind of place. 

The importance of having only the best wines extended to the wives of these gentlemen. In middle and upper class homes it was essential to serve your guests high quality beverages, to demonstrate your civility and good taste. Even Dickens said "Nothing in domestic economy tells more of home comfort and consequently of home happiness, than the quality and condition of the wine and the manner in which it is served … without a good wine, a dinner is worthless". He believed too few cookery books explained how to best select, serve, and store wine, so he wrote an article in the weekly magazine Household Words to remedy this.

Drinking with meals, including lunch, was the norm. Among the working class, the drink of choice was beer for three main reasons: One, that in the earlier part of the century, the drinking water in major cities wasn’t as clean as beer. Two, beer was less expensive than other beverages. And three, beer provided calories, minerals, and vitamins which so many working class people lacked. Unfortunately, their beer was often adulterated by those selling it. Some beer was simply watered down, while in other cases it might contain blocks of salt, treacle or molasses, Indian berry, and dangerous things like foxglove, henbane, and nux vomica, which are all poisonous in fairly small doses but work as intoxicants, mimicking beer.

Beer of all kinds had become more accessible in England partly because of the 1830 Sale of Beer Act. It removed all taxes on beer and made it far easier for anyone to open a beer shop. After just a few years, the number of beer shops and public houses - or pubs - had grown exponentially. Pubs were a central part of working class life because they served as gathering places and were more comfortable than most of their patrons’ homes. While many people had to be wise in their fuel usage and had cold houses as a result, pubs could afford to have large fires going.  In newer districts, the pubs were some of the first places to get gas or electric lighting. They also appealed to poor workers because their walls were painted dark colors, hiding dirt and making people in filthy work clothes less self-conscious.

In the early 1820s, the first gin palaces were built and they were in sharp contrast to the dark, homey pubs. Back in the eighteenth century, London had seen the Gin Craze and had faced widespread problems with alcoholism resulting from the availability of gin. The spirit became known as "mother’s ruin" and was associated with the working classes and their perceived lack of the morals and self-control which the middle classes took pride in. Throughout the nineteenth century, gin’s reputation improved and it became a socially acceptable drink for the middle classes. Even Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the definitive guide to running a respectable Victorian household, contained recipes for mixed drinks containing gin. This was partly a result of the gin palaces, which were glamorous and ornately decorated. Dickens said the gin palaces were "perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left".

Not everyone was happy with Victorian drinking culture, however. In reaction to it, the temperance movement began, which led to the more extreme push for prohibition. All of that will be covered in the next Patreon bonus episode, which comes out next Thursday.

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Thanks for listening.

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